Her father was an Iroquois from Buffalo. She spent her late teens crossing the country with bandleaders like Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet. Billie Holiday called her "the only white woman who could sing the blues."
It's only natural, then, that Kay Starr isn't going to be put out of business by a mere broken hip.
At 78, Starr - best known for such '50s hits as "Wheel of Fortune" - is on the road again. A morning phone call to her Los Angeles home finds her tuned in to the Weather Channel. "I have to know what to pack," she says. Her housekeeper is in the background, clanging pots and pans.
Starr jokes about her age, her pills and grapefruit juice, and the broken hip and hip replacement that have kept her from performing for more than a year. "I just tell my friends, "Don't grow old, shoot yourself,' " she says. "You can't be a sissy and get old."
But it's obvious the singer hasn't slowed down much.
Wednesday, she'll be in Buffalo, performing at 1:30 and 8 p.m. at the Hearthstone Manor. From there, she'll be driving to gigs in Hamilton, Ont., and Toronto. "I'm so excited about seeing some of the country," she says.
"People say, "You lead such an exciting life. All the things you get to see. . . .' Get to see?" she echoes. "I'll tell you what we get to see. The airplane, the airport, then we get picked up, driven to the venue, and when that's over with, if it's a one-nighter, they put you back in the car, take you back to the airport.
So earthy and evocative is Starr that, listening to her talk, the years fall away. It's not hard to imagine the husky-voiced singer of the '40s and '50s.
Chanteuse Edith Piaf liked Starr above all other American singers. Country star Patsy Cline, too, named Starr as her favorite.
Starr, who recorded Piaf's "Hymn to Love," still sounds thrilled as she recalls Piaf hugging her, exclaiming in her French accent, "You sang my song!"
About Cline, she reflects, "Whatever she was singing, she was singing from the very bottom. Everything made sense that she did.
"I've talked to people who have recorded with her," Starr adds. "They said she was a no-nonsense singer. She'd say, "No, no, I want to sing it this way.' Well, that sounds like me."
When Starr plays the Hearthstone Manor, the audience will probably include Jerry Meyers, the head of Rhapsody Records and a longtime record producer.
"I've loved all the music of that era, 1946 to '55, when all those big band singers - Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Doris Day, Kay Starr - went out on their own," Meyers says. "That era, Kay Starr had a jillion hits."
Meyers never worked with Starr. "She was a little before I got in the business," he says. But he always admired her artistry. "I like her voice, and I like the songs and arrangements," he says. "I thought she made great records. Whoever was producing her did a great job."
It didn't hurt, of course, that by 20, Starr was a seasoned pro.
Born Katherine Starks in Oklahoma in 1922, she shortened her name when, as a young teen, she began singing country songs on the radio. People loved her husky voice, and at 15, she joined Joe Venuti's swing band.
"Joe loved me," she says. "He thought I was Italian. I was short and round. He knew I had to be Italian if I had all those features going for me! He and Sally, his wife, opened their arms to me. My mother traveled with me as my sister," Starr adds.
In 1939, Starr sang with Glenn Miller for two weeks, subbing for Marion Hutton. Hutton's range was higher than hers, but Starr agreed to record using her arrangements. "Kids think they're invincible," she says. "I said, "If she can do it, I can do it.' "
She groans. "I went in there, did that record date, but everything in my body hurt. I reached for all those notes, and when I heard that record, it was OK, but you could tell it was a real young somebody."
Starr didn't realize she was part of history until Miller's plane was lost in World War II.
"They didn't want to say at first that he was missing," she says. "When they thought they had definite proof -- which they did have, 'cause he hasn't shown up yet -- they put out a commemorative album. And those two songs, the songs I recorded, were on the album."
"That's when I realized, 'You jerk, you didn't realize what was happening here.' "
Big band life was not for the weak. "You slept in the car," says Starr. "You did everything on the way to everywhere." Two years with Barnet, starting in 1943, almost ruined Starr's voice.
Starr refers to Barnet as "the wild man." She sighs, "He and his band members got us thrown out of more hotels . . ."
Barnet and his band entertained the troops during World War II, traveling in chilly military planes. "The guys were drinking booze. They stayed warm with liquor," says Starr. "But I didn't drink, so I was always cold."
The colds she caught led to a bronchial problem. "It got to the point where I had to sing, had to talk, and my voice would just cut out on me," Starr says. "I said to Charlie, 'I've got to stop.' "
Alarmed, Barnet took Starr to a throat specialist. It turned out that Starr had nodes on her vocal cords, and had to refrain from even talking for six months.
'He was a gentleman'
Starr's 1946 recordings with clarinetist Barney Bigard are prized by jazz buffs, and so is 1975's "Back to the Roots."
She's best known, though, for her pop/R&B Capitol hits. As Meyers points out: "Capital was a burgeoning young record company, a start-up with (singer and songwriter) Johnny Mercer. They had the pick of the crop of arrangers and producers."
To Starr's delight, Capitol also asked her to sing country duets with Tennessee Ernie Ford.
"Ernie and I sang four bars of 'I Need to Be Free,' and looked at each other as though we'd found each other," Starr recalls.
She adored Ford. "He was such a precious man, such a gentleman, so dear. And those eyes just flashed. He just loved life."
So, it's obvious, does Starr -- especially on the bandstand.
"People say to me so many times, 'Don't you get tired of singing "Wheel of Fortune"?' I've been singing it going on 50 years."
Her voice grows dreamy.
"It was a war song. It was the Korean War. . . . War songs have a feeling about them," she adds.
"I see people look at each other when I start to sing 'Wheel of Fortune.' They look as if they're melting. They were going through the height of emotion while I was singing 'Wheel of Fortune.' "
How is she able to communicate this emotion? Starr, even after all these years, still isn't sure.
"I've got a sound to myself," she says. "I growl a little bit, moan a little bit. Then I've got a crack in my voice; sometimes it comes out and sometimes it doesn't. Those are the tools that God gave me. I just use them."
Kay Starr performs Wednesday at 1:30 and 8:30 p.m. in the Hearthstone Manor, 333 Dick Road, Depew. For information, call (800) 411-5678.