Friday, April 30, 2010

Mortarboard Society

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry praising 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). I received a cheerful email from Steve yesterday, who wrote to tell me that he’d just returned from an exhilarating 4-day tour of North Carolina promoting the book, a tour financially supported by the Chapel Hill Museum (Kyser, as everyone from those parts knows, was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina). Steve indicated he did a 30-minute oral presentation and Q&A session at two of the larger locations, followed by book signings at each of the four cities he visited—Chapel Hill, Durham, Rocky Mount, and Raleigh. In Rocky Mount he spoke to several (elderly) people who’d known Kyser and heard some good stories. He also stopped by to say hello to Kyser’s widow, Georgia (pictured in the 40s, with Kyser), who at age ninety I’m happy to report is doing very well. Georgia graciously presented Steven with a couple of absolutely amazing gifts, truly historic items which you can read all about on his latest blog, available at I’ll let Steven tell you about the gifts she presented to him on his blog, but I will add that I, too, can’t think of a person more deserving of the gifts. I believe him when he says the gifts brought tears to his eyes, and I would have loved to have been there for the occasion.

Steve also indicated in his email that his publishing company, Richland Creek, has just issued a new 18-track CD titled Kay Kyser: The Ol’ Professor of Swing! Live Air Checks 1937-44, which he compiled, produced and annotated. Since he is a world authority on Kyser, you can be sure it is historically and factually accurate. You can purchase the CD at the book site, I should add that Steve owns one of the largest collections of Kyser memorabilia in the world (now, thanks to Georgia, grown a bit larger). As I stated in my earlier blog post, Steven’s book is the first (and only) full-length biography about the once popular band leader. In addition to its many fascinating biographical details, it is loaded with rare and unpublished photographs and interviews, sheet music and magazine covers, and the definitive Kyser discography. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in America’s musical past, especially the Swing Era. To reiterate: 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.

I’d also like to applaud the Chapel Hill Museum for helping support Steven’s tour through North Carolina, as it seems to me such activities are an indication of its commitment to championing regional artists and culture. Incidentally, in addition to Kay Kyser, another of Chapel Hill’s favorite sons is James Taylor, for whom the museum maintains a website, available here.