BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
At age 18, Debbie Lori Kaye became the youngest performer in history to have her own variety special on CBC TV. A tiny singer with a big voice, her star had been rising steadily for four years. At age 14, she had signed a six-year recording contract with Columbia Records. At age 15, she was starring in the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand show in Toronto. At age 17, she had become a regular on television’s Tommy Hunter Show where she was known affectionately as “the mighty mite.”
She seemed to have everything going for her as a performer. Yet when I met her in August 1975 – when she was 25 – Kaye’s career had already bottomed out. She no longer had a recording contract, she’d been off the Hunter show for three years, and had been out of the music business for six months. What had happened? Kaye wouldn’t tell me much. All she would say was that Columbia had chosen not to renew her contract, and that she had left the Hunter show because of personal problems she preferred not to discuss.
I asked her about the good times. How had she managed to get a record deal with a big American label when she was only 14? Kaye replied that she had started singing with her father’s country music band when she was 11 and the family was living in Bermuda. Her father had been grooming a 15-year-old girl to sing with the band and Kaye got jealous. “I decided to take up singing just to be with him.”
She was still singing with her father’s band three years later when the family moved to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Her father worked during the day as a radio station DJ. The station manager sent a tape of Kaye singing at a local mall to some record people he knew in the States. Next thing she knew, Kaye was being summoned to New York to sign a contract with Columbia. Several of the songs on her first album were written by the station manager’s son.
The station manager, Allan Bestall, became her personal manager when Kaye’s singing career took off. He obviously had good connections in the industry. He got her the CNE gig and also landed her the weekly Hunter show appearance. When she left that program in 1972, Bestall got her working six nights a week on the North American nightclub circuit. That proved to be a grind for Kaye. She quit the circuit after two years, moved to Edmonton, and became assistant director for ITV’s (now, Global Edmonton’s) Tommy Banks Show. That show folded after six months and Kaye returned to the nightclub circuit.
“After all was said and done, I learned one thing on the other side of the cameras: I really enjoy singing,” she told me. “I used to get a lump in my throat whenever I’d hear somebody like Della Reese on the Banks show. I knew I had to start again.” She called up three musicians she knew and got bookings to play clubs in Edmonton and Calgary. She told me she was also working on a proposal for a television variety show that she hoped some friendly network would pick up.
The variety show did, in fact, materialize. Produced at a cost of $50,000 and featuring guest singers David Clayton-Thomas and Marek Norman, the one-hour Debbie Lori Kaye Show was shown on CBC Vancouver in March 1976, seven months after I first spoke with her. Kaye called it her “dream special” and told me she hoped it would lead to a series. She was planning to move to Vancouver, where a number of network shows were already being produced.
Kaye was never able to convince the network brass to expand her special into a series. She quit the music business for the second time, went back into television production, and ended up working on Alan Thicke’s CTV daytime talk show between 1980 and 1983. When that show ended and Thicke moved to Los Angeles, Kaye accepted a contract to produce documentaries for a radio station in Olympia, Washington. One of those documentaries was about sexual abuse. While producing it, Kaye got the feeling she was doing the story on herself. She had been a victim of sexual abuse – not by a family member – when she was a child, and became a victim again when she got into the music business as a young teenager.
She told her full story, for the first time, in an interview with The Province of Vancouver in February 1993: “I was a child within an adult world, with adult responsibilities and an adult contract and time schedule. But I was a kid. And there was a lot of trash going on, and I had nowhere to take the trash. Basically, I learned to play cards and drink scotch with the adults, and be an adult. And the child died.”
What she had been reluctant to talk to me about in 1975, she revealed to the Province in 1993. Kaye said that by the time she was in her early 20s, her career was in disarray and her life was a mess. Columbia hadn’t been able to decide if she was pop, rock or country, and kept releasing records in different formats until radio stopped playing them. Her marriage had broken up, her baby son was taken away from her, she was spending more money than she was bringing in, and she was drinking heavily. “When sexual abuse is so rampant in your life, and people cross boundaries that are completely inappropriate, you’re just flat not capable of handling these things,” she said.
By 1993, she was in a better place. At age 42, Kaye was proprietor of a glass arts shop in Seattle, running a referral service for sexual abuse victims, and about to complete the high school education she had abandoned when she left home at age 15.
After gaining her high school equivalency diploma, Kaye continued her education with college classes in hypnotherapy, opened a clinic, and set out to help her own healing by counselling others. In 2002, at age 51, Kaye was still performing from time to time but now was singing “purely for the joy of it.” Four years later, she was seriously injured when struck by a pickup truck while walking across the parking lot of a Seattle retail store. At last report, Kaye was living in seclusion and undergoing a lengthy period of recovery.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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