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Lounging Around With Singer Kay Starr

July 24, 1988|JACK HAWN

These days, while "in the throes of getting out" of another marriage, she lives alone. Her family consists of a grandson and daughter in Sunland, Calif., and her mother, in Sulphur, Okla.

Her daughter, Catherine Yardley, is a daredevil hang glider of some note who sings professionally with a group known as the Succulents.

"They do special material," Starr says, "a little bit of everything. The flavor is very current."

Starr isn't about to reveal her mother's age, saying only that "she's heading toward her 80s. . . . Let's put it that way." But there was nothing evasive about where Starr, herself, is heading in the next few months.

On Aug. 16, she will travel to Memphis State University (she once lived in Memphis) to accept the 10th annual Distinguished Achievement Award for the Creative and Performing Arts, established in memory of Elvis Presley. And on Nov. 12, she will be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.

"It's the highest honor an Okie can get from their state," says Starr, the only entertainer among eight people selected this year.

Starr has cut a wide swath in show business: Radio (voted "Hit Parade's" No. 1 female entertainer in the early '40s); TV (a frequent guest on "The Danny Thomas Show" and her own 90-minute special on CBS); stage ("Annie Get Your Gun" and headliner for two weeks at the London Palladium), movies, tours (still touring with Four Girls Four), big bands . . . and recording artist.

"Wheel of Fortune," her first major hit in 1952, firmly established Starr as a top name in pop music and earned her a gold record from Capitol. She got another for "Rock 'n' Roll Waltz" and is identified with many other songs--"Angry," "Bonaparte's Retreat," "I'm the Lonesomest Gal in Town" among them.

Besides turning up the volume, Starr's low range is particularly distinctive and always has been.

"Charlie Barnet's band could not believe that when I joined them I did not drink, and they knew I did not smoke," she recalls. "Bob Crosby's band thought the same way. They told me, 'You sound like you've been raised on bathtub gin."

Often, she was mistaken for a black singer, particularly when she was with Barnet, whose previous vocalist was the light-skinned Lena Horne.

"We played as many black dances as we did white," Starr remembers. "I sang the same things Lena sang, only I sang them more colored than she sang them. She's always had a white sound about her--very proper.

"I was dark and my hair was much darker than it is now. They (the band) would tell people that I was a high yellow or mulatto or, yes, I was black. They thought it was a game."

Her lowest period as an entertainer?

"It was when I was with Charlie Barnet's band, during the war. I caught pneumonia. (While performing at an Army camp) my lights went out. I fainted, and when I woke up I was in an Army hospital. I was there for 10 days. After that, without any warning, my voice stopped."

Told she was beginning to develop polyps and nodes on her vocal chords, she was advised to undergo an operation, "which very likely could change my range. It could change my sound. There was no way of knowing."

She decided against surgery. Instead, doctors froze her vocal chords, and "for almost a year, I really had a problem. For over four months I didn't utter a sound. When I did start to sing again, I sang very softly. It took me a year before I could work with a band again."

Her all-time favorite song?

"I couldn't do a show without 'Wheel of Fortune.' People say to me, 'After all these years of singing it and singing it, aren't you tired of it?' It never occurs to me to be tired of it, because it's one of the songs I sing that people have a reaction.

"The minute you start it, people start applauding. And when something means that much to people, then you've done your job. And that delights me. I want people to smile and tap their foot, touch each other and remember the good times."

For Starr, the "good times" started early in life.

Born Katherine Starks on an Indian reservation in Dougherty, Okla. ("I'm three-quarters American Indian, one-quarter Irish"), she began singing along to music on the radio when just a tot. At 6 or 7, she remembers squatting down in a hen house in her yard, crooning to rows of roosting chickens.

"That was my audience," she recalls with a laugh. "It was cute at that age, but not after you get any older. People would think you weren't playing with a full deck."

When she was 9, she entered an amateur talent contest at the Melba Theater in Dallas, sang "Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper. . ." while spinning a yo-yo, as required, and placed third in the competition. The yo-yo, she figures, was her downfall.

By the time she was 13, she was singing five days a week on a local radio show and eventually was heard by jazz violinist Joe Venuti.

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