Oct 20, 1977: Teddi King Part 3, “This Is New”
Earlier installments in this series detailed Teddi King’s rise as a jazz singer in the early 1950s, and her venture into the realm of pop later in that decade. Her career faded in the 1960s, but the improving prospects for interpreters of the American songbook revived it in the 1970s, and brought her into the studio with Dave McKenna on October 20, 1977.
Earlier that year, King told The New Yorker’s Whitney Balliett that despite the sequined gowns and Las Vegas stage act and RCA Victor contract, “I was doing pop pap, and I was in musical despair. I didn’t have my lovely jazz music and the freedom it gives. Elvis Presley got bigger and bigger, and rock arrived, and I got very depressed and thought of quitting the business.” King didn’t quit, but she labored through the sixties in near-anonymity.
While working on Nantucket in summer 1970, King contracted lupus, the debilitating disease she battled for the rest of her life. Weakened by illness, she changed her approach to singing. King always liked Billie Holiday for her depth of feeling, but other influences changed over time. As a young band singer, she liked Frances Wayne and Helen Forrest. There was a strong Sarah Vaughan influence in King’s jazz material, and Lena Horne inspired her RCA years. In the seventies, she concentrated on lyrics and telling stories in song, and Mabel Mercer became, as she told Balliett, “her goddess.” (Balliett, an avid King fan, dedicated his 1979 volume of essays, American Singers, to her.)
The climate improved for King in the early 1970s with the renewed interest in the American songbook. She was well enough in 1971 to spend the summer with Dave McKenna at the Columns, on Cape Cod. In 1973 King was part of the “Jazz Salute to the American Song” at Newport/New York, singing Cole Porter and accompanied by Ellis Larkins. Later that year she teamed with Marian McPartland and Alec Wilder in a concert that McPartland recorded (it was released in 1981 as Marian Remembers Teddi, Halcyon HAL 118). She worked when her illness allowed it, in singers’ rooms like the Cafe Carlyle in New York and the Merry-Go-Round in Boston.
In 1976, King sang with the Loonis McGlohon Trio on several installments of the public radio program, American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends. These programs yielded enough material for two albums, Lovers and Losers (Audiophile AP/ACD 117) and Someone to Light Up Your Life (Audiophile AP/ACD 150).
On October 20, 1977, King and Dave McKenna recorded eight of a planned thirteen Ira Gershwin songs. The duo worked quickly and recorded most tunes in a single take; they were being recorded for demonstration purposes, and producer Sam Parkins (another Bostonian and an old friend of both King and McKenna) planned to shop the tape to interested record companies.
The session went quite well, and the participants looked forward to the actual recording session. But a month later King was dead. She died of spinal meningitis, at age 48, on November 18, 1977.
McKenna recorded the five remaining Gershwin selections as solo piano pieces in January. Parkins took the music to Inner City Records, who released it in 1978 as This Is New (Inner City 1044).
Maybe this 1970s iteration is “late-night Teddi,” a singer of poignancy and emotional depth, still with flawless phrasing and perfect diction, in her mid-40s and singing at her peak. I wish there had been more sessions to come.
Nat Hentoff had it right in 1952 in his title to that first Down Beat article on King, “Teddi King Rated Best Singer Ever to Come Out of Boston.”
The collaboration with McKenna is not available online, but one of her segments with Alec Wilder is. On this tribute to Mildred Bailey, the erudite Wilder talks about Bailey, and King sings “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance,” “Rockin’ Chair,” “It’s So Peaceful in the Country,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and “Don’t Take Your Love from Me.”
American Popular Song: Mildred Bailey and the Band Singers
And here is one more from King’s Storyville days, from Now in Vogue, “Like a Ship Without a Sail.”