Kay Kyser was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of pharmacists Paul Bynum Kyser and Emily Royster (Howell) Kyser.
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.
He was also senior class president.
Because of 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.
Following graduation, Kyser and his band, which included Sully Mason on saxophone and arranger George Duning, toured Midwest restaurants and night clubs and gradually built a following.
They were particularly 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.” The act was broadcast on the Mutual Radio in 1938 and then moved to NBC Radio from 1939 to 1949.
The show rose in the ratings and spawned many imitators.
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 blond 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.
“Kay left a strong recording legacy in American popular music, including his ‘Kollege of Musical Knowledge,’ ” said Babbitt. “I’m very fortunate and proud to have been an integral part of that band and that legacy.” Some of the band members, including Babbitt and Kabibble, noted that Kyser was difficult to know personally. “Kay was a businessman,” explained Babbitt.
“We all liked him and liked what he stood for. He was first class.
It’s sad to say, but there are an awful lot of people who don’t remember Kay Kyser.”
Kyser also appeared as a light comedian; he acted with (and was billed above) John Barrymore in John 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.
Kyser’s personal performing style was enthusiastic and comical. Unlike most bandleaders of the time, Kyser danced and sang with his band, as illustrated during the group’s performance of “I Dug a Ditch” in Thousands Cheer and other film appearances.
In 1944, he married the blonde Hollywood model, Georgia Carroll, who had appeared in movies such as Ziegfeld Girl and Du Barry Was A Lady.
She was a singer, too, and provided the vocals on one of the band’s 1945 hits, ‘There Goes That Song Again’. Throughout the decade the Kyser band was almost permanently in the US Top 20 with a variety of titles such as ‘You, You, Darlin’’, ‘Playmates’, ‘With The Wind And The Rain In Your Hair’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Blue Love Bird’, ‘Tennessee Fish Fry’, ‘Who’s Yehoodi?’, ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Ferryboat Serenade’, ‘You Got Me This Way’.
‘Alexander The Swoose (Half Swan, Half Goose)’, ‘(Lights Out) ’Til Reveille’, ‘Why Don’t We Do This More Often?’, ‘(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover’, ‘A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Girl)’, ‘Who Wouldn’t Love You’, ‘Johnny Doughboy Found A Rose In Ireland’, ‘Got The Moon In My Pocket’, ‘Jingle, Jangle, Jingle’, ‘He Wears A Pair Of Silver Wings’, ‘Strip Polka’, ‘Ev’ry Night About This Time’, ‘Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ (the band’s biggest hit), ‘Can’t Get Out Of This Mood’, ‘Let’s Get Lost’, ‘Bell Bottom Trousers’, ‘One-Zy, Two-Zy (I Love You-Zy)’, ‘Ole Buttermilk Sky’, ‘The Old Lamp-Lighter’, ‘Huggin’ And Chalkin’’, ‘Managua, Nicaragua’, ‘The Woody Woodpecker Song’, and ‘Slow Boat To China’ (1948).