Historical marker to honor band leader

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Kay Kyser

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Staff Writer

Monday, October 1, 2018

Rocky Mount native Kay Kyser, a king of the big band swing music era, is set to be recognized with a highway marker.

The state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources will dedicate a state Highway Historical Marker to honor Kyser at 4 p.m. Friday at the First United Methodist Church Annex at 273 Sunset Ave.

The dedication will be followed by a musical performance at the Imperial Centre as part of the city’s First Friday celebration.

Kyser is the best-known bandleader in America. Neither a singer nor a musician, Kyser became a bandleader almost accidentally when he was asked to lead a local band made up of UNC students, said Fay Mitchell, a public relations specialist with the the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

"His true talent seemed to be performing as a madcap announcer," Mitchell said. "The band toured after graduation and then became the house band for the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, where it attracted a following. He would call out to the audience 'C’mon Chillen, les’ dance!'"

The group achieved its first No. 1 hit in 1935 and altogether had 10 more, garnering 35 hits in the Top 10. Many of the tunes were whimsical, with the last hit being the theme music of the “Woody Woodpecker” cartoon series.

Kyser’s band gained a radio show in 1938, the “Kollege of Musical Knowledge,” where Kyser used the persona of the “Ol’ Perfesser,” who engaged various band members, including Ish Kabibble, in his antics.

By the mid-1940s Kyser had become one of the most popular and best-paid of the big band leaders. Featured on radio from 1938 to 1948, the show moved to television from 1949 to 1950.

In 1942, a fire destroyed much of the band’s musical arrangements and it subsequently adopted a jazzier approach to its music. During World War II, Kyser frequently entertained U.S. servicemen as part of the USO program. During this time he met his future wife, Georgia Carroll, after she became a vocalist with the group. The 1940s incarnation of the band also launched the career of singer Mike Douglas, who later became a popular television talk show host, Mitchell said.

"Disenchantment with the trappings of show business fueled by health problems contributed to a genuine feeling in Kyser that his efforts paled beside those of people in service to others," Mitchell said.

Contracts kept Kyser in his career for several years, but when the television contract for “Kollege” was cancelled in 1950, he quietly quit.

Retiring with his family to Chapel Hill, Kyser and his wife devoted their efforts to charity work. They supported UNC, especially the drama department, and played a role in bringing public television to the state. He supported the Good Health Program and programs to foster health and to promote and finance hospitals and medical education, Mitchell said.