Kay Kyser was born James Kern Kyser in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on June 18, 1905 and though he couldn’t read a note of music he went on to become a celebrity, both in music and on radio.
It was In 1926, while at University that Kyser took over the orchestra, mainly because of his popularity on campus. According to the university’s newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, the band was horrible, but nobody cared, as Kyser’s enthusiasm was contagious.
After graduation, Kyser decided to continue with the band though with little success until 1934 when they performed at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago. At the time quiz shows were popular so to encourage audience participation Kyser began asking the audience musical questions. Kyser recalled, "there was a lot of radio air time from the Blackhawk, and what we didn’t know was that the college kids were listening and thought we were great".
The show was originally named Kay’s Klass and became a combination of music related quiz, songs and comedy but because Kyser had glasses and the look of a professor, a classroom setting was suggested and band member Sully Mason came up with the title that made them famous: Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge.
Initially, their show ran on the air for WGN/Chicago then because of its popularity, in 1938 it moved to New York. The first show aired on March 30th on NBC and became a roaring success from coast to coast. Kay became known as the Ol' Professor, wearing a long robe and mortarboard hat, and greeted listeners "Evenin’, folks. How y’all?" which became his trademark
The Kollege soon developed a weekly audience of 20 million listeners nationwide. Show listeners and audience members could earn a Diploma by sending in quiz questions or correctly answering a question. The contestants had to go through a true-false quiz but respond with false to a true statement to which the Ol' Professor proclaimed, "That’s right, you’re wrong!" This catchphrase became another trademark for Kayser.
During World War II, from 1941 to 1945, Kay Kayser aired his radio show from over 500 military installations and hospitals. Actually, Kyser was the first bandleader to perform at camp shows for military personnel. His first such show was on February 26th, 1941 at San Diego marine base.
The Kay Kayser band had over 400 recordings, 11 number 1 records and 35 Top 10 hits. The band also appeared in seven feature Hollywood films. Stage Door Canteen and Thousands Cheer are two of the band's best-known films. Both movies were created to raise the morale of troops and their families.
The Kollege ran on radio for eleven years until 1949, then Kayser did two seasons of the show between December 1949 and December 1950 on NBC-TV for Ford Motor Company. But his transition to television was not successful. He soon retired silently from show business and never looked back.
Kyser died at the age of 80, on July 23, 1985 of a heart attack. In 1990, in recognition of all his contributions, he was included into the Radio Hall of Fame.