Big Band Chanteuse Kitty Kallen Epitomized an Era
We are all familiar with the classic film image of a sultry dark-haired singer of the 1940s, standing before a massive microphone, backed by a band led by Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller or Harry James, and pouring her heart out in a teary torch song. There were many real-life examples of the genre (Helen Forrest, Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford spring quickly to mind), and it is impossible - and unfair - to pin the image down to one specific singer. However, if you had to pick one singer who exemplified the breed, an excellent choice would be Kitty Kallen.
|Kitty Kallen and fellow ingenue Doris Day spent a cold day in Central Park some time during 1947 getting some publicity shots. Doris looks like her teeth are chattering.|
Katie Kallen (her real name) was born on May 25, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and she had six brothers and sisters. She showed an interest in singing as a child, and won a local singing contest. One thing led to another, and soon she was on The Children's Hour, a radio program sponsored by classic automat chain Horn & Hardart (a brand which may be about to experience a revival as a coffee company). Before you know it, Kitty had her own program on WCAU in Philadelphia, fronting big bands of the early 1930s. And that, kids, is how you do it.
|Kitty Kallen with Bob Eberly, a fellow singer with Jimmy Dorsey.|
Having her own radio show was not a bad way to ride out the Great Depression, but Kitty Kallen was just getting started. In 1941, Jimmy Dorsey needed a replacement for Helen O'Connell of "Tangerine" fame (add her to the list above), and Kitty now was a mature woman just entering her 20s. Kitty teamed with Bob Eberly for Dorsey in a series of duets that became standards of the era.
Kitty's biggest hit with Dorsey and Eberly was “Bésame Mucho." A Mexican bolero written by Consuelo Velázquez, “Bésame Mucho" went on to become the most the most sung and recorded Mexican song of all time, with Kitty's 1944 version hitting No. 1 on the pop charts. That Kitty sang “Bésame Mucho" to such acclaim will become significant below.
Eberly got drafted in late 1943, breaking up the act, so Kitty hitched her star with Harry James and his orchestra. It was a match made in heaven.
In those days, the emphasis was on the band, not on the singer. Typically, the singer would sing a quick "chorus" in the middle of the song, practically serving as one of the instruments doing a solo. Kitty was excellent at this task. Her emotional renditions also were perfectly aligned with the sentimental mood of a country making a dramatic transition from war to uncertain peace. Together, the Harry James Orchestra and Kitty Kallen had a phenomenal rund of hits in the war's final year.
Kitty's No. 1 hits in 1945 included "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "It's Been a Long, Long Time." The latter song has experienced something of a revival recently due to its inclusion in "The Winter Soldier," and deservedly so: it was a massive hit that encapsulates the feelings felt at the end of the war. All told, Kitty had eight top twenty hits just in 1945. It was a phenomenal run, and Kitty's voice came to define the era.
While nobody knew it at the time, the big band era was in its terminal phase as the war ended, so Kitty hit it perfectly right at its climax. While she had occasional hits during the late 1940s and early 1950s, they were few and far between. Kitty married Bernard "Budd" Granoff, a publicist, agent, and television producer, in 1948. Granoff helped Kitty enter a new phase of her career that, in unlikely fashion, brought her to her greatest heights.
|Kitty Kallen in a publicity still for "The Second Greatest Sex."|
Granoff helped Kitty get some film work. She made a series of shorts, beginning with 1949's "Piano Rhythm," which led to a starring role on Broadway in "Finian's Rainbow." Once again, one thing led to another, and Kitty nabbed a starring role in film "The Second Greatest Sex" (1955). The musical, a takeoff on the classic Greek "Lysistrata" play, did not lead to any further film work, but is a great way to catch Kitty Kallen in her prime.
|Kitty Kallen with Frank Laico at the CBS Records studio in Manhattan, 1958.|
It was right around this time in the 1950s that Kitty's singing career experienced a huge resurgence. In fact, Kitty Kallen's hits from 1954/56 are probably Kitty Kallen's best-remembered. Now a solo singer, she had a massive hit with her 1953 album "Little Things Mean a Lot," and the title song gave her another huge No. 1 hit. Reportedly, the single of "Little Things Mean a Lot" sold two million copies, and that ain't beanbag, especially in the 1950s. However, that's not all: the title single was one of six, count 'em, six singles released off that one album. That's pretty rare. In fact, Kitty became perhaps the top female singer of the mid-1950s, before withdrawing in late 1955 from concert work and returning to the studio. Her 1958 album, "If I Give My Heart to You," was another big hit. The death of Kitty's father, Samuel Kallen, in early 1955 seemed to take a toll on her, unfortunately, and may have contributed to the famous incident later that year when she "lost her voice" temporarily. Never discount the importance of seemingly routine emotional events like that in a person's life.
Kitty also accomplished a pretty rare feat during her renewed fame in the 1950s. Throughout her entire career, Kitty Kallen had exactly one single that made the UK chart: "Little Things Mean A Lot." That one and only record, though, went to No. 1 in the UK. So, Kitty Kallen may well be the only recording artist in history who has a perfect record on a major national recording chart: exactly one song on the chart, and that a No. 1 hit. Offhand, I can't think of anyone else who did anything like that, though maybe some novelty act pulled it off at some point. Kitty Kallen was no novelty act, of course. People in the UK who know of Kitty know her for that song, not any of her previous big band hits.
|Kitty Kallen being used to hawk shampoo during her resurgence of popularity in the mid-1950s. Now that's fame.|
Kitty was now pushing 40, and she was facing the rising tide of rock singers such as Elvis Presley. It was not a great time to be a singer of classic ballads. However, Kitty cranked out one more hit album and single, "My Coloring Book," in 1962. It turned out to be her last hit. While everyone remembers the Barbra Streisand version of the same year, Kitty's was the one that actually made the charts, peaking at No. 18 on the pop chart. During this period, Kitty received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
|Kitty Kallen's last big hit, "My Coloring Book."|
Kitty continued recording through the 1960s, but it was tough for a big band singer to compete against The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Kitty was basically retired at her longtime home in Englewood, New Jersey. She was known to promote local community causes, but basically adopted a low profile. The press erroneously reported her death in 1978, which initially alarmed her husband, but they all got a good laugh out of it later. Granoff actually predeceased Kitty in 1996.
Kitty was a revered figure in Mexico due to her wartime rendition of “Bésame Mucho," and this likely contributed to Kitty's decision to have a home in Cuernavaca. She passed away there on 7 January 2016. Kitty is buried at Beth-El Cemetery Paramus, Bergen County, New Jersey, USA. Her classic recordings, however, live on and continue to evoke the passions of World War II and the postwar era.
|Kitty Kallen's resting place (Chuck Kearns).|