Mary Kaye, 1923-2007
The Mary Kaye Trio in a 1956 Fender ad.
Fender is saddened to learn of the passing of Mary Kaye, known by many as the “first lady of rock ‘n’ roll” and widely credited as an influential originator of the Las Vegas “lounge” phenomenon.
Ms. Kaye, 83, passed away on Saturday, Feb. 17, at Mountain View Hospital in Las Vegas.
As singer and guitarist at the helm of the Mary Kaye Trio, she enjoyed a long recording career that started with 1947’s Hawaiian Music by The Mary Kaaihue Trio on New York’s small Apollo Records label through 1967’s Just Us on 20th Century Fox. In between, Kaye’s trio released more than a dozen albums on the RCA Victor, Decca, Warner Brothers, Verve, Columbia and Reprise labels, made many television appearances and appeared in films from Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures.
The trio’s best-known lineup consisted of Kaye, older brother Norman on bass and comedian/accordionist Frank Ross.
In the early 1950s at Las Vegas hotel Last Frontier—only the second hotel on what would soon thereafter become known as the Strip—Kaye and her group famously pioneered all-night “lounge” club shows that were instrumental in turning the dusty Nevada gambling oasis into a 24-hour party town.
“We were the first lounge group advertised as such,” Norman Kaye told the Los Angeles Times shortly after his sister’s passing. “It was a marvelous career for all of us.”
Kaye playing her namesake Stratocaster model.
Photo by Bob Burchess
Kaye was a lively, engaging performer whose many fans over the years included fellow Strip miner Louis Prima, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr. and ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. She certainly knew her way around a Fender Stratocaster® guitar, and was photographed with her trio for a 1956 Fender advertisement for the then-new instrument. In 1987, the brand-new Fender Custom Shop introduced its very first “limited run” instrument—the Mary Kaye Stratocaster—modeled on the 1956 White Blonde, gold hardware model Kaye played and known among vintage guitar collectors as simply a “Mary Kaye.”
Kaye was born Mary Ka‘aihue in Hawaii in 1923, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty in the line of Queen Lili‘uokalani (herself an accomplished songwriter—she wrote the famous “Aloha ‘Oe”), Hawaii’s last reigning monarch. She was the daughter of popular Hawaiian musician Johnny “Ukelele” Kaaihue.
At right, a handwritten May 2002 note from Mary Kaye to Fender:
To my Friends at Fender,
I wish to thank you with my deepest gratitude and appreciation for all your efforts and extraordinary ability in the making of my “Mary Kaye Stratocaster.”
I’m very proud to tell you it’s the finest guitar I’ve ever owned. With my best regards and personal congratulations, “Keep up the good work.” God bless you all.