September 18, 1929: Miss Teddi King, Part 1
Teddi King, born in Revere, Mass. on September 18, 1929, was all of 22 when Nat Hentoff proclaimed in Down Beat that she was “the most gifted vocalist this city has ever produced.” The list of serious contenders wasn’t that long—Peg LaCentra, Evelyn White with the Sabby Lewis band, and of course Frances Wayne—but the definitive statement resonates.
Her father was a song-and-dance man, a vaudeville veteran, and her mother a singer. Teddi came up in the postwar 1940s as a singer with Boston big bands, first with trumpeter Georgie Graham (Al Vega was the pianist), then Gene Jones, Jack Edwards, Ray Dorey, and finally with Nat Pierce.
King made her recording debut in May 1949 with the Pierce Orchestra, on “Goodbye Mr. Chops” (Motif M003A), a record she never liked; it wasn’t her kind of tune. It was the first of five records she made with the Pierce Orchestra, although it would be almost 30 years before we heard all of them.
King might not have liked Mr. Chops, but he did open doors for her. In 1950 she sang at the upscale Darbury Room, and with Nick Jerret at the Bostonian Hotel. She was the staff singer on two television shows. She was with Pierce whenever his band worked, and that spring the Pierce band worked weekends at the Symphony Ballroom. In May, George Shearing’s Quintet made its Boston debut there, opposite Pierce, and Shearing was knocked out by King’s singing. (The Shearing bios mention that he first heard King at Storyville, but Storyville did not open until November 1950.)
There was work around Boston and Cape Cod for King as a single in 1951, and late that year King sang with Shearing for the first time. She joined his group, the only singer ever to do so, in early 1952. She toured with the Quintet for two years, but recorded precious little with them. Four King tunes are included on Shearing’s 1953 LP, When Lights Are Low (MGM E3264).
In Boston in November 1953, at Storyville, King shared the bill with Beryl Booker’s trio. During that engagement, King recorded her first LP, for George Wein’s Storyville label, in the club after hours, accompanied only by Booker on piano. Titled ‘Round Midnight (STLP-302), it was released in early 1954 without much notice. But King’s next effort for Storyville was widely heard, and widely praised.
Miss Teddi King (STLP-314), backed by a Ruby Braff-led quartet, was recorded in April 1954. Everything about this record worked. From the musicians (cornetist Braff, pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Jo Jones), to the songs (including numbers she’d sing for the rest of her life, like “I Saw Stars,” “Love Is a Now and Then Thing,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” and “Our Love Is Here to Stay”), to Burt Goldblatt’s cover, Miss Teddi King was a winner. Down Beat gave it a four-star review that December, and in January 1955, Metronome made the unusual decision to review it in both the jazz and pop categories. Jazz reviewer Barry Ulanov called King a major vocal talent and said the album was one that “admirers of jazz singing of quality should not miss.” He gave it a B+, while George Simon, the pop reviewer, gave it an A–: “Here is one of the best vocal LPs to come along in ages. Teddi King emerges here as a truly topnotch gal singer who phrases wonderfully, has great rhythmic sense, a sensuous and musical timbre and just about all the attributes required of a great vocalist.”
Teddi King sang at Newport in 1955, was named a New Star in Down Beat’s Critics’ Poll that same year, and was named Metronome’s Female Singer of the Year for 1956. It was the high-water mark of King’s rise in the jazz world. The scene would change, and we’ll pick up the story there next time.
Here’s “It’s the Talk of the Town” from Miss Teddi King.