James Kern Kyser was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the son of pharmacists Emily Royster (née Howell) and Paul Bynum Kyser.
Journalist and newspaper editor Vermont C. Royster was his cousin. Kyser graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts
degree. He was also senior class president. Because of his popularity and enthusiasm as a cheerleader, he was invited by Hal Kemp to take over as bandleader when
Kemp ventured north to further his career. He began taking clarinet lessons but was better as an entertaining announcer than a musician. He adopted the initial
of his middle name as part of his stage name, for its alliterative effect. Long before his national success, Kyser recorded two sessions for Victor in the late 1920s
(Camden, New Jersey in November 1928 and Chicago in early 1929). These were issued on Victor's V-40000 series devoted to country music and regional dance bands.
Following graduation, Kyser and his band, which included Sully Mason on saxophone and arranger George Duning, toured Midwest restaurants and night clubs and gradually
built a following. They were particularly popular at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant, where Kyser came up with an act combining a quiz with music which became "Kay
Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge." The act was broadcast on the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1938 and then moved to NBC Radio from 1939 to 1949. The show rose in
the ratings and spawned many imitators. Kyser led the band as "The Ol' Perfessor," spouting catchphrases, some with a degree of Southern American English terms:
"That's right—you're wrong", "Evenin' folks, how y'all?" and "C'mon, chillun! Le's dance!"