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Joining Academy Tribute To Kern : Peggy King Sets The Record Straight

October 19, 1985|JACK HAWN

A King, most assuredly she is; one of the sisters, she is not.

Now that Peggy King has recorded her second album since emerging from retirement a couple of years ago and is booked for a Jerome Kern night Monday in Beverly Hills, it's time to set the record straight . . . once again.

"There were nine of them," said King of the singers bearing her name. "It used to annoy me to tears (to be mistaken for one of them) until I went to see them. Then I found out that they were always being asked, 'Where's Peggy?' "

Furthermore, "Fever" (made famous by Peggy Lee in 1958) was not one of King's hits, despite her 3 1/2-year marriage to a trumpet player named Norbert Lee in the '50s, when she was, indeed, Mrs. Peggy Lee. Occasionally, mail still ends up in the wrong hands.

"I am really a King," the singer emphasized. "My grandmother's name was King before she married."

An only child, Peggy King--a fireman's daughter--grew up in Cleveland during the Depression, began singing in the first grade, launched her career on a hometown radio station at 18 and never looked back after Mel Torme, her mentor, gave her a boost.

Old-timers may remember the 5-foot-2, green-eyed blond as "Perky Peggy" on George Gobel's weekly TV show from 1954-56 or may recall her big-band years with Charlie Spivak, Ralph Flanagan and Ray Anthony.

Or perhaps she might be remembered for her 1955 Academy Awards TV performance when she sang "Count Your Blessings"--the year Marlon Brando and Grace Kelly received Oscars.

King was named the best new singer of 1955-56 by Downbeat and Billboard magazines, but, oddly, it was an advertising jingle--for Hunt's tomato sauce--that probably earned her more radio time than any of her songs and led to a recording contract with Columbia, where she remained for seven years.

"I was the 'jingle queen,' " she recalled with a laugh as she selectively picked at a fruit salad during lunch the other day in Studio City. "I also was the first to say 'the beer that made Milwaukee famous.'

"After the Gobel show, I made a lot of money in clubs and TV guest appearances and a lot of money in theaters around the country, but not a lot of money in records, although I've recorded 10 or 12 albums."

Just when King's career was moving along in high gear, she married Sam Rudofker--whose family three generations earlier had founded the After Six tuxedo business--and settled in Philadelphia. Soon she stepped out of the spotlight to raise a son (Jonathan, now 23) and daughter (Suzanne, 22).

That's not to say King deserted the entertainment world entirely, however.

"I wrote industrial shows for my husband," she said. "I was involved with the Philadelphia Orchestra--my husband was on the board. I supervised musical festivals. I was a very busy lady, indeed. I just was not in show business."

For the one-time "Perky Peggy," life was, in her words, "beautiful--no financial worries, a corporate wife, mother, deeply involved with the family."

But then a series of tragic events changed her life drastically.

Her daughter was nearly killed in a car accident the week of her high school graduation, her son got hooked on drugs, her husband was forced to sell his stock in his family's company during a bitter proxy fight and her father died of Alzheimer's disease.

"Suzy's first serious boyfriend was killed," King said, referring to the accident. "There were four kids in the car; two were killed, and Suzy was between life and death.

"My son got into Quaaludes, which seemed to have been passed out like candy in those days. He was on drugs two years in high school and his first year of college. It was a horrible time. I look back now and wonder how I survived.

"We had no financial problems. Still, life can fall apart. I used to think money was the answer to everything. It was a good lesson I learned.

"I needed something. I couldn't get myself together with my son's drug problem. . . . I was not going to sit around for the rest of my life and watch him go into a stupor.

"Coming back to singing was a picnic."

Now, at age 55 and minus a gall bladder that was removed a few months ago, King said she "feels great"--physically and emotionally.

Her daughter, a sportscaster in Philadelphia, is in her final year at Temple University; her son has been free of drugs for two years, King said, and, along with her husband, is involved in the video business in Philadelphia.

"He's a typical young businessman," King said. "He cut his hair shorter, took out the earring, all that."

The family was among a sellout house for King's comeback debut in January of 1983, when she sang with the Philadelphia Pops Orchestra, conducted by Peter Nero.

Since then, she has recorded two albums--both produced by her husband on Stash label--"Oh, What a Memory We Made . . . Tonight" and her newest, "Till the Clouds Roll By," featuring 10 of Jerome Kern's most enduring ballads, including "Who," "They Didn't Believe Me" and "Look for the Silver Lining."

King is working this month at a New York City nightclub and will fly here between shows to join Jack Lemon, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin, Johnny Green, Howard Keel and others for the program--"Jerome Kern: A Centennial Celebration."

"Kern always touched me more than any other composer," King said. "With his music, you don't mess around."

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