Long before she died on March 22 at the age of 87, Morgana King had known which credit would top her obituaries. It wasn’t her decades-long career as one of the most exotic, ethereal vocal stylists in jazz; nor was it her famous 1964 recording of “A Taste of Honey,” which has the lushness and high drama of Puccini. King’s close friendship with Frank Sinatra—her biggest champion amid a fan club that included Antonio Carlos Jobim, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, and Tennessee Williams—has also gotten short shrift.
No, one achievement outshone all the others: her brief but indelible performance opposite Marlon Brando as Mama Corleone in the 1972 film The Godfather. King didn’t mind; she loved the notoriety. As of her death (of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), she had not sung publicly in 18 years. The Washington Post verified her passing earlier this week. Her grandson, Morgan Simental of Seattle, Wash.—King’s only survivor—had not made an announcement. He has not responded to requests for comment.
King may have wanted it that way. The singer, who had a family history of bipolar disorder, was stubbornly elusive; she changed her phone number frequently, making it hard for friends to contact her. Her last home was in Palm Springs, where I found her in 2016. Having been acquainted with her since the ’90s, I persuaded her to speak with me for a JazzTimes profile. It was her last interview.
If showbiz at large had devalued her singing, so have most jazz-vocal historians, for King’s soft, featherweight hum and rococo flights fit no conventional mold. Her improvisations drew from opera and Sephardic music—the music her Sicilian parents loved—as well as bop. With an ear and a rhythmic sense that dazzled musicians, she overhauled songs from the first phrases. “I don’t believe in wasting time singing a melody that you’ve heard six million times,” she told me. Like Peggy Lee, King swung hard with the softest touch.
Friends were amused at the contrast between her gossamer delivery and hotheaded, gutter-mouthed temperament. King walked off jobs without hesitation. In 1973, while shooting her first scene for a TV movie based on Jean Renoir’s play Carola, she and the star, Leslie Caron, clashed over King’s vision of her role; King quit on the spot.
Life had made her tough. Born on June 3, 1930 in Pleasantville, N.Y., but raised in upper Manhattan, King—born Maria Grazia Messina—was just 11 when her father died. By her late teens she was singing in strip clubs and Greenwich Village dives. Little support came from her husband, Tony Fruscella, the gifted but heroin-addicted trumpeter who had fathered her daughter, Graysann. King made two albums for Mercury, but her style had not yet blossomed; that began in 1961 when, by now divorced from Fruscella, she married the love of her life, trombonist Willie Dennis. He helped her craft an original sound that mined all her inspirations. Dennis convinced a startup label, Mainstream, to sign King for an orchestral album with a promising young arranger, Torrie Zito. Morgana King with a Taste of Honey made her a star. The next year, after King and Zito had made a followup LP, Miss Morgana King, Dennis died in a car crash.
Sinatra coaxed the shattered singer back to work; he signed her to his Reprise label for three albums and helped arrange nightclub bookings. In 1971 her daughter’s godfather, actor Al Lettieri, was cast in The Godfather. He recommended King—who had never acted—for the role of Vito Corleone’s wife. Director Francis Ford Coppola summoned her for an interview. “He just asked me, ‘I want a depiction of what you think this woman is.’ I said, ‘She’s the boss. She’s quiet.’” King got the job. She wound up schooling Brando on Sicilian culture and teaching the dialect to Al Pacino, who played her son.
The Godfather made King a queen in the eyes of “the boys,” who let her know she could count on them. It also opened the door to further films—including The Godfather Part II—and reinvigorated her singing career. Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye all proclaimed their love for her. After hearing King’s New Beginnings, a 1973 album of current pop produced by her manager, Vince Mauro, Stevie Wonder provided a blurb: “Morgana King has done the best version of ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ I have heard.”
She began a long series of albums for the Muse label and performed steadily until 2000. By then King was consumed with the task of nursing her daughter through a long battle with cancer. Graysann died in 2008.
King’s plans to sing again and to write a memoir—she wanted to call it Mama Was Right—never came to pass. But she knew her uniqueness and her influence. “I’m starting to hear me all over the place,” King told me in 1995. When lymphoma hit, she declined chemotherapy. “Pain is inevitable,” she declared. “But suffering is optional!”