Kitty Kallen, Big Band Singer of ‘Bésame Mucho,’ Dies at 94
The New York Times
By Denise Grady
January 7, 2016
Her voice, sweet and clear, welcomed the troops home from World War II, singing: “Kiss me once, kiss me twice, kiss me once again. It’s been a long, long time.” Kitty Kallen, a big band singer whose career extended into the early 1960s, and whose hit songs included “Bésame Mucho,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “In the Chapel in the Moonlight” and “Little Things Mean a Lot,” died on Thursday at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by her son, Jonathan Granoff, who said she had been living year-round in Mexico, where she had long had a vacation home. She had spent most of her adult life in Englewood, N.J.
Ms. Kallen arrived on the scene as a teenager in the late 1930s. She fit the classic image of that musical era: a gorgeous girl with a big smile, a perfect figure in a strapless gown, a string of pearls, a flower in her hair, swaying to the sound of a muted horn. Sweet but not too sweet, her voice carried romance without irony at a time when there was still some innocence and mystery between the sexes, and no embarrassment in being moved by a song about lovers’ dreams or the magic of a kiss.
She sang with many of the top bandleaders: Artie Shaw, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden. Her career, which included several Top 10 records, outlasted the big band era: Her last hit, “My Coloring Book,” was in 1962.
She had no formal training in music, but her pitch was flawless, her phrasing disciplined and her diction crisp in a natural, unforced way. Every word she sang was clear.
Though she was born and raised in Philadelphia, Ms. Kallen, unlike her siblings, had no local accent in her singing or her speaking, Mr. Granoff said, adding, “How she did that I have no idea.”
She was born Katie Kallen on May 25, 1921, in South Philadelphia to Sam Kallen, a barber, and the former Fanny Kaplan. The family name was misspelled Kellam on her birth certificate, her son said. Her mother died when she was 8, and her father remarried. She had three brothers, two sisters and a stepbrother from her stepmother’s previous marriage.
Ms. Kallen began singing as a child on “The Children’s Hour,” a radio show sponsored by Horn & Hardart, which owned the Automat restaurants in New York and Philadelphia. She soon had her own radio show in Philadelphia, and by age 15 she was singing with big bands — “bringing home the bacon for her family,” her son said.
Her first marriage, to Clint Garvin, a clarinetist in Teagarden’s band, was annulled. In 1947, at the Copacabana in New York, Frank Sinatra’s first wife, Nancy, introduced Ms. Kallen to Budd Granoff, a press agent who represented Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Doris Day and many other entertainers. Mr. Granoff was instantly smitten and told a companion he had just met the girl he would marry.
They did marry, in 1948, and within a few years Mr. Granoff had given up his other clients to manage Ms. Kallen’s career full time.
The couple and Jonathan, their only child, lived most of the time in Englewood, except for a few years in the Los Angeles area, when Mr. Granoff worked in television. Jonathan Granoff said that he was 12 or so before he realized that not everyone’s mother sang on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or had strange, loud, funny friends like Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel.
In 1955, Ms. Kallen’s throat began to seize up, and she could not sing before a live audience. But she could still record, which convinced her that the problem was psychological, not physical.
She went on to spend five “lost” years “in the clutches of psychoanalysts,” she told The American Weekly in 1960. One therapist urged divorce (she refused) and dragged her back through painful childhood memories of being called homely and nicknamed Monkey, and of her mother’s death.
Another therapist, she said, thought everything was based on sex, had an office full of “strange contraptions” and expected her to undress for psychotherapy sessions, which she quit. Yet another talked mostly about himself, but also counseled divorce. A fourth hypnotized her.
Finally, in 1959, she began to recover — no thanks, she said, to her various therapists. The turning point came when her son, then 11, found her weeping over her mother-in-law’s death and tried to comfort her by saying that everything was in God’s hands. It was what she needed to hear, she later said. Those words inspired a new degree of religious faith and enabled her to return to work. She retired in the mid-1960s.
At some point after retirement, her son said, several women in different parts of the country tried to pass themselves off as Kitty Kallen, showing up to sing at retirement homes and other places. His father, he said, would call them and say, “Stop it, you’re crazy,” but they were incorrigible.
In 1978, Ms. Kallen and her family were startled to hear reports of her death. One of her impersonators had checked in to a hospital in a Los Angeles suburb and died there. The hospital announced Kitty Kallen’s death, and the sad news began to spread.
Frank Sinatra called to offer his condolences, Mr. Granoff recalled. His father said: “She’s here. She’s just sleeping.” But Sinatra kept on trying to soothe him, and would not desist until his father finally put Ms. Kallen on the phone, at which point Sinatra switched from soothing to swearing.
Budd Granoff died in 1996. Beside her son, now president of the Global Security Institute, Ms. Kallen is survived by her companion, Sonny Shiell, and three grandsons.
In 2012, Mr. Granoff said, mariachis were summoned to the house in Mexico to serenade his mother. They sang “Bésame Mucho.”
KALLEN, Kitty (Katharine Kalinsky)
Born: 5/25/1921, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.
Died: 1/7/2016, Cuernavaca, Mexico
Kitty Kallen’s western – actress:
The Second Greatest Sex – 1955 (Katy Connors)