The Music of the great Kay Kyser Parts I & II
Over 3 hours of Kay Kyser history with rare recordings!
Book Title - Kay Kyser - The Ol' Professor of Swing
Genre - Biography
Author - Steven Beasley
Author Comment - "You're really are a great interviewer!"
Plus Kay Kyser questions from listeners & fans from around the world!
Biography for Kay Kyser
James Kern (“Kay”) Kyser (June 18, 1905, Rocky Mount, North Carolina – July 23, 1985, Chapel Hill, North Carolina) was a popular bandleader and radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s.
The Early Years
He was the son of pharmacists Paul Bynum Kyser and Emily Royster (Howell) Kyser, and a cousin of Vermont C. Royster. Kyser graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Because of his popularity and enthusiasm as a cheerleader, he was invited to join a commercial band being formed by other students. He began taking clarinet lessons but was better as an entertaining announcer than a musician. He adopted the initial of his middle name as part of his stage name, for its alliterative effect.
Big Band Era
After Kyser came up with an act combining a quiz with music, he was heard on the Mutual Radio in 1938 and then moved to NBC Radio from 1939 to 1949 .The successful show, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, rose in the ratings. Kyser led the band as “The Ol’ Perfessor,” spouting catch phrases: “That’s right—you’re wrong,” “Evenin’ folks, how y’all?” and “C'mon, chillun! Le's dance!”
Kyser was also known for singing song titles, a device copied by Sammy Kaye and Blue Barron. When the song began, one of the band's lead singers (usually Harry Babbitt) sang the title phrase, and then the first verse or two of the song was performed instrumentally before the lyrics resumed.
On February 26, 1941, Kay Kyser was the first bandleader to perform in front of military personnel. He had 11 number one records in his lifetime. Several of his recordings spawned catch phrases, such as “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.” His group also had a major hit with the novelty tune, “Three Little Fishes.”
“Kay left a strong recording legacy in American popular music, including his Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” said Babbitt. “I’m very fortunate and proud to have been an integral part of that band and that legacy." Some of the band members, including Babbitt and comedic cornetist Merwyn Bogue (aka Ish Kabibble), noted that Kyser was difficult to know personally. "Kay was a businessman," explained Babbitt. "We all liked him and liked what he stood for. He was first class. It’s sad to say, but there are an awful lot of people who don’t remember Kay Kyser.”
Unlike most other big bands of the era, which centered around only the bandleader, individual members of Kyser’s band became stars in their own right and would often receive the spotlight. Besides Babbitt, some of the more popular members included Kabibble, trombonist Bruce King, saxophonist Jack Martin - who sang lead vocal on the number one hit, "Strip Polka"; Ginny Simms, who had her own successful acting and singing career after leaving Kyser’s band; Sully Mason; Mike Douglas (years before he became a popular TV talk show host) and Georgia Carroll. Carroll, a blond fashion model and actress whose best-known role was Betsy Ross in Yankee Doodle Dandy, was dubbed “Gorgeous Georgia Carroll” when she joined the group in 1943. Within a year, she and Kyser married.
During the Swing Era, Kyser, Hal Kemp and Tal Henry often performed in or near New York City, making possible a reunion of North Carolina musicians. Later, after retirement, Kyser and Henry got together to share music world memories.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Kyser’s band appeared in several motion pictures, usually as themselves, beginning with the successful That’s Right You’re Wrong (1939) and You'll Find Out (1940). Some of the films built a plot around the band. Around the World (1943) fictionalized the band's international tours of military camps. In Carolina Blues (1944) Kyser has to replace his lead
singer (Carroll) who has run off to get married. Caught in a jam, he reluctantly hires the daughter of a powerful defense plant owner, played by Ann Miller. Two of the band’s best-known performance appearances were in 1943 when they appeared in the wartime films Stage Door Canteen and Thousands Cheer, both of which were produced to boost the morale of troops and their families.
Kyser also appeared as a light comedian; he acted with (and was billed above) John Barrymore in Barrymore's final film Playmates (1941); Kyser is the dupe in a scam where Barrymore pretends to teach him how to act in Shakespearean drama. Kyser’s personal performing style was enthusiastic and comical. Unlike most bandleaders of the time, Kyser danced and sang with his band, as illustrated during the group’s performance of “I Dug a Ditch” in Thousands Cheer and other film appearances.
After the war, Kyser’s band continued to record hit records, including two featuring Jane Russell as vocalist. It’s All Up to You features vocals by Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. Kyser had intended to retire following the end of the war, but performance and recording contracts kept him in show business for another half decade. During this time, Kyser made a cameo appearance in a Batman comic book.
In 1949 and 1950, Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge aired on NBC-TV. In addition to Kyser, the TV show featured Ish Kabibble and vocalists Mike Douglas, Sue Bennett and Liza Palmer, plus The Honeydreamers vocal group and the dance team of Diane Sinclair and Ken Spaulding. Ben Grauer was the announcer during the first season. Always the businessman, Kyser reunited his band especially for this series and just as quickly disbanded it when the show ended.
Kyser converted to the Church of Christ, Scientist sometime between 1944 and 1946, despite the fact his mother had been the first female pharmacist in his home county. Nevertheless, he had become interested in Christian Science when conventional medicine did not relieve his problems with arthritis. It was this arthritis which is often cited as one of the reasons Kyser retired from performing in 1950. In the early 1960s, several members of the Kay Kyser team (including Kabibble and Simms but not Kyser) reunited to record an album of new versions of Kyser’s greatest hits.
In the 1970s Kay ran the film and television department of the Christian Science Church in Boston. He became an important lecturer for the faith and was also a Christian Science Practitioner. This service to the denomination led to his being given the honorary title of “President of the Worldwide Church of CS” in 1983. He insisted though that it was honorary, joking “I haven’t been elected Pope or anything...”
Kyser and Georgia Carroll remained married until his death. They had three children.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is custodian of a large archive of documents and material about Kyser which was donated by his widow; this archive became available to the public April 8, 2008.