The Teddi King Story

by | Nov 14, 2023

In 2013, I wrote a three-part series on Teddi King (Sep 18, 1929-Nov 18, 1977) for the blog, dividing her career into an early jazz period in Boston, a middle pop period, and a late resurgence. This page combines those three posts and includes updated material. Here, then, is the complete Teddi King Story, as revised in November 2023.

Boston and the Jazz Years

Theodora “Teddi” King, born in Revere, Mass. on September 18, 1929, was all of 22 when Nat Hentoff proclaimed in Down Beat (Jan 11, 1952) that she was “the most gifted vocalist this city has ever produced.” Fans of big-band singer Frances Wayne might dispute Hentoff’s claim, but his definitive statement resonates.

Her father was a song-and-dance man, a vaudeville veteran, and her mother a singer. Teddi was still in high school when she won a Dinah Shore sing-alike contest at the RKO Theatre in February 1945. Trumpeter Georgie Graham approached her backstage and offered her a job singing with his band at the Ritz Plaza. She accepted. After Graham, she moved on to the bands of Gene Jones, Jack Edwards, Ray Dorey, and finally Nat Pierce. His was Boston’s best big band.

Photo of Teddi King at Newport 1955

Teddi King at Newport, 1955. Photo by Jack Bradley.

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, or Sarah Vaughan’s, either, and Vaughan was King’s inspiration in those days. It was the first of five records she made with the Pierce Orchestra, although only one other, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (Motif M006A), was released while the band was active. It would be almost 30 years before we heard the other three.

King may not have liked “Goodbye Mr. Chops,” but it opened doors for her. In 1950 she sang at the upscale Darbury Room, and with Nick Jerret (Frances Wayne’s brother) at the Bostonian Hotel. She was the staff singer on two television shows. She was with Pierce whenever his band worked, and that spring they 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.

King worked as a single in 1951, and sang with Shearing for the first time late that year. In early 1952, he invited her to join his group, the only singer ever to ever receive such an offer. 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 album for George Wein’s Storyville label, in the club after hours, accompanied only by Booker on piano. ‘Round Midnight (STLP-302) 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) was recorded in April 1954. Everything about this record worked. The musicians were uniformly excellent (cornetist Ruby Braff, pianist Jimmy Jones, bassist Milt Hinton, and drummer Jo Jones). She chose songs 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.” Burt Goldblatt designed a typically distinctive cover. Miss Teddi King was a winner, and Down Beat gave it a four-star review that December.

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+. 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.”

Bill Simon (no relation to George) wrote in Saturday Review that King sang ballads “with more warmth and feminine appeal than we’ve encountered in several dozen new vocal “finds.” What’s more, she’s intensely musical without getting tricky.”

King sang at Newport in 1955. The Down Beat Critics’ Poll named her a New Star that same year, and Metronome chose her as Female Singer of the Year for 1956. These were high accolades, and marked the high point of King’s rise in the jazz world.

King recorded her final album for Storyville, Now in Vogue (STLP-903), in July 1955. Hentoff reviewed it in Down Beat on Feb 8, 1956, but it did not impress him: “As usual, Teddi’s voice quality per se is of crystalline beauty and freshness. But her use of that voice on this set is neither deeply moving nor especially swinging.” A New York session group led by Nick Travis and Bob Brookmeyer backed her, playing “with taste but little fire.”

Teddi King as a Pop Singer at RCA

There were two Teddi Kings. The first was the singer of jazz and ballads, the one who worked with Nat Pierce and George Shearing, and recorded for Storyville. The second was the major-label pop singer with show business pizazz.

Teddi King became an RCA Victor recording artist in 1955. Jazz listeners weren’t pleased with the change in direction that followed. First came the series of recordings released on 45 rpm records. RCA whisked King into the studio to work with Hugo Winterhalter, who scrapped small-group simplicity in favor of a full studio orchestra and strings. There were songs of questionable merit. But there was also the RCA advertising budget, and touring with the RCA Parade of Stars. The result was King’s biggest commercial hit, the syrupy “Mr. Wonderful,” which reached number 18 on the Billboard Hot Hundred chart in March 1956.

Promo photo of Teddi King, 1956

The show biz Teddi King, 1956

Next came the albums. In 1956–57, King recorded three albums for RCA: Bidin’ My Time (LPM-1147), To You (LPM-1313), and A Girl and Her Songs (LPM-1454). All followed a pattern. Each included a few Storyville-type tunes sung with a small group. But then there were big pop arrangements that were too lush, and ballads that were too sweet. Each album, though inconsistent, had its high points, and King always sang well.

During these years, King worked at the nation’s top night spots, like the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago and the Blue Angel in New York. She was a dynamic, Lena Horne-inspired performer. She was always introduced as “Miss Teddi King.” “Teddi King in person is something else,” wrote John McLellan in a December 1957 review. “An alternately charming, wistful, tender and dynamic show stopper. This is the show biz Teddi King.”

Singing what one writer called “commercial jazz” had a price—King’s core jazz audience started falling off. Less than a year after her appearance on the Newport stage, Nat Hentoff penned a March 1956 Saturday Review article titled “The Vanishing Jazz Singer.” He praised King’s sound as cool and clear, and her intonation as flawless. But he was disappointed in her recent work. King, who “once gave promise of having the capacity to transform her voice into a warmly improvising, swinging instrument, is now a careful polisher of quality show tunes in supper clubs and a not-so-careful belter of penny-dreadfuls in recording studios.”

But King was determined to make it singing both jazz and pop, even if jazz opportunities were few. Down Beat’s Cal Kolbe heard her in December 1956, and wrote: “Singing at Storyville for the first time in almost two years, Teddi King had no trouble convincing anyone that she belonged there. Although she has a delicacy of sound uncommon among jazz singers, one would do well to think twice and listen again, harder, before dismissing her from the field. Her vocal orientation is unmistakably and consistently jazz centered. On up-tunes, she swings potently, and her ballads are studies in effective sensibility well beyond the reach of the nonjazz singer.”

King and RCA parted company in 1958. She made one more of those mixed-bag albums, All the Kings’ Songs, for Coral in 1959 (CRL 757278). It was a step up from the RCAs, with Johnny Richards arrangements and Charlie Shavers in the band.

Then she stopped. She admitted to being discouraged by the music business. She didn’t record again for 14 years. But she did stay on the club circuit in the 1960s, including stops in Boston at the Number 3 Lounge and Paul’s Mall. And she worked steadily for the Playboy Corporation, playing in their clubs across the country.

Teddi King in the 1970s

The improving prospects for interpreters of the American songbook revived King’s career in the 1970s, although she spent those years in declining health.

In 1977, 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. Sarah Vaughan influenced 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 Teddi King in the early 1970s when audiences showed a renewed interest in the American songbook. King was well enough in 1971 to spend the summer with Dave McKenna at the Columns on Cape Cod. In 1973, King sang Cole Porter tunes as part of the “Jazz Salute to the American Song” at Newport/New York, accompanied by Ellis Larkins. Later that year she teamed with Marian McPartland and Alec Wilder in a concert that McPartland recorded. She released it on her own record label in 1981 as Marian Remembers Teddi (Halcyon HAL 118). King worked when her illness allowed it, in singers’ rooms like the Cafe Carlyle in New York, Blues Alley in Washington D.C. 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 on Audiophile, Lovers and Losers (AP 117) and Someone to Light Up Your Life (AP 150).

Photo of Teddi King, 1977

Teddi King at the This Is New session, October 1977

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 making a demo, and producer Sam Parkins (another Bostonian and an old friend of both) planned to shop the tape to interested record companies.

The session went well, and the participants looked forward to an 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, and they released it in 1978 as This Is New (Inner City 1044).

Perhaps this 1970s iteration is “late-night Teddi,” a singer of poignancy and emotional depth, still with flawless phrasing, and still telling lyrical stories late in the night of her own life.

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If you’re looking for more Teddi King than can be found on YouTube, Fresh Sounds Records reissued Miss Teddi King and Now in Vogue on The Storyville Sessions 1954-1955 (FSRCD 747). Avid Jazz collected King’s RCA and Coral albums on Four Classic Albums Plus (Avid AMSC1059). And Inner City Jazz reissued the 1977 set This is New on CD (IC 1044).

For more on the King discography, visit AllMusic and Discogs.

Richard Vacca is the author of The Boston Jazz Chronicles: Faces, Places, and Nightlife 1937–1962 (Troy Street Publishing, 2012) and co-author of What, and Give Up Showbiz? (Backbeat Books, 2020). Reach him at or leave a message on the Contact form.