The 'Ol Tarheel : Kay Kyser©2004JCMarion


Kay Kyser was born in 1905 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. By the time of his late teens, he had formed a band while a student at the University of North Carolina and after his schooling continued on in the music business. In the early thirties the band got dates in Chicago and other venues in the Midwest. By the middle of the decade he began to get noticed enough to be hired for many various radio programs. In 1938, he began a musical radio show that incorporated elements of a quiz and it was called Kay Kyser and his Kollege of Musical Knowledge. This format combined with the band's signature style utilizing singing song title introductions (soon to also be used by Sammy Kay ) boosted the popularity of the band throughout the country and lasted for thirteen years.

The band started an impressive string of hit records that began in 1935 and added up to an astounding 68 chart appearances at the start of the Interlude Era. They had number one sellers with "The Umbrella Man" on Brunswick 8225 in 1938 with vocals by Harry Babbitt and Ginny Sims. The next year featured "Three Little Fishes" with Ish Kabibble joining in on vocals (Brunswick #8368). In 1939 the Kyser band moved to Columbia Records and in 1941 the band had two number one hits - "Lights Out 'Til Reveille" with vocals by Harry Babbitt, Ginny Sims, Max Williams, and Jack Martin on Columbia# 36137 and "White Cliffs of Dover" on #36445.

The Kay Kyser Orchestra had just an incredible year in 1942 with five number one hit records. They started with "Who Wouldn't Love You" with vocals by Trudy and Harry Babbitt on #36626, "Jingle, Jangle, Jingle" from the film "Forrest Ranger" with vocal by Julie Conway and Harry Babbitt (#36604) and the flip side which also hit number one in sales - "He Wears A Pair of Silver Wings" with Harry Babbitt, "Strip Polka" with vocal by Jack Martin (#36635) and Kyser's biggest hit of all "Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition" with vocal by the Kyser Glee Club on #36640. So ended an almost unbelievable year of successes for the band. Of the 68 records that made the best sellers list through 1945, 37 (or more than half) made the top ten in the country. The Kyser band also made many appearances in wartime films, among them "My Favorite Spy", "Swing Fever", "As Thousands Cheer", "Stagedoor Canteen" and "Carolina Blues".

By the end of World War II, the Kay Kyser band was one of the most successful aggregations in the field of popular music in the world. As 1946 began Kyser did not have a number one hit in four years and many wondered if their tremendous hitmaking did not disappear with the end of the war. "That's For Me", a song from the film "State Fair" (Columbia #36844) was a moderate hit as was the followup in early 1946 - "Slowly" on #36900. But soon the Kyser magic would reappear once again. In the late spring the novelty tune "One-zy Two-zy" with The Moonbeams on vocal (#36960) was a number five seller for the band. The film "Canyon Passage" was the source of a big comeback hit for the band. The song "Ol Buttermilk Sky" (sung in the picture by Hoagy carmichael) was recorded with a vocal by future TV star Mike Douglas and The Campus Kids on #37073. The record went to number one in the country and remained on the best seller charts for five months. Kyser was king once again, and followed up his big seller with a two sided seller on #37095. "The Old Lamplighter" with Mike Douglas & The Campus Kids on vocal got to number three, and the flip side "Huggin' and Chalkin' " with Jack martin on vocal was a top ten record.

The year of 1947 produced only one chart record - "Managua, Nicaragua" with vocal by Gloria Wood & The Campus Kids on #37214 and got as high as number six nationally. The next year 1948 saw the last appearances on the best seller list by Kay Kyser. The band started out slowly that year but ended up a sure fire winner. The song "Serenade of the Bells" with a Harry Babbitt vocal on #37956 charted briefly as did "Saturday Date" with Harry Babbitt and Gloria Wood doing the vocals on #38049. The magic returned in the second half of the year, first with the novelty tune "Woody Woodpecker" featuring Gloria Wood & The Campus Kids. The song released on Columbia #38197 was a national smash and went to number one and was a four month mainstay on the best seller charts. Late in the year, the big song of 1948 got the Kay Kyser treatment. "On A Slow Boat To China" featured the vocals of Harry Babbitt and Gloria Wood. Only Margaret Whiting's great recording of "A Tree In The Meadow" kept "Slow Boat" out of the number one position. The record (#38301) stayed on the best sellers list for more than five months.

In 1949 the new medium of television revived the Kollege of Musical Knowledge and Kay Kyser reached a whole new audience. The show featured the band along with Mike Douglas and Ish Kabibble and was a success from the start. The quiz show format was retained and the show was entertaining. Kyser hosted the show and led the band for five years on the NBC network, and then decided to retire from the music business after the 1951 season. He was replaced on the show by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Kyser then returned to his home state of North Carolina and lived quietly in retirement after a quarter century at the musical forefront in America. He lived in Chapel Hill near his beloved alma mater, and was active in public service and as a Christian Scientist. He passed away in 1985.

Kay Kyser was at one time the highest grossing act in American popular music. His longevity and popularity from the early thirties until the early fifties made him a giant in his field. His retirement while near the top of the game may have left some unable to fathom his place in the history of America's musical history. Facts of course do not lie. Kay Kyser, an original and one of the great performers who never played an instrument, leaves a legacy of great musical moments to be treasured forever.

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