Kay Starr is an American pop and jazz singer who enjoyed considerable success in the 1950s. She is best remembered for introducing two songs that became long running #1 hits in the 1950s, “Wheel of Fortune” and “The Rock And Roll Waltz”.
She was born Katherine Laverne Starks on a reservation in Dougherty, Oklahoma. Her father, Harry, was a full-blooded Iroquois Indian; her mother, Annie, was of mixed Irish and American Indian heritage. When her father got a job installing water sprinkler systems for the Automatical Sprinkler Company, the family moved to Dallas, Texas. There, her mother raised chickens, whom Kay used to serenade in the coop. Kay’s aunt Nora was impressed by her 7-year-old niece’s singing and arranged for her to sing on a Dallas radio station, WRR. First she took a talent competition by storm, finishing 3rd one week and placing first every week thereafter. Eventually she had her own 15-minute show. She sang pop and “hillbilly” songs with a piano accompaniment. By age 10 she was making $3 a night, which was quite a salary in the Depression days.
When Starks’ father changed jobs, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she continued performing on the radio. She sang “Western swing music,” still mostly a mix of country and pop. During this time at Memphis radio station WMPS, misspellings in her fan mail inspired her and her parents to change her name to ‘Kay Starr.’
At 15, she was chosen to sing with the Joe Venuti orchestra. Venuti had a contract to play in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis which called for his band to feature a girl singer, which he did not have. Venuti’s road manager heard Kay Starr on the radio and suggested her to Venuti. She was still in junior high school and her parents insisted on a midnight curfew.