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Lounging Around With Singer Kay Starr

July 24, 1988|JACK HAWN

The voice is distinctive--strong, earthy, familiar to millions over the last half-century as a country singer, big-band vocalist, recording artist, concert soloist, lounge entertainer. . . .

Seemingly, Kay Starr has covered most of the musical bases, highlighted by her No. 1 hit record, "Wheel of Fortune," which made her one of the top female pop stars of the early '50s.

Despite her acclaim as a singer, she is, in her words, simply a storyteller, an actress playing a role, set to music.

But, once upon a time, something happened in the musical world that disturbed Starr--or, at least, frustrated her. Someone picked up an electric guitar and, suddenly, there were no stories.

"I sing things that have a beginning, middle and end," she says. "Rock, hard rock and acid rock didn't tell a story, just, 'I got you, Babe. I got you, Babe.' I was too old to be standing up there doing 'I got you, Babe.' "

But for years she tried to adapt, she says, singing some of the Beatles' hits and a few others, "but I wasn't learning any new songs.

"I've tried to sing just about everything--everything but hard rock. When they brought in rock, hard rock and acid rock, I thought God was trying to tell me it was my turn to get off the stage."

Finally, she did, for a year--when she painted, tried sewing, visited friends, went fishing, got back in touch with nature, even did some big-game hunting.

Starr talks at length about an exciting six-week African safari in Mozambique, where she killed a greater kudu, whose spiraled horns were large enough to get her name engraved on a wall in the Safari Club. But singing was what she enjoyed most, so she returned to work and hasn't given a thought to retirement since.

During an interview at her Bel-Air home, Starr--dressed comfortably in a striped, ankle-length outfit with a slit up the leg--spoke candidly about her life . . . highs, lows, regrettable failures. Her words, laced with bit of country twang, came spontaneously, with no regard for the recorder at her elbow. To say she is loquacious is an understatement.

"If someone asks for the time of day, I build them a clock," she says, laughing, as she frequently is inclined to do.

Despite a mostly warm and ingratiating manner, she can be abrupt when a question or comment displeases her, such as one pertaining to her marriages, of which there have been numerous.

Would she care to say how many?

"No," she replies pungently, pauses for an awkward moment, then resumes less defensively.

"I don't like to dwell on that. I said I was going to do it until I got it right, but I haven't been able to get it right yet. Every time you get divorced, it means a failure. It's a mark against you. You may not have been a failure all by yourself, but it is a failure.

"Yes, I've been married a number of times. I've been married enough. Let's put it that way. I want to tell you I'm not proud at my age (66 last Thursday) to be turned out in the traffic again."

But ask about her current activities in show business and there is nothing abrupt about her response. She's more likely to build you a clock.

"If you don't have a sitcom or commercial or are not in the movies and you're not visible, people think that you have either quit or died," she says. "I have done neither. I make a very substantial living. . . . I work 35 weeks a year. I could work more, but I really don't want to."

She just completed a week at Disneyland with Ray McKinley's orchestra and now is headed for the Cinegrill in Hollywood, where she will appear Wednesday through Saturday and Aug. 3-6. "I can't remember the last time I worked a lounge in L.A., maybe 15 years. Working small clubs scares me. I'm such a loud singer, I'm scared I'm going to put white caps on their drinks."

Although reluctant to work in close quarters, especially so close to home, she thought the Cinegrill offer was a good opportunity to help a favorite cause, so she accepted.

As an active member of the Society of Singers, a nonprofit organization founded almost four years ago, Starr says she will donate her salary to the group "because I'm on the road so much, I don't get to do as much as I feel I should do for S.O.S."

Headed by Ginny Mancini, a former member of the Mel-Tones who backed up Mel Torme, the 500-member Hollywood-based organization (with chapters in New York and Chicago) provides financial assistance to all types of professional singers who have fallen on hard times. Its ultimate goal is to build a retirement home and hospital complex for singers. Frank Sinatra, chairman of the board, is chairman of this board, too.

Sipping white wine and reminiscing beside the pool, Kay Starr acknowledges matter-of-factly that her personal "Wheel of Fortune" is spinning as profitably as her hit recording did more than 35 years ago.

Besides the Bel-Air home, which she purchased for about $65,000 in 1955, she lists a Rolls-Royce, a Mercedes and a million-dollar profit on the recent sale of a home in Honolulu among her assets.

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