Perky Peggy King
Friendly Star, Peggy King: The Voice and The Friendship
For me, before there was Judy, Ella or Barbra, there was Peggy. I was all of 9 years old when Peggy entered my life. I was a brand new member of the Philadelphia Boys Choir and Men’s Chorale, and I was eager to take the world by storm in my little red blazer uniform. For those not familiar with the dynamics within a boy choir, there can exist a constant vying for status as the favored or head choirboy, and I was no exception. So when Joseph Fitzmartin, then the assistant director of the choir and Peggy’s accompanist, notified me that I was chosen to be in a small group of boys who would sing as a backup ensemble for a singer named Peggy King, I knew I was well on my way to being one of those “favored” choristers.
Before we met Peggy, we rehearsed our two- and three-part harmonies for songs like Look To The Rainbow and When The World Was Young. After a few rehearsals, I became anxious. The solo lines were missing. The songs were incomplete. Who was this Peggy King and when would I finally hear her? Our final rehearsal was in Peggy’s home. If I weren’t always the first to arrive at rehearsals, I was a close second, as my mother always insisted I arrive early. I was the first to arrive at Peggy’s that day. Peggy’s mother Mary opened the door and invited my mother and me inside. I might have been nervous and shy had it not been for Mary’s immediate warmth and hospitality. After showing us around, she introduced us to Sam, Peggy’s dear late husband. We sat in the living room and chatted until the other boys arrived. When I think back on it now, I am overwhelmed at how lucky I was to have known Mary and Sam.
Once all the boys arrived, we gathered around the piano. That’s when I saw her for the first time. Peggy made her way down the stairs and into the living room, and I was in love. She had a grace and presence that I had never seen in a person first-hand. And when she sang, I knew that this voice I was hearing was the standard. Her impeccable phrasing, her beautiful tone, the way she could bend a phrase and remain perfectly in pitch throughout - this was the singing upon which I would come to judge all other singing, and no one could ever match it.
Over the next few years, we would sing concerts around Philadelphia. I quickly memorized every line of her songs, as well as every nuance of her style and phrasing. When I gained the courage to sing Peggy’s parts back to her, she was floored by my ability to imitate her style perfectly. Our friendship blossomed from there. I became Peggy’s little boy. In 1996, she gave me one of my most prized possessions: a cassette tape of an unreleased recording session in Los Angeles from the 1970’s and a more recent private session recorded in Philadelphia. It included favorites such as My Funny Valentine, I’m Old Fashioned and Friendly Star. Everyday after school, I would come home and sing along with Peggy. Sometimes I would harmonize with her, imagining myself a Jerry Vale type star, singing duets with her at a famous nightclub or on a television special. Later I would come to own many of her early albums with Columbia Records, but none could have the sentimental value of that cassette tape she gave to me signed “To Justin, Love Peggy”
I am now 27 years old and a professional opera singer. I wouldn’t have pursued a career in music were it not for her influence. She is with me every time I walk onto a stage. I have had the great fortune not only to know Peggy but her family as well: her mother Mary, Sam, Jon, and Suzy. Though she had accomplished many extraordinary feats in her life, she still had enough room in her heart to befriend a little choirboy 18 years ago. She was then, is now, and always will be my Friendly Star. So I sign off on this note in the same way she once signed to me: “To Peggy, Love Justin”
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