N.C. Highway Historical Marker to Honor Kay Kyser


 A king of the swing era of big band music, Kay Kyser, will be recognized with a N.C. Highway Historical Marker, Oct. 5, at 4 p.m. in his hometown. Kyser was born in Rocky Mount and went on to become perhaps the best-known bandleader in America. The marker dedication will be at First United Methodist Church Annex, 273 Sunset Ave., Rocky Mount, N.C. It will be. followed by a musical performance at the Imperial Centre at 270 Gay St. in Rocky Mount.

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. His true talent seemed to be performing as a madcap announcer. 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 #1 hit in 1935 and altogether had 10 more. It garnered 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 1949-1950. 

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.

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

Kyser retired with his family to Chapel Hill, where he 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. He was a convert to Christian Science and also was a promoter of that religion.

For additional information on the dedication program call (252) 977-0400 or (252) 815-6632. For information on the Highway Marker program call (919) 807-7290. The Highway Historical Marker Program is a collaboration between the N.C. Departments of Natural and Cultural Resources and Transportation.

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