There weren’t many women involved in the birth of rock’n’roll. And there were even fewer Native American artists. Kay Starr was both.
A popular jazz singer whose oeuvre spanned jazz, pop and country – and, on this tune, proto-rock’n’roll – Catherine Laverne Starks was born on a reservation in Oklahoma to an Iroquois father and mixed Irish and Native American mother.
She started singing at the age of seven, serenading the chickens her mother raised in the yard after the family moved to Dallas, Texas, where her efforts impressed an aunt enough to help her get a spot on a local radio show.
After finishing third in the first week of their talent contest – and first every week after that – the child was given her own radio show singing country songs. By the age of ten she was making $3 a night – generous pay during the Great Depression.
When Starr’s father changed jobs, the family moved to Memphis, where she continued performing on the radio, expanding her repertoire to the more jazz-influenced Western Swing.
At the age of 15 she was chosen to sing with the Joe Venuti orchestra at their residency in the city’s Peabody Hotel, and within a couple of years she was recording with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
After high school she moved to Los Angeles and sang with bands led by Bob Crosby and Charlie Barnet before going solo in her mid-twenties, signing a contract with Capitol Records.
Her young age meant they mainly offered her songs their bigger stars had turned down but on a trip back home to Oklahoma she heard the song that would bring her breakthrough.
On the radio in her home town of Dougherty she heard a fiddle instrumental called Bonaparte’s Retreat by Pee Wee King and liked it so much she contacted Roy Acuff, the country superstar turned music publisher, asking his permission to record it.
She even persuaded Acuff himself to write her some lyrics and it became her biggest hit, selling nearly a million copies. In the same year she recorded this proto-rock’n’roll tune. Oh Babe, written by Louis Prima (who sang it with his 18-year-old singer, and future wife, Keely Smith).
Starr continued to display her enthusiasm for the embryonic rock’n’roll genre in 1955 when she recorded The Rock And Roll Waltz, and had other hits with My Heart Reminds Me, Wheel Of Fortune and a Christmas song called (Everybody’s Waitin’ For) The Man With The Bag.
She died in 2016 at the age of 94 at her home in Los Angeles.