“I really loved the guitar, but I only had a ukelele,” says Kaye. “So I used to sneak daddy’s guitar out, and play it. One day, he caught me, so I said, ‘I’m sorry, Dad. I’m tired of playing the uke.’ And he said, ‘Well, let me see what you’ve got.’ There wasn’t any song—or any key—he could play that I couldn’t play the backup.”
Soon, Kaye was fronting Johnny Ukulele and the Royal Hawaiians with her dad and older brother, Norman. Due to musical differences with her father—and the fact “Ka’aihue” was difficult to pronounce—the group was rechristened as the Mary Kaye Trio, with Norman as bassist and Salvatore Rossario Bolognia (who, partly due to his impressions of Frank Sinatra, changed his name to Frank Ross) on accordion. When her brother was drafted during World War II, Jules Pursley (Kaye’s future husband) took on the bass chores, and eventually became the act’s road manager upon Norman’s return.
In 1950, the Trio sold out the Last Frontier in Las Vegas, and when their engagement ended, the owner was desperate to keep them on. Kaye suggested he convert the bar into a closed lounge, build a stage behind the bar, and have the band play from 1 am to 6 am, effectively turning Las Vegas—where the casinos had been closing at midnight—into a 24-hour party town. The Trio immediately became “the act to see,” and the people who came to its shows were known as the “Dusk ’Til Dawn Crowd.”
“That first night, we had standing room only,” says Kaye. “The next day, the whole town was buzzing. The hotel owners were calling agents all across the country for trios to perform in their new lounges.”
The Trio’s fortunes were further enhanced by ’50s singing sensation Dinah Shore, who booked the act on her top-rated television program, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show. By the time the Trio broke up in 1966 at a star-studded farewell performance at Las Vegas’ Tropicana, it had recorded 15 albums and 21 singles, had appeared in several movies, and was earning one million dollars a year.
“I never thought the band would end,” says Kaye. “But my brother and Frank argued over who should control the business. After the last show, Charlton Heston came into the dressing room and cried with me.”
Perhaps the weirdest aspect of the Mary Kaye story is that she never owned the swamp ash, see-through blonde guitar with gold hardware that came to be known as the “Mary Kaye Stratocaster,” and Fender never officially listed the model as such until the Fender Custom Shop released a limited- edition Mary Kay model in 2005 (the edition was retired in July 2006). In 1956, Fender president Don Randall loaned Kaye the then-custom order model for publicity shots, as well as to play in the movie Cha-Cha-Cha Boom! The guitar was to be left in Kaye’s possession, but it mysteriously disappeared after both photo sessions.
“The publicity photos with me playing that guitar went around the world,” says Kaye. “So instead of customers asking for a white guitar with gold fittings, they’d say, ‘I want that guitar that Mary Kaye was playing.’ All of a sudden it became known as the Mary Kaye Stratocaster.”
Now in her 80s, Kaye still lives in Las Vegas, and still occasionally performs. For more info on the Mary Kaye Trio, click to marykayetrio.com.