Singer/Actress Morgana King Dead at 87

Chris Jasurek
By Chris Jasurek
August 15, 2018Entertainment

Jazz singer and actress Morgana King passed away at the age of 87 in Palm Springs, California, on March 22, 2018.

Her death, from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was not immediately publicized, but was confirmed with the Riverside County, California coroner’s office, according to the Washington Post.

In her 50-year career King released some 30 albums. The first few were recorded in the early 1950s; the last “Looking Through the Eyes of Love,” came out in 1998.

The singer was famous for her four-octave range and for her unique phrasing and her constant search for new ways to express her musical ideas. Because she refused to follow musical trends, she never achieved widespread popularity, though she earned critical acclaim form some of the greatest jazz musicians.

According to a 2016 Jazz Times article, she incorporated Middle-Eastern and operatic influences, mixing so many styles that critics said that what she sang was not jazz.

“I am a rebel,” the Post said she told the Bergen Record in 1988.

“I am not a commercial artist. If I don’t believe in something, I won’t do it. I don’t believe in superstardom, publicity stunts, and plugging records. … The only thing I believe in is music. I won’t forfeit anything for that.”

Jazz Times said she found fans among the best musicians of the era, saying “But Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday adored her; so did her pal Frank Sinatra, opera star Eileen Farrell and Stevie Wonder.”

Wide Range of Early Influences

Jones, born Maria Grazia Morgana Messina, in Pleasantville, N.Y. on June 4, 1930, and grew up in New York City. She began her musical career by singing along to records of the famous operatic tenor Caruso that her father would play.

King was exposed Middle Eastern styles at a nearby Sephardic synagogue. She was also influenced by the music of the popular big bands of the era.

At the age of 14, King earned a scholarship to the Metropolitan School of Music to study Classical singing, but her first love was jazz. She started performing in local clubs at the age of 16.

According to Jazz Times, some musician friend brought her to Billie Holiday’s dressing room, where King delivered an a capella rendition of the singer’s Body and Soul. King recalled that Holiday responded, “You better all take care of this baby, ’cause that’s my child.”

Early Marriage

King got married at the age of 17 to cool-jazz and be-bop trumpeter Tony Fruscella. Fruscella introduced King to musicians like Charlie Parker and Lester Young. The pair stayed together for nine years and had one daughter, Grayson Simental.

However, Fruscella was a drug addict and unable to support the family. King had to work nonstop, anywhere she could find a gig, just to keep food on the table. When her recording career started blossoming, in the early ’50s, she and Fruscella separated.

Second Marriage

In 1961, King married trombonist Willie Dennis. Dennis helped put King’s voice in a wider range of settings, including having her sing with a jazz orchestra, singing arrangements by the classically trained Salvatore Zito.

Zito had worked with popular singer Bobby Darin. He and King collaborated on a version of Darin’s hit “A Taste of Honey,” which showcased her wide-ranging influence and vocal stylings. This song, released in 1964, became her only popular hit, and it came at the right time.

King became a mainstay on several of the popular televisions shows, like “Tthe Mike Douglas Show,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and similar variety shows. This brought her a great deal of exposure and some income.

The work and the exposure were much needed because her husband, Willie Dennis, died in a fatal car accident on July 8, 1965.

King was despondent. “I wanted to die,” she told Jazz Times.

Frank Sinatra came to her rescue, encouraging her to keep singing by signing her to a three-record deal on his own label. King started to make a comeback, but then had a car accident herself in 1969.

The ‘Godfather’ Movies

King stayed quiet for the next two years. Then Francis Ford Coppola cast her in the role of Marlon Brando’s wife in the blockbuster hit movie “The Godfather.” She had no lines, but had a chance to sing in Italian. Her performance was sufficiently impressive that she signed a deal with Muse records and recorded nine more albums.

She reprised her role as Brando’s wife in “The Godfather, Part II.” Those two performances brought her far greater fame than any of her 30 albums or dozens of TV appearances as a singer.

King stopped recording in 1998 and gave her last public performance in 2000. After that, she devoted herself to caring for her daughter Grayson, who was battling cancer. Grayson passed away in 2008.

While here music had not made her wealthy, King had invested wisely in real estate, and lived in comfortable seclusion in her Palm Springs home for the next 10 years. Even then, she was not resting.

King told Jazz Times in 2016 that she spent her time reading and listening to jazz and classical music.

“I educate myself till the moment I go to sleep. If you don’t do that, what are you doing?” she asked.

King told Jazz Times she didn’t regret not being a pop star, and instead focused on making music that she cared about.

“I think I did a very unique thing,” she said. “Being a great musician meant more to me than anything.”

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