Kay Kyser

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Kay Kyser
Kyser in 1944
Kyser in 1944
Background information
Birth nameJames Kern Kyser
Born(1905-06-18)June 18, 1905
Rocky Mount, North Carolina, U.S.
DiedJuly 23, 1985(1985-07-23) (aged 80)[1]
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.
GenresBig band, swing, jazz
Occupation(s)Vocalist, bandleader
Years active1926–1950

James Kern Kyser (June 18, 1905 – July 23, 1985), known as Kay Kyser, was an American bandleader and radio personality of the 1930s and 1940s.

Early years[edit]

James Kern Kyser was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of pharmacists Emily Royster (née Howell) and Paul Bynum Kyser.[2] Journalist and newspaper editor Vermont C. Royster was his cousin. Kyser graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1928.[3] He was also senior class president and was a member of Sigma Nu Fraternity.[citation needed]

Owing to his popularity and enthusiasm as a cheerleader, he was invited by Hal Kemp to take over as bandleader when Kemp ventured north to further his career. 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.[4]


Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge[edit]

See main article, Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge.
Kyser as the "Ol' Perfessor" in 1942

Long before his national success, Kyser recorded two sessions for Victor in the late 1920s (Camden, New Jersey in November 1928 and Chicago in early 1929). These were issued on Victor's V-40000 series devoted to country music and regional dance bands. Following graduation, Kyser and his band, which included Sully Mason on saxophone and arranger George Duning,[4] toured Midwest restaurants and night clubs and gradually built a following.

They were popular at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant, where Kyser came up with an act combining a quiz with music which became "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge."[5] The act was broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1938 and then moved to NBC Radio from 1939 to 1949. The show rose in the ratings and spawned many imitators. Kyser led the band as "The Ol' Perfessor", spouting catchphrases, some with a degree of Southern American English: "That's right—you're wrong", "Evenin' folks, how y'all?" and "C'mon, chillun! Le's dance!"

Big band era[edit]

Although Kyser and his orchestra gained fame through the "Kollege of Musical Knowledge,"[6] they were a successful band in their own right. They had 11 number one records, including some of the most popular songs of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Unlike most other big bands of the era, which centered on only the bandleader, individual members of Kyser's band became stars in their own right and would often receive the spotlight. Some of the more popular members included vocalist Harry Babbitt, cornetist Merwyn Bogue (a.k.a. Ish 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 blonde 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.

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 Babbitt) sang the title phrase, and then the first verse or two of the song was performed instrumentally before the lyrics resumed. Several of his recordings spawned catch phrases, such as "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition".

His group had a major hit with the novelty tune, "Three Little Fishes". It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc by the RIAA.[7]

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.[citation needed]


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), You'll Find Out (1940), Playmates and My Favorite Spy. Some of the films built a plot around the band. Around the World (1943) fictionalized the band's international tours of military camps.

Kyser in Stage Door Canteen (1943)

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. Kyser 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.[citation needed]

Kyser also appeared in a Porky Pig cartoon, Africa Squeaks (1940). In the cartoon, he voiced a caricature of himself called "Cake-Icer," at the request of director Bob Clampett.[8]

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, although Kyser's participation in this recording is disputed, record label showing Axel Stordahl as conductor. 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.[9]

During this time, Kyser made a cameo appearance in a Batman comic book. Kyser was first to introduce the new sonic audio process called the 'sonovox', a singing electronic voice triggered by music. The Sonovox would be used by Jingle Companies such as PAMS and JAM Creative Productions, and said jingles would be used in heavy rotation by rock radio stations such as WABC, WMEX, WXYZ, KONO, WKDA, and WHTZ.[citation needed]


In 1949 and 1950, "Kay Kyser's Kollege 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. After a four-year hiatus, the "Kollege of Musical Knowledge" was revived by Tennessee Ernie Ford, prior to the launching of his own NBC program, The Ford Show, which ran from 1956 to 1961.

Radio (non-musical)[edit]

Kyser and Ginny Simms co-starred in "Niagara to Reno" (described as "an original comedy") on CBS radio's Silver Theater April 6, 1941.[10]

Personal life[edit]

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 he retired from performing in 1950. In the 1970s, Kyser ran the film and television department of the Christian Science Church in Boston. In 1983, he became its president, a one-year position. He referred to it as "honorary", joking that he hadn't "been elected Pope or anything".[9]

In 1962, several members of the Kay Kyser team (including Babbit, Kabibble, and Simms but not Kyser himself) reunited at Capitol Records to record an album of new versions of Kyser's greatest hits. Comedian Stan Freberg, one of Capitol's regular artists, did an impression of Kay's original song introductions.[11]


Kyser and Georgia Carroll remained married until his death. They had three children.[citation needed]


Kyser's gravestone

Kyser died of a heart attack in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on July 23, 1985. He was buried at Old Chapel Hill Cemetery in Chapel Hill.


Kyser was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1999.[12]

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 and made available to the public on April 8, 2008.[13]

Noted sidemen[edit]

  • Noni Bernardi (1911–2006), big-band musician and member of the Los Angeles City Council


  1. ^ "Kay Kyser". IMDb.
  2. ^ "Kyser, James Kern ("Kay") | NCpedia".
  3. ^ "Kyser, James Kern ("Kay") | NCpedia".
  4. ^ a b Beasley, Steven. "About Kay Kyser". Kay Kyser. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  5. ^ [1][dead link]
  6. ^ Gilliland, John (1994). Pop Chronicles the 40s: The Lively Story of Pop Music in the 40s (audiobook). ISBN 978-1-55935-147-8. OCLC 31611854. Tape 2, side B.
  7. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London, UK: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 23. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  8. ^ "Radio Round Up: Authentic Radio Voices in Cartoons". Retrieved 2018-05-02.
  9. ^ a b "Kay Kyser the Ol' Professor of Swing". Kaykyser.net. Retrieved 2014-06-14.
  10. ^ "3 Programs Join The Spring Dial; Several Programs Revised". The Lincoln Star. April 6, 1941. p. 40. Retrieved March 31, 2015 – via Newspapers.com. open access
  11. ^ "Kay Kyser & His Orchestra Greatest Hits". allmusic.com. Retrieved 2020-09-29.
  12. ^ "1999 Inductees". North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Retrieved September 10, 2012.
  13. ^ "P62: Kay Kyser Collection". Lib.unc.edu. 2008-04-08. Archived from the original on 2012-03-16. Retrieved 2014-06-14.

External links[edit]