In MKE Music Rewind we revisit notable Milwaukee music that was released before Milwaukee Record became a thing in April 2014. This week: Grey-Star, “You Don’t Even Know.”

“Criminally overlooked!” “Should have been huge!” “The best of the best!” “What a voice!” “What a woman!” “SEXY AS HELL!”

Those are just a few of the comments you’ll find on the many, many, many YouTube videos of Ruby Starr. Some of those comments are a matter of perspective: Was Starr already a star by the time she landed in Milwaukee in the late 1970s? Was she instead forever on the cusp of stardom, always a bridesmaid and never a bride? Was she, indeed, the best of the best? (Other comments on Starr’s YouTube videos are matters of fact, especially if you were a 20-something dude in 1978.)

One thing is for certain: Starr had a fascinating career—before, during, and after her relatively brief time in Milwaukee. She was, as one commenter put it, a “little red-headed firecracker.” She left her mark.

But before we get to that, let’s listen to this week’s song in question, “You Don’t Even Know.” It’s by Starr’s Milwaukee-by-way-of-Mayville (!) band Grey-Star. It’s the closing track from the group’s 1983 Telephone Sex album. It’s a power-pop/proto-hair-metal ripper.

Starr was born Constance Henrietta Mierzwiak in Toledo, Ohio on November 30, 1949. She took to music almost instantly. She started singing at age 8, joined her first band and released her first record at age 10 (as “Connie Little”), and dropped out of high school and hit the road at age 16. Stints with groups like the Downtowners, the Blue Grange Ramblers, and Ruby Jones followed—as did a name change to Ruby Starr. “Ms. Starr […] polished her skills performing everywhere in the Toledo area, from the top local nightclubs to the top of a downtown gas station,” said the Toledo Blade in 1995. “Everybody is born with a gift and mine was singing,” Starr told the Bangor Daily News in 1976.

A brush with the big time occurred in 1973. Two years earlier, Starr had joined up with hard-partying Southern rock band Black Oak Arkansas, singing raspy backup to Jim “Dandy” Mangrum’s raspy lead. If Black Oak Arkansas doesn’t ring a bell, their rowdy 1973 version of the ’50 song “Jim Dandy” surely will. The song hit #25 on the U.S. charts, propelled by Starr’s perfectly over-the-top performance:

Equally over the top was Starr’s undeniable rock-star sex appeal. We’ll let this lascivious, couldn’t/shouldn’t-do-this-today write-up from a 1975 issue of Creem Magazine speak for itself:

Is this how they churn the butter back home? Maybe so, but this is one dominatrix that damn near made Jim Dandy’s overbite fall out. Yes folks, Ruby Starr is the new bramble-tressed Jezebel of 1975. Why, some droolers have gone so far as to buy her first solo album and thrown the record away, just so they could gaze upon these humid gams. [Editor’s note: WTF.] And now CREEM has made such expensive ogles obsolete.

Starr parted ways with Black Oak Arkansas in 1974. She spent the back half of the decade releasing solo albums for Capitol: Ruby Starr & Grey Ghost in 1975, Scene Stealer in 1976, and Smokey Places in 1977. Though solo stardom seemed to elude her, she did notch high-profile opening gigs for the likes of Black Sabbath, Edgar Winter, and her old band, Black Oak Arkansas.

Enter Starr’s time in Milwaukee. She arrived in the late ’70s; by the early ’80s she had thrown her hat in with yet another band. Lucy Grey was a hard rock group out of Mayville, Wisconsin, featuring Mike Grey on vocals, Robb Hanshaw on bass, and local legend Dave “Mud Slide” Gruenewald on drums. Starr joined the band, which, after a move to Milwaukee (something this Mayville-born writer can relate to), became known as Grey-Star.

Grey-Star released a self-titled record in 1981, and Telephone Sex in 1983. Both records straddled the line between ’70s rock and ’80s pop-metal. That balancing act is evidenced in this ’80s TV appearance hosted by Milwaukee’s Howard and Rosemary Gernette.

Better is this late-’80s live performance of “Secrets Of The Heart,” a song from Starr’s post-Grey-Star solo project. Was the song featured on 1988’s 93QFM Hometown Music Project III album? Yes. Was this performance filmed at Kenosha’s Brat Stop? You better believe it was.

In the early ’90s, after literal decades of grinding it out, Starr retired from touring and moved to Las Vegas. There, according to the Toledo Blade, she “performed at the Riviera, the Stardust, and other nationally known clubs.” In 1994, she “began to get severe headaches, and medical tests revealed [lung cancer and a brain tumor].” Starr returned to her family in Toledo, and died there on January 14, 1995. She was 45 years old.

Happily, Starr’s memory lives on. She was an early inductee into the WAMI Hall of Fame, and she was the subject of a 2021 tribute song by Southern rock band (natch) Sons Of Liberty. The comments on this YouTube video speak volumes:

“Ruby was our family friend for many years when she lived in Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with her between the ages of 12 and 17. I taught her how to do the moonwalk around 1985 or so. This is a great tribute to a great human being. I miss Ruby, amazing talent!”

“RUBY was one of kind. She was a beautiful person and a true rock star.”

“Great Song about my Little Red Headed Firecracker!! Thanks for Honoring the Fabulous Ruby Star. What a Babe she was.”

“Ruby still rocking!!!!”

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MKE Music Rewind: ’93QFM Hometown Music Project III’ (1988)

“MKE Music Rewind” archive

About The Author

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Co-Founder and Editor

Matt Wild weighs between 140 and 145 pounds. He lives on Milwaukee's east side.