Like many gifted singers of her generation, Kay Starr wound up a hard-boiled pop vocalist. When the LP era took hold in the early 1950s and the 12-inch LP appeared mid-decade with the ability to support a color photo on the jacket cover, many female singers with jazz and big-band chops chomped down on the commercial bit and hauled in wagon-loads of popular music recordings. The list is too long to cite in full here, but we certainly can includes Doris Day, Jo Stafford, Lena Horne, Margaret Whiting, Georgia Gibbs and Rosemary Clooney.
Starr, though, was a bit different from the rest. While all of the singers above had loads of talent and vocal charm, their accents were fairly smoothed out, so you never really knew what part of the country they were from. By contrast, Starr's voice had rural power and edge through and through, an inflection that she hid for much of her early band days in the '30s and '40s but let run in the 1950s as Capitol tried to sell records in the South and Midwest.
Like Frankie Laine, who also started as an urban jazz singer before Columbia's Mitch Miller re-cast him as a whip-cracking muleskinner, Starr wasn't permitted to record many pure jazz albums in the LP era. Just as Laine's Jazz Spectacular with Buck Clayton in October 1955 is one of the few LPs that demonstrated his jazz skills and swing, Starr's I Cry By Night gave the pop chanteuse an opportunity to be blue with top jazz musicians, delivering a sound that was a cross between Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf.
I Cry By Night was recorded over two sessions in October 1961. Starr was joined on the first session by Ben Webster (ts), Gerald Wiggins (p), Al Hendrickson (g), Joe Comfort (b) and Lee Young (d). Trumpeter Mannie Klein replaced Webster on the second session.
The Oklahoma-born Starr is in crack form here, and Webster's obbligatos are among his finest blowing behind a vocalist. Though Starr did record Jazz Singer in 1960 with arrangements by Van Alexander, it's really a pop outing with a jazz orchestral counterbalance. The same goes for In a Blue Mood (1956), Blue Starr (1957) and Losers, Weepers (1960).
I Cry By Night, by contrast, is a saloon album. Sample My Kinda Love and P.S. I Love You. Or Lover Man. Starr brings the twang but she also brings the blues. What's more, she carries the entire date, dispatching her saucy intonation to shoulder the instrumentals. Soloists merely have to jump on and off what she's creating rather than drag her along, which was often the case on albums by pop singers who took a stab at jazz.
Kay Starr's bit hit singles were Wheel of Fortune (1952), Side by Side (1953) and Rock 'n Roll Waltz (1956). All fine works that captured a period of time just before rock and roll. I only wish she had recorded more pure jazz albums with a producer who understood what was in her heart.
Ms. Starr is still with us. Perhaps she'll reach out to me for an interview.
JazzWax tracks: Kay Starr's I Cry By Night can be found here as a remastered download. Or you'll find it teamed with Losers, Weepershere. Frankie Laine's Jazz Spectacular can be found here.
A JazzWax thanks to Stanley Cooper.
JazzWax clips:Here's Kay Starr in 1938, with Glenn Miller, singing Baby Me...
Here's Kay Starr in 1944, backed by Charlie Barnet, singing I Can't Get Started...
Here's Starr in 1952 on TV singing It's a Great Day and Wheel of Fortune...
And here'sI Cry By Night from the 1961 album of the same name, featuring Ben Webster on tenor sax...