Saturday, December 5, 2009

That Ol’ Professor of Swing

I’m extremely happy to report the publication of Steven Beasley’s biography of Big Band leader Kay Kyser, titled Kay Kyser: The Ol’ Professor of Swing! America’s Forgotten Superstar (Richland Creek Publishing, 2009), which I finished reading this morning. Steve Beasley, who owns one of the largest collections of Kyser memorabilia in the world, has worked on this project for twenty years, and the result is clearly evident. The book—remarkably, the first published full-length biography written on the once immensely popular band leader—in addition to its many fascinating biographical details, is loaded with rare and unpublished photographs and interviews, sheet music and magazine covers, and the definitive Kyser discography. I congratulate Steve for his achievement and thank him for his important contribution to our understanding of America’s Swing Era of the 1930s and 40s. The biography was long overdue, but thanks to Steve’s efforts, that problem has now been redressed.

During the course of his career, from the late 1920s until his retirement in 1950, Kay Kyser and His Orchestra had 11 “Number 1” records and 35 “Top 10” hits. In addition, Kyser had a top-rated radio show for eleven years on NBC, featuring the Ol’ Professor of Swing along with his show, “Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge.” No band leader of the Swing Era has a more extensive filmography than Kay Kyser, who starred in seven feature films and had appearances in several others. He frequently outdrew the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman orchestras in live appearances; ballroom attendance records set by the Kyser orchestra during the Swing Era have never been toppled. In short, Kay Kyser was one of the most and popular and beloved entertainers in America from the late 1930s to the late 1940s.

Wearing wire-rim glasses, a mortarboard and an academic gown, the Ol’ Professor of Swing (a stage persona probably inspired by the 1937 comedy Swing It, Professor, starring the obscure comedian Pinky Tomlin) had surrounded himself with equally eccentric personalities, such as “Ish Kabibble,” who sported bangs to his mid-forehead and had a dead-pan demeanor modeled on Buster Keaton, and great talent, including the top-notch arranger and composer George Duning (during the years 1927-1944). In the late 1930s RKO invited Kay Kyser to Hollywood, where it produced his and the band’s first film, That’s Right—You’re Wrong (1939), featuring Lucille Ball in an early, major supporting role. The success of that film lead to Kyser’s second film, the haunted house mystery You’ll Find Out (released Thanksgiving weekend 1940), starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre, in their only film together. He would make three more films for RKO: Playmates (1941), My Favorite Spy (1942), produced by comedy legend Harold Lloyd, and Around the World (1943). Kyser also made features for Columbia and MGM. The viewing pleasure of these films now largely resides in their nostalgic value, as the films’ topical references and allusions, and the presence of a once hugely popular entertainer forgotten by all but a few today, makes them seem now to be woefully antiquated and déclassé. Although Kay Kyser died over twenty years ago, in 1985 at the age of 80, Kyser orchestra hits such as “Three Little Fishes,” “Who Wouldn’t Love You,” “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” have remained durable in the decades since they were first recorded. Serendipitously, just last weekend, my wife Becky and I were doing some Christmas shopping at a local department store when we happened to hear over the store’s stereo system the Kyser orchestra’s fine recording, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” Happily, I can report that Kay Kyser's widow, Georgia Carroll, who appeared in several of the aforementioned feature films, celebrated a birthday recently; she has lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina since she and Kay retired there in 1950.

The book’s back cover asks the question, “How could one who accomplished so much be forgotten today?” The answer, to which Beasley dedicates several chapters, is that in 1950 Kyser disappeared from show business “without so much as a word.” Recognizing that the Swing Era had ended after the end of World War II, and tired of show business, Kyser returned home to his beloved state of North Carolina and became a very active statesman, helping bring Public TV to the state and raising millions of dollars for medical services for returning war veterans. He also became a religious leader later in life. A very private man with many contradictions, Beasley explores Kyser’s post-celebrity life in fascinating detail. Because Kyser retired from public life permanently in 1950, his career and accomplishments have gone largely unnoticed by the so-called “Baby Boom Generation,” by far the vast majority of which were born after Kyser had quietly retired, explaining why he is so rarely heard of today.

Almost twenty years ago, Image Entertainment issued on laser disc the films Kay Kyser made for RKO; these titles were also issued on VHS at the same time, and are now long OOP, although they occasionally show up for sale on eBay. These films, as well as the other films starring Kyser made in the 40s, also screen on Turner Classic Movies now and then. Recently, Warner Home Video issued on DVD You’ll Find Out as part of its Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics set, which also included The Walking Dead, Frankenstein 1970, and Zombies on Broadway (You’ll Find Out, tellingly, has no audio commentary, as do two of the three other films).

Again, I must congratulate Steven for his outstanding accomplishment, and commend his tenacity. I should mention that he has, for years, also been working on a documentary film on Kyser, and hopefully the publication of this biography will help him realize that project as well. I spent a few pleasant and enjoyable hours with Steven a few years ago while in Los Angeles, when he shared with me some rare footage from the documentary, and I wish him the best of luck with that important project. Additional information on the book can be found at, and I’ll also direct readers to the Kyser website Steven maintains, He can also be found at

The Wikipedia page for Kay Kyser can be found here, which contains several links to additional sources. C'mon chillen, yess'dance!

1 comment:

Rick said...

Do you know if this biography will go into a reprint? I cannot find a a copy for under a hundred dollars. As much as I want it I don't have that much to spend right now.