An article about Kay Kyser? On a blog mostly dedicated to serious jazz and classical artists? Why, he was nothing but a clown and a showman whose band played novelties and pop garbage. No one takes him seriously. He wasn’t much different from Sammy Kaye. Right?
That’s what you think.
While it’s true that Kyser himself couldn’t play an instrument or write an arrangement, he had good taste within his limits. Much of what the public saw and heard was just an act—a well-honed act, to be sure, but no more a picture of the real man than Spike Jones’ public persona. And, when you listen to and examine some of the Kyser radio shows, you’ll discover to your surprise that he had a lot more in common with Spike Jones than you may have realized. Both men did public clowning, they had their band members act up and fool around on stage, and they interacted with band members who played crazy characters, in Kyser’s case a hayseed named Ish Kabibble and a raspy-voiced pervert named Ferdinand (later Freddy) Froghammer.
So, again, why am I writing about him on this blog?
Because the Kyser band and its vocalists, at their best and in quality material, stand comparison with the very greatest jazz orchestras of its era.
I know this sounds like a contradiction to what I just said above, but I swear to you that it’s true. Yes, he played and recorded a LOT of junk, some of which became big hits: Playmates, The Woody Woodpecker Song, Strip Polka, and worst of all, the big-selling monster hit Three Little FIshies (In an Itty Bitty Poo). To which the serious listener must surely be asking me, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Well, most of these records, and others I don’t care for like When Veronica Plays Her Harmonica Down on the Pier at Santa Monica, will not be discussed below. But in at least some of these recordings, the band was playing very tongue-in-cheek. And that’s something the Kyser-bashers miss, either accidentally or purposely.
Playmates is a good example because the song itself was meant to be silly. It was written by jazz bandleader Saxie Dowell—or at least the lyrics were. The melody was stolen note-for-note from the second strain of a 1904 ragtime piece called Iola by one Charles L. Johnson, who sued Dowell for plagiarism. Johnson settled out of court for an undisclosed sum but was financially independent for the rest of his life. (In case you’re interested, Johnson also wrote such deathless tunes as the Hen Cackle Rag and Pansy Blossoms, neither of which anyone bothered to borrow.) The beat underlying the vocals by Sully Mason and, later, “Audrey and her Playmates,” actually Harry Babbitt singing in falsetto with Ginny Simms while Mason sings jug-band-style bass notes, is purposely played stiffly in a ragtime manner; in addition, “Audrey” and her friends sing the last note of each four-bar phrase flat. But the intro and outro, as well as the jazz clarinet and flute solos, are played with great heat and in these sections the band really swings. In short, the band is camping it up, which didn’t always occur in these novelty tunes but certainly occurred here.
You can get a good mental image of what it was like to be a Kyser band member from the film clips on YouTube from the 1940 movie You’ll Find Out. Kyser mugs for the camera, cavorts on stage, jumps in the air and swings his legs out like Soupy Sales used to do, sticks his tongue out at the audience and tap dances in a calculated clumsy manner, all for laughs while the band plays with terrific esprit de corps behind him. Ish Kabibble comes down from the trumpet section to do his corny hayseed act and tosses in a corny gag, to which the band falls out as if he had told the funniest joke in the world. It was all a show, all for fun—and the band members loved it.
Indeed, the more you watch and listen to the Kyser band in its prime (1940-48), the more you realize how close in spirit they really were to Spike Jones, who also had a group full of top musicians. The difference was that Kyser stopped short of the burps, gulps, razzberries and pistol shots that Spike threw in, and much of the time the band played straight—and could really swing.
How good were they? You can judge from the few instrumentals they recorded, of which only one, Pushin’ Sand, was a hit for Kyser. Most of the others come from radio broadcasts or V-Discs, and they are played very, very well. The Sheik of Araby, Limehouse Blues, I Know That You Know and Always are all available on YouTube, and if you just hear these tracks without knowing whose band it was, you’d swear this was one of the top swing orchestras of the day—which they were. It’s just that a lot of listeners didn’t catch on.
But who was the man who created this split-personality band and gathered the talent together? Let’s trace his background and find out.
James Kern Kyser was born on June 18, 1905 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina (so his Southern accent was legitimate) to fairly well-to-do parents, pharmacists Paul and Emily Kyser. James was sent to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he began studying law because he liked to debate, but switched majors when he realized that it entailed “a lot of work.” He also joined the Sigma Nu fraternity, acted in plays in the school theater, did odd jobs and joined campus groups like Alpha Kappa Psi, the Order of the Grail and the Golden Fleece. Autumn Lansing, an online blogger, reports that he became a cheerleader for the Tar Heels, organizing the group known as the “Carolina Cheerios,” and “was picked by fellow student and future bandleader Hal Kemp to lead the school’s popular Carolina Club Orchestra after Kemp graduated in 1927. Kyser, who chose to use his middle initial as his stage name, advertised for new members when school resumed in the fall. Among those who answered his call were singer/baritone sax player Sully Mason and arranger George Duning, both of whom remained with Kyser throughout the rest of his career.” Kyser switched his major from law to commerce, played the clarinet for a while, and graduated with a B.A. in commerce in 1928. He formed a band that recorded a few sides for Victor in November of 1929, of which the jazziest was a tune called Collegiate Fanny, featuring some pretty hot trumpet by one Frank Fleming and a surprisingly jazzy vocal by young Mason, but the records went nowhere and Victor declined to pursue Kyser any further. It wasn’t that the records weren’t good, but they weren’t distinctive, and Kyser had no high-powered agent to promote him. Victor already had other white bands that played in the same style, among them Waring’s Pennsylvanians (before they became a mostly choral group), the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks and George Olsen and his Music, who sold much better.
But let us return to Autumn Lansing for the story of his rise to fame:
In 1934, Kyser received his big break, once again courtesy of Hal Kemp. Kemp, whose orchestra was featured at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, recommended Kyser’s group as a replacement act. With that engagement came radio time and added notoriety. The band proved popular and Kyser soon earned a recording contract with Brunswick. He hired singer Ginny Simms in 1936. Bill Stoker was male vocalist. Harry Babbitt took Stoker’s place in 1937. Babbitt and Simms became fixtures in Kyser’s orchestra during the late 1930s and were often featured in duets.
Kyser experimented with different musical formats for his radio program. He finally hit upon the right formula in 1937 when he developed a musical quiz show, Kay Kyser’s Kampus Klass, which later became the Kollege of Musical Knowledge. A big success regionally, the show was bought by Lucky Strike in 1938 and moved to New York, where it began airing on NBC. It immediately became a smash hit. Contestants won prizes and members of the listening audience could earn diplomas.
Though Kyser’s orchestra excelled at playing straight numbers, he never shied away from novelty tunes. With the talents of Babbitt, who could sing in his high “Little Audrey” voice, Mason, who sang scat numbers, and Ish Kabibble, who would constantly interrupt Kyser to recite silly poems, the group was armed with a potent arsenal, which it used quite often.
In 1939, Kyser starred in his first film, That’s Right, I’m Wrong, with Lucille Ball. That same year, the orchestra played at the premiere of Gone with the Wind and had its biggest hit, the novelty tune “Three Little Fishes.”
In addition to Ish Kabibble, Kyser also used another band member, whose identity still remains a secret (he never appeared on film but only on radio and records), to play a character named Ferdinand, later Freddie, Froghammer. Froghammer spoke and “sang” in a distorted voice that sounded much like Popeye the Sailor. My bet is on Harry Babbitt, but of course I could be wrong.
Thus you can see why, when Al Stillman and Paul McGrane wrote their soon-to-be hit song Jukebox Saturday Night in 1942, the lyrics went, “Goodman and Kyser and Miller / Help to make things right / Mixed with hot licks of vanilla / Juke box Saturday night.” They didn’t sing “Goodman and BASIE and Miller,” though the Count’s orchestra was clearly the favorite among jitterbuggers of all the African-American bands, or “Goodman and DORSEY and Miller,” which could refer to the orchestras or either Dorsey brother, though Tommy Dorsey’s early-‘40s band was near the very top. They included Kyser because his band was the perennial #1 “sweet” band of the day, though by 1942 Miller had topped him and both the band’s repertoire and sound profile had changed quite a bit from 1937-40. Gone were the wah-wah trombones, staccato muted trumpets and slurping saxes that had made his name and influenced the sweet bands of Sammy Kaye, who also stole his idea of singing the song titles near the beginning of each song and playing a snippet of his theme song as Kyser verbally introduced the singer(s) you were about to hear. Kyser kept the singing song titles (but not for long thereafter) and snatch of theme song before the vocal, but considerably updated his sound. Hot tenor saxist Herbie Haymer jumped from Woody Herman’s “Band That Plays the Blues” to Kyser and stayed for two years, loving the exposure and the good money, and the rest of the orchestra, though virtually unchanged in personnel (the musicians loved working for Kay and stayed with him for years), began playing tighter, more swinging arrangements by George Duning that resonated with some of the more jazz-loving swing fans while retaining their element of silliness when they felt like it. Perhaps one factor that actually helped the band update their style was that all of their arrangements were destroyed in a fire in 1942.
This was the reason why this band of ace musicians could tolerate the occasional corn and silliness. As guitarist Roc Hillman put it years later, the band was a “functional family.” “Everyone got along, and it was happy times all the time.” Harry Babbitt, the band’s star male singer from 1938 until its demise (except for his two years in the Navy), especially loved doing duets with smooth-voiced Ginny Simms. “Those were magic days,” said Babbitt years later, describing the duets he did with Simms as being “like buttah,” whether beautiful ballads like You and I or spoofing Romeo and Juliet in Hoagy Carmichael’s Way Back in 1939 A.D.
Ah yes, the vocalists. Tommy Dorsey gained a reputation of having a “singer’s band” because of a few high-profile stars he had between 1936 and 1942, primarily Jack Leonard, Edythe Wright, Frank Sinatra (well, especially Sinatra), Jo Stafford and Connie Haines, but Kyser’s was really a singer’s band. In addition to his trio of stars—Babbitt, Simms and Sully Mason—several of the band members also sang, not only Ish Kabibble but also trombonists Jack Martin and Max Williams, billed on the record labels simply as “Jack and Max.” In 1944, when Babbitt was drafted into the Navy for two years, his place was temporarily filled by a young Mike Douglas of later TV show fame. And unlike Dorsey’s singers, of whom only a few could swing, all of Kyser’s vocalists had a great sense of jazz “time,” even when singing in a relaxed tempo. But in those early, loose and carefree days, Kyser had a wandering eye, and for a while he and Simms were going together. No one will say who broke the affair up but, when it did happen, Simms left at the end of 1941. There were a string of replacements, some of whom stayed for a brief spell: Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn, Julie Conway, Diane Pendleton and Gloria Wood. Ironically, the one female band singer who stayed for the shortest amount of time was model and actress Georgia Carroll, who joined in 1943. Kyser fell deeply in love with her and the two eloped in June of 1944. They stayed married until Kyser’s death 41 years later.
Despite the fact that Kyser’s band had more #1 hits than any other (eleven) and Top Ten recordings (thirty-five!), that he appeared in seven feature films with such co-stars as Lucille Ball, John Barrymore, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre, his Kollege of Musical Knowledge radio show was a hit on NBC radio for 11 years and had two season on television in 1949 and 1950, Kyser was ready to quit by 1946. The reason given was arthritis, which was so painful in his feet that he could barely stand for long periods of time, let alone do his zany dances. But he was booked at least four years in advance, so he kept plugging away, though he did convert to Christian Science during this time in a desperate effort to find a cure for his arthritis that the doctors couldn’t give him.
The real reason Kyser quit, as he told the Gainsborough newspaper in 1981, was when he played for a large group of troops in the summer of 1945 on a hillside in the Pacific Theater. “Thousands of GIs were listening to the performance,” he recalled, “they’d come up to you after and shake your hand, thanking you, completely oblivious to the fact that they were offering their lives, so we civilians would have a good go at it at home. I thought, ‘My, if that isn’t the ultimate of humility.’ That pulled in my fangs for commercialism. I knew right then that I’d never play another dance for money, that I’d never play another theater for money. It wasn’t a hero’s decision that I made. There was no reason to show my peers that I could still cut it. The only reason I could figure for doing it any more was for money, and if I’d done it for that reason, I’d have been a jerk.” After his second TV season he was finally out from under his contracts, so he walked away from fame, fortune, everything.
Kay and Georgia moved back to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where they settled in an old house on the edge of campus once owned by his uncle. They raised three daughters, Amanda, Kimberly and Carol. Kyser gave generously to the university that had given him his musical start, wrote a song for UNC, Tar Heels on Hand, and donated money to a scholarship fund to help students in music and dramatic arts programs, one year full scholarship, room and board if they showed talent and “good moral character.” He donated to the North Carolina Symphony Society in addition to his work for Christian Science. “Kay didn’t speak publicly,” Georgia said in later years, “but he gave the whole second half of his life to public service.” Kyser also donated to public television, helped in a campaign to raise $62 million to build better hospitals and train more nurses, and joined Billy Carmichael in lobbying the state to improve health care. He was able to persuade Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore to do a singing ad for that campaign.
But he also held true to his vow not to ever get involved in commercialism or rekindle his career again, and this included allowing his old recordings to be reissued on 45s or LPs. In the 1960s Columbia issued Benny Goodman’s Greatest Hits and Harry James’ Greatest Hits, but Kyser refused to let his old discs come out. Frustrated, his former singers and band members convinced Capitol Records to fund an LP of remakes in 1962. Astonishingly, nearly all his former star singers—Babbitt, Simms, Kabibble, Mason, Martin, Gloria Wood, Trudy Erwin, even Mike Douglas—participated in the sessions, as did jazz fan and comedian Stan Freberg, who narrated the LP. It sold moderately well, but aficionados of the Ol’ Perfessor complained that it didn’t really sound much like the original band.
Sometime during the 1970s Kyser agreed to a limited number of interviews with newspapers and radio stations in exchange for their promoting his latest cause. These were the only times he said anything about his career in later years. He died, relatively happy and at peace with himself, on July 23, 1985, a little over a month after his 80th birthday, of a heart attack.
So there is the whole, true story of Kay Kyser, a man who walked away from fame and fortune, never looked back, and as a result was forgotten—until Fallout: New Vegas used his original 1942 recording of Jingle Jangle Jingle, one of his eleven #1 hits, on the soundtrack of its post-apocalyptic action role-playing video game. Young people who didn’t know Kay Kyser from a hole in the wall were suddenly impressed by the loose swing and drive of the performance and wanted to know more about him and his music. It was a long-overdue revival for a man who did so much for popular culture, had fun along the way and never hurt anyone. And I encourage you to discover or rediscover Kay Kyser for yourself on YouTube. Here is my list of favorites:
1 – Show Introduction w/Thinking of You (Donaldson-Ash) (1/27/1943)
2 – The Fuddy Duddy Watchmaker (Loesser-McHugh) Julie Conway, voc; Herbie Haymer, t-sax (7/30/1942)
3 – Comedy routine (1/27/1943)
4 – The Sheik of Araby (Snyder-Wheeler) (1/27/1943)
5 – Why Don’t We Do This More Often? (Newman-Wrubel) Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms, voc (6/29/1941)
6 – Ferryboat Serenade (Adamson-Di Lazzaro) voc Ginny, Harry, Jack Martin & Max Williams (7/23/1940)
7 – The Girl I Left Behind Me (trad. Army march) Sully Mason, voc (9/1944)
8 – Limehouse Blues (Furber-Braham) (9/1944)
9 – Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge (from You’ll Find Out, 1940)
10 – Like the Fella Once Said (Roy Webb) Sully Mason, Harry Babbitt, Ginny Sims, Ish Kabibble, Jack Martin & Max Williams (1940)
11 – Indian Summer (Herbert-Dubin) Ginny Simms, voc (12/12/1939)
12 – Playmates (Saxie Dowell) Harry Babbitt, “Audrey and her Playmates,” voc (1/29/1940)
13 – Pushin’ Sand (Simmons-Hillman) voc effects: Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn (5/40/1942)
14 – Ole Buttermilk Sky (Carmichael-Brooks) Mike Douglas & the Campus Kids, voc (6/1946)
15 – I Know That You Know (Youmans-Caldwell) (1941)
16 – On a Slow Boat to China (Frank Loesser) Harry Babbitt, Gloria Wood, voc (11/9/1947)
17 – The Bad Humor Man (Mercer-McHugh) Harry, Sully, Ish and the Gang, voc (9/2/1940)
18 – You’ve Got Me This Way (Mercer-McHugh) Harry Babbitt, voc (3/5/1940)
19 – Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet (Raye-DePaul) Sully Mason & group voc (1943)
20 – Who Wouldn’t Love You? (Carey-Fischer) Harry Babbitt, Trudy Erwin, voc (1/20/1942)
21 – A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Gal) (Gilbert-O’Brien) Sully Mason w/Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn, Jack Martin & Max Williams (1/16/1942)
22 – What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve? (Loesser, arr. Fontaine) Harry Babbitt & the Campus Kids (4/1947)
23 – Friendship (Cole Porter) Ginny, Harry, Jack & Ish, voc (1/9/1940)
24 – Jingle, Jangle, Jingle (Loesser-Lilley) Harry Babbitt, Julie Conway & the Group, voc (5/21/1942)
25 – Always (Irving Berlin) instrumental (1944)
Update, March 11, 2021: For more information on Kyser, his life and his music, I highly recommend Steven Beasley’s wonderful blog, which I have just recently been made aware of: https://www.kaykyser.net/kay.html
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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