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 Kay Kyser

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Kay Kyser

  • Original Name James Kern
  • Birth 18 Jun 1905 Rocky Mount, Nash County, North Carolina, USA
  • Death 23 Jul 1985 Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, USA
  • Burial Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, USA
  • Plot Section N
  • Memorial ID 6819

Big Band Leader, Entertainer announcer. Kay Kyser was very successful during his years as a number one band leader in the country and equally productive during his long period of retirement at age 41. He had eleven number-one hit recordings..."Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" "Three Little Fishes" "Jingle Jangle Jingle" "Old Buttermilk Sky" and "The Woody Woodpecker Song." In the late 30's and early 40's, Kyser's band appeared in seven motion pictures..."Stage Door Canteen" "Thousands Cheer" and "Carolina Blues" where the story was about the band. However, his greatest success was in radio, the media which propelled him and his Orchestra to fame with the radio show and finally television, "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge." Kyser in reality had a two phase life career both different in demeanor, one in show business and another in diverse public service and religion. He was born James Kern Kyser in Rocky Mount, North Carolina to parents Paul and Emily Kyser both pharmacists. He exhibited little interest in music as a youngster which would only surface during his college days at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His attendance there was almost preordained by his families history at the school. Many members including his parents not only were former students but would return to teach at UNC or serve in some official capacity. James was very active in high school again showing no signs of a show business career but many indications of leadership. He was president of both his junior and senior class, edited the school yearbook and even formed a football team comprised of himself and other members rejected by the school coach from the varsity team deeming them unfit but undeterred from participation led cheers for the team. Finally a student at North Carolina State, Chapel Hill, he was an excellent student but especially shined in the extracurricular field...from active membership in fraternities, acting in school plays, establishing a cheering section at sports events and the ultimate in his Junior year, with no musical skills formed a band which was destined to gain national notoriety and fame. A first rehearsal in Gerrard Hall with six members produced a group with no dexterity and seemed barely qualified to be called a band. James would become Kay Kyser (middle initial became his first name.) Moreover, the group would prevail, improve and grow in popularity while playing not only at UNC but at many major schools around the area. After graduation the band remained intact and began touring the country as the "Kay Kyser Orchestra" with little initial success. However, the group was early, the Big Band era had not yet arrived. They would find some success at the Baltabarin club in San Francisco, then Santa Monica but a booking at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago was the defining spring broad to national fame. At first, there were few in the audience until Kyser and his band members came up with an act that was part musical, quiz and singing. The show was called "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge." He starred as "The Ol' Perfessor," with his catchphrase "Evenin' folks, how y'all?" The show broadcast locally became a smash. In 1938 the American Tobacco Company bought the show for Lucky Strike and it was aired nationally on NBC. The show had a waiting list of 60,000 people desiring tickets while some twenty million tuned in each week. It would eventually move to television but had little success and was cancelled. In the meantime, the band broke attendance records everywhere they played and their recordings were bestsellers. During World War II, he aired his radio show from service camps and hospitals while selling million of dollars in war bonds. In 1951 suffering from severe arthritis while still enjoying immense popularity, Kay Kyser quit and went home to Chapel Hill, North Carolina joining his wife the former Georgia Carroll, once a member of his band. The couple moved into an old house formally owned by his uncle a former UNC Dean, on the edge of the College campus along with their daughters. All three would graduate from UNC. He became a high profile active member of the Christian Science Church in the capacity of a faith healer and as a lecturer spread its doctrines. In the 70's Kyser ran the TV-film department of the church in Boston. The denomination gave him an honorary title "President of the Worldwide Church of Christian Science. He gave back to his alma mater, North Carolina University engaging in many philanthropist endeavors. He was honored at the time of his death from heart failure at Chapel Hill, age 80 with burial on campus in the old Chapel Hill cemetery. He was accorded a memorial service in Gerrard Hall, where he created the band. Legacy... In public service he was instrumental in improving health care in the state, establishing public television at UNC and a highway safety program still in effect today. The University of North Carolina was the recipient of the papers and artifacts of Kay Kyser after being donated by his widow. In the early 60's, without its leader, several members of the Kay Kyser Orchestra reassembled to record an album of Kyser's greatest hits. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame posthumously in 1990. In a bit of trivia...Although Kay Kyser would sing, dance and direct during performances with his orchestra, he could not play a musical instrument. Attempted lessons with the clarinet proved futile and he ascertained the band was better with him as an organizer and entertaining announcer than as a musician. The members agreed.

Bio by: Donald Greyfield

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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 31 Oct 1999
  • Find A Grave Memorial 6819
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Kay Kyser (18 Jun 1905–23 Jul 1985), Find A Grave Memorial no. 6819, citing Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, Chapel Hill, Orange County, North Carolina, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .