The name Peggy King may not be familiar to you, but in the early days of television, she was a singing sensation. Back in the early 1950s, in television's infancy, most shows were hosted by name singers and comedians. The TV and movie industries were rivals then, competing for America's spare time, and film actors weren't given host slots. Singers and comedians were better suited for long stretches of live TV and they were far more entertaining, drawing larger audiences.
In the case of male comedians, they couldn't do the show alone. Gags and bits ran only so far. Besides, married couples at home tended to be more loyal to shows that featured couples just like them. The most popular of these female co-stars was Peggy King, a girl-next-door type who was enormously talented as a singer and actor and who became known mid-decade as "pretty, perky Peggy King." She appeared opposite Mel Torme on his first show in 1952 and George Gobel from 1954 to '57. Then she was a frequent guest on virtually every other host's show before she married in 1961. But Peggy wasn't just a pretty face. She often sang a solo on each show as well as a duet with the host or famous guests, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett.
When JazzWax reader and publicist Bruce Klauber emailed me recently asking if I wanted to interview Peggy, I jumped at the chance. She's TV history all wrapped up in one person. Here's Part 1 of my two-part interview with Peggy, 84, who's still performing and will be at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, Penn., on Feb. 1 (go here for more information)...
JazzWax: Where did you grow up?
Peggy King: In Greensburg, Penn. My parents told me I was “kiddie singing” the minute I could talk. I was an only child and my real name was Peggy King. Many people thought I had changed it. When I was in my teens, I found out I was adopted. I never thought of tracking down my real parents, since my adopted parents were such good people. My birth mother did try to make some contact with me, but I wasn’t interested. It was really too late by the time I found out. [Photo above of Peggy in the 1930s]
JW: Who was your birth mother?
PK: My adopted mother had three sisters. One was much younger and could sing. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I figured it out based on her voice. My Aunt Gladys was my mother. My parents—Margaret and Floyd—were married only four months when they adopted me. During the Depression, a lot of adoptions took place as families helped care for children of relatives who couldn’t play that role emotionally or financially. It was a matter of survival, and those who had the means to raise a child to keep it within the family often stepped forward. [Photo above of Peggy in 1946]
JW: What did you tell your Aunt Gladys?
PK: In my teens, I had to sit my birth mother down and tell her that we weren’t going to be reunited. I told her, “You’ve always been my favorite aunt. You can’t be my mother.” She understood. What I got from her was her singing voice. [Photo above of Peggy in 1946]
JW: Did you sing in school?
PK: Yes, I was in all the school plays. Singing to me came naturally, like waking up. I only had had two lessons—that was it. When I was 12 in 1942, we moved to Ravenna, Ohio. My father had been offered a good-paying job during the war at the Ravenna Arsenal. He was in charge of handling the ammunition. There wasn’t a day growing up that I didn’t worry about him. After we moved, I sang in a choir at Kent State, which was a four-mile bus ride away from our house. It’s a wonder I didn’t end up a classical signer, but we didn’t have any money for lessons. [Photo above of Peggy in 1947]
JW: What did you do after you graduated high school?
PK: I graduated at age 16, and when I was 18, I went to Cleveland to sing on the radio during the day and at the Cleveland Hotel Nightclub at night. The best part about the gig is that I was given a free room at the hotel. Without that room, I wouldn’t have had enough money to send home to help my parents. Then one night in 1950, Charlie Spivak came into the club and offered me a job. [Photo above of Peggy (front row, left) and her graduating class in 1947]
JW: Was it tough working in that band?
PK: The work was nonstop. The only problem with Spivak was that he was getting a divorce and he hated women. Tommy Leonetti was the band’s male vocalist, and I learned phrasing from him. I always had this ability to learn lyrics and songs instantly. I had total recall when it came to lyrics, which was a great help later in live television. A year later in ‘51, I joined Ralph Flanagan’s orchestra. Someone on the Spivak band had come from Flanagan’s orchestra and told me there was an opening. Frankly I was tiring of Charlie. All of the work with Flanagan was on the road, which was relentless. Flanagan was an odd guy, though. He had his own plane—he didn’t ride with us. When we played Atlantic City, he’d go up in his plane and throw promotional leaflets off to let people know about the gigs. [Photo above of Peggy in 1949]
JW: How long were you with Flanagan?
PK: A year. While I was with Flanagan, we were playing the Paramount Theater in New York when I heard that Mel Torme was holding auditions at a nearby studio for a TV show. He needed a girl singer. When the Flanagan band took a break during the feature movie, I went up to the studio to audition. They had already dismissed the tall girls, since they didn’t want a singer who towered over Mel. When it was my turn, I came into the studio and Mel and another guy were in the control booth. I sang The Boy Next Door backed by the group Mel had planned to use on the show—the Red Norvo Trio. When I finished, this guy came out of the booth, picked me up and kissed and hugged me. He said, “I’m Hugh Martin and I co-wrote that song. Besides Judy [Garland], I’ve never heard anyone else sing it like that.” [Peggy above in Ralph Flanagan's band]
JW: You got the job?
PK: I did. The Mel Torme Show went on the air in 1952. All I had to do is pick up the rest of my clothes back home in Ohio. At the time, I was dating Knobby Lee, one of Flanagan’s trumpet players. When Knobby and I returned to New York, we got married. For me, I wasn’t madly in love but I needed someone around me for safety. I couldn’t be in New York alone. I was very young—19. But the marriage was a mistake. We married in ’51 and stayed together for two years.
JW: You were on TV early.
PK: It was the dawn of television, and there was no model for what we were doing. The first Mel Torme Show was on NBC. It was live, often on the fly and pretty scary. They didn’t’ know what they were doing. The cameramen were all staring at each other. But it all came together pretty fast. Mel (above) was a control freak, which helped a lot. He showed me what to do, and within a week I was comfortable.
JW: How were you able to ease into TV so quickly?
PK: Without the two previous years of steady big-band experience, I doubt I could have handled the fast-paced pace of that TV show. Red Norvo liked my singing and helped me a great deal. Mel had been my hero in the late ‘40s. He was young, but he had this sophisticated, relaxed jazz sound. We got along great. Mel and I sang a duet on each show and I sang one alone. I’d often learn which songs we were going to sing the morning of the show.
JW: How did you wind up at MGM?
PK: In 1952, I went into New York’s Blue Angel for a run. One night, Arthur Freed, the head of MGM, came backstage and offered me a contract. I knew it was a big shot for me, so I told Knobby and he came out to L.A. with me. There was a gap between the offer and when I was to start, so I went out on the road with the Ray Anthony Orchestra. Being alone out on the road was tough. [Peggy, above, in an MGM still]
JW: What did they teach you at MGM?
PK: I had the best vocal coach there—Bobby Tucker. My voice always had a young sound, and Bobby said, “Let’s stick with what you’ve got since others don’t have it.” Everyone was wonderful to me at Metro. Tucker was very supportive and said, “I can’t teach you anything you don’t already know,” so he focused on teaching me every major standard in the American Songbook. I also worked with speech coach Gertrude Fogler to get rid of my Pittsburgh accent. [Peggy, above, in an MGM still]
JW: Who were your friends at MGM?
PK: I met Debbie Reynolds almost immediately. I was having a tap lesson and she was, too. But when I opened the box with my shoes, I saw that my dog had chewed up the laces. Debbie offered me a pair, since we were the same size—5½. We became good friends. She asked me where I was staying. I told her at a hotel. She invited me to stay at her house for a couple of weeks. I was there for two months until I found a small room in Beverly Hills. MGM was in Culver City, and I couldn’t drive. Fortunately, Robert Burton, an extra who lived in my building, gave me a lift each day. [Photo above, from left, Debbie Reynolds, Ray Anthony and Peggy King]
JW: You were constantly being compared to Judy Garland, weren’t you?
PK: I was. Everyone thought I looked and sounded like her. I guess I did a little, but it wasn't intentional. That was just me. I actually met Judy just after I signed my contract. I was in the MGM commissary getting lunch and sat down at the same long table where she was eating. She turned to me and said, “Are you the one who looks like me?” I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Yes, I guess so.” She said, “You don’t look like me—you’re really pretty.” I felt terrible for her. I paused, sort of taken aback, and then said, “I think you’re pretty.” She reached over and squeezed my hand. The poor woman had no self-esteem. The studio had destroyed her to control her.
JW: What did you do at MGM?
PK: I was an extra, but I was constantly the last girl cut from a film. Then in 1953, when my contract was up, I heard about a new local NBC TV show where the girl had to be able to sing and interact with the audience—sort of like a singing Vanna White. It was a two-hour live show, and I got to sing. I had my own dressing room and everyone in town was watching me on TV. I was thrilled.
JW: What was your big break?
PK: One day I got a call from someone I knew who was rehearsing The Bing Crosby Show. The girl singer had become ill, so I ran over to fill in. When I rushed into the lobby, I asked the first person I saw where the show was. I said, “I’m looking for Mr. Crosby.” The guy said, “Well, you’ve found him.” He didn’t have his hairpiece on and I thought he was the janitor. On the set, John Scott Trotter was the orchestra leader. He said, “What do you want to sing?” I said let’s do two Rodgers and Hart songs. When I was finished, Bing said, “Wow, you’re as good as Uncle John said you were.” I felt so good about that.
JW: What happened after the rehearsal?
PK: When I returned home, I received a call from John. He said he wanted me to audition for George Gobel, who was starting a Saturday night network TV show. I flipped. I said, “I’m not experienced enough to do that.” John said, “Don’t worry, I’m the orchestra leader. You'll be fine. I want to see you at the studio.” So I went. George played guitar, sang country songs and made jokes. He was a natural for TV. The writers wrote wonderful stuff for him. He was loose and I was just the right height—5 feet, 1½ inches. I got the job. On the show, George wore lifts, so I was slightly shorter. I was always afraid he was going to fall but he never did. [Above, Peggy entertaining wounded troops at a U.S. Army hospital in Korea as part of a Bob Hope tour]
Tomorrow, Part 2 of my interview with Peggy King.
JazzWax clips: Here are a few videos of Peggy King in the '50s:
Here's Peggy on the second episode of The George Gobel Show in 1954. Among the many oddities of early TV, Gobel and Peggy were at first positioned as an item, even though Gobel was married. Then actress Jeff Donnell played his wife Alice on the show...
Here's Peggy singing Love in 1956. A remarkable likeness to Judy Garland...
Here's Peggy on Bobby Troup's Stars of Jazz in 1958...