Remaining Pretty and Perky: The Return of Legendary Jazz Songstress Peggy King
The legendary jazz songstress known as “pretty, perky Peggy King” had an impressive career before and after her mid-fifties tenure on George Gobel’s television program.
Paying dues at the big band era’s end with the ensembles of Charlie Spivak and Ralph Flanagan, King learned her lessons well, parlaying her good looks, fine voice and flair for acting into an impressive showbusiness resume, which included stints as an MGM contract player, television actress, recording artist, and in-demand nightclub performer who figured prominently in the careers—and sometimes personal lives—of Andre Previn, Bobby Hackett, Charlie Barnet, Harry James, Buddy Rich, Mel Torme’, and yes, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra. She sang at the Oscars and did Carson and everything else.
In the end, it was her voice: Clean, pure, with perfect intonation, with just enough interpretive turn of phrase to make the composer’s message ring true. And the composers—all of them—loved her. She respected the melody and respected the lyric.
In the late 1950s, while guesting on pianist/composer Bobby Troup’s “Stars of Jazz” television program for ABC, she introduced her jazz side. It wasn’t a complete changeover. It didn’t have to be. An inflection here and there, a subtle rhythmic emphasis on a word or a phrase to get the meaning across, coupled with a gentle sense of swing that had you finger popping when you least expected it. It was the same on ballads. She knew the drama was already in there, and that her job was only to bring it out.
The recordings? There were hundreds of them. All glorious.
Then there was nothing. Or at least not much. The slowdown, which began in 1961 with her marriage to After Six formal wear founder Sam Rudofker, was gradual. It was family time, and while there were still songs and plenty of them, they eventually slowed to a trickle. By the 1980s, there was the odd benefit here and there near her Philadelphia home, but not much. Perhaps she was intuitive enough, circa 1961, to see the handwriting that would end up on the wall as it related to singers of popular songs, however jazzy.
None of this escaped the Philadelphia promotional dynamo, Anthony DiFlorio. DiFlorio, known as “Anthony DiFlorio III” by his intimates, learned showbiz at the knee of another area icon, the late Atlantic City broadcaster Sonny Schwartz. In terms of entertainment, DiFlorio discovered what worked and what didn’t, who was good, who was not and why, the
value of pacing, and how to hype the living heck out of everything.
In years since, he has become a respected and dedicated pop culture historian, and world class publicist of all things pre-Lady Gaga. Don’t be fooled. DiFlorio knows plenty.
He loved Peggy King. Always did. When he found out she was still in the Philadelphia area and no longer singing much—coupled with the fact that reissues of her old product were coming fast and furious in Japan and points overseas—he was determined to get her out there again. She did a tune here and there, but nothing lasting.
It started innocently and coincidentally. My longtime personal and professional colleague, the pianist/singer/composer/record producer Andy Kahn and I, reunited musically and revived “The All-Star Jazz Trio” not more than a year ago. We have, I will say, been received more than very fondly.
With a great, great assist from the regional arts/music/pop culture magazine ICON, as well as WRTI Radio, Jacobs Music and The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the All-Stars organized a benefit for the non-profit music ed organization, Musicopia. The event, held earlier this summer, featured the cream of area classical and jazz players, including The All-Stars, and was a sell-out.
Certainly, Anthony DiFlorio was on the press list and invited. He called and asked if he could bring Peggy King as a guest. I had done a benefit with King in the mid-1980s, always admired her, and happily told DiFlorio I looked forward to seeing her and hoped she would enjoy the show.
She showed up, quite pretty and perky. We introduced her from the stage.
The crowd, as they say, “went wild,” and after the hour program, autograph seekers and well-wishers surrounded her for a good 45 minutes. Amidst the excitement and glory, she made time to talk to us, and her words made all the work, sweat and effort that went into putting this show on more than worthwhile. More importantly, what she said made good sense. The words were kind, but they were very intelligent, and they were words that could have only come from a pro.
We left the gig with hugs and kisses and the promise that “we must do something together.” It appears that our music inspired her. And just by way of her presence and what she said to us, Andy Kahn was inspired, and so was I. As for Anthonly DiFlorio III, he just smiled. He knew.
Given that she, like Tony Bennett and most of us, for that matter, are of a certain age these days, the concern was not whether she wanted to sing but whether she could, having admitted that she hadn’t really sung in about a dozen years. After the first of many telephone conversations with her, Kahn—who started in this business as a child actor and can sense such things—said he was certain she could sing.
We had a get together at the Kahn center city compound, and there was Peggy, standing up next to the piano and singing better than anyone one-third her age. The time, intonation, purity, sincerity, interpretive powers, subtle sense of swing, dynamics, and range were all there, and in many ways, better than they were in 1955.
On a personal basis, she regaled us with her knowledge of songs and their writers, and of the business. She let us know how much she appreciated our dedication to what she considers the lost art of “accompanying.”
The All-Stars had an upcoming gig at Chris’ Jazz Café’, Philadelphia’s only “name” jazz club and one of the finest in the nation. Days before the engagement, we let it be known that Peggy King was going to “guest star” with us.
Word travels quickly in Philadelphia. Night of the performance, you would have thought you were at Grauman’s Chinese for a movie premier, what with all the autograph seekers, flashes from still cameras and those holding video rigs.
This woman—this exquisite, graceful, professional artist—sang so, so beautifully. It wasn’t a question of “still having it.” “It,” that indefinable “it” was always there. It had to be. On a professional level, perhaps she didn’t need to sing for all those years. But it was clear that her soul needed it.
We didn’t want to tax her or take advantage, so we only asked her to join us at the end of our first show. She insisted on staying and participating in our second show, which went rather late into the night. She had more energy than all of us. Combined. Her version of “Little Girl Blue,” worked out quickly with Andy Kahn during the break, brought tears to my eyes. And a lot of others. This was Peggy King.
Rather, this is Peggy King.
Since then, we’ve done a concert in Atlantic City, and have plans for a gala, afternoon performance at Philadelphia’s Ethical Society on the afternoon of December 1.
Andy Kahn, our bassist Bruce Kaminsky and yours truly have been blessed with the honor and privilege of backing some of the certifiable instrumental and vocal jazz stars though the years. There have been hundreds of them. But none of them—none of them—were like Peggy King. And we’re just getting started.
See and hear for yourself via this clip: Youtube.com/watch?v=DeZJ8GyFjuo. It speaks volumes. .