The 85-year-old jazz vocal legend has rekindled her career with a local gig near Rittenhouse Square.
In addition to modern takes on Chinese standards like Mongolian Merlot Beef, Mock Dynasty Chicken and General Spicy Bean Curd, there is one off-the-menu special served up at the Rittenhouse Square restaurant, Square on Square, most Wednesday and Friday nights: live jazz.
These days, that jazz, performed by the All-Star Jazz Trio — comprised of Andy Kahn on piano, Bruce Klauber on drums and Bruce Kaminsky on bass — is often accompanied by a voice from the past, a direct link to the long-gone Hollywood studio system and the first wave of live television variety shows.
Peggy King, an 85-year-old chanteuse who received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame back in 1960, has been performing with the trio since 2013, when she decided to come out of retirement a second time.
Reclining into a low-slung couch in her high-rise Center City apartment, surrounded by mementoes of a career that included being named Best New Singer of 1955-56 by both Billboard and Down Beat magazines, King certainly looks the part of the successfully retired pop star.
Yet when asked why she has returned to singing, her entire demeanor changes. The relaxed pose is replaced by a lean forward to better carry the flashes of intensity radiating from piercing green eyes that led the writers at The George Gobel Show, the 1950s TV show that made her a household name, to dub her “Pretty, Perky, Peggy King” — a moniker that still resonates for some of her older fans.
For her, she says, it was simply a matter of needing to get back to what she loved. After hearing the trio’s performance at a concert in 2013, she slipped Andy Kahn, the group’s pianist and music director, her card. “She handed me that card and said, ‘Why don’t you give me a call — I would love to sing with you — I haven’t done it for years.’ Of course I jumped at it!” exclaims Kahn, who joined King for an interview.
For King, the trio’s assured command of a variety of tunes from The Great American Songbook — the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs of the 20th century that was her métier — meant that she had found a group of musicians who knew and loved the work of Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter as much as she did.
“I realized that singing was so much a part of me that it was impossible for me to stop. I needed to sing,” she says intently.
In the early days, that need was just as much financial as artistic. King was born in Greensburg, a small town just east of Pittsburgh, during the Depression. Her main motivation during her rise to stardom, she says, was to just take care of her parents. “I wanted to buy a house for my folks, and nothing was going to stop me,” she recalls. “It’s a wonder that I didn’t buy them the house and quit.”
For a decade, there was no stopping King. In addition to The George Gobel Show, she starred in Mel Torme’s television variety show for its only season, and she appeared on everything from The Jack Benny Show to The Tonight Show and as the subject of an episode of the game show, What’s My Line? There were movie roles, including a performance in The Bad and the Beautiful, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy and Zero Hour! There were successful albums and concerts.
But King says she was happy to leave her career behind when, in 1960, at the age of 30, she met the love of her life and the man she converted to Judaism for, Sam Rudofker, the third-generation owner of the After Six formal wear line. Rudofker had two teenage sons of his own, and together, he and King quickly had a son and a daughter born just 375 days apart. “I didn’t have any regrets about leaving the business,” she says firmly. “I didn’t have much time to think about anything else!”
King stayed retired for more than 20 years, happy to raise the children, attend Har Zion Temple and help her husband promote his business, until renewed interest in The Great American Songbook in the 1980s led her to record new albums and perform once again.
But that return was derailed twice: once in 1994, when her husband died, and again in 2000, when her son Jonathan committed suicide.
At that point, she says, there was no thought of ever singing again; just getting through the day. “It’s hard to explain — I just couldn’t sing anymore.”
Her return to the microphone has been as much therapeutic as creative release. And, after having rested her voice for so many years, she sounds more 35 than 85.
“We’ve been doing this coming up on two years now,” Kahn says, “and she has never sounded better. The risks she takes with her voice, her delivery, timing and intonation …” Here, he is interrupted by King, who downplays the praise by saying that you’re born with intonation. “I can’t take any credit for that!”
“Being born with it is one thing; being able to keep doing it is another,” comes the response.
This time, King declares, she is going to keep doing it forever.