In the early afternoon, Morgana King sits in her hotel suite, the sun filtering through drawn curtains, opera playing pianissimo on the radio. There are no lamps on and the room is filled with that half-light well-known to musicians who wind down as new days wind up. King is bringing her unique vocal stylings to Blues Alley for a week, and as she reclines on her sofa, she recalls her first visit to Washington -- and her first professional nightclub engagement ever -- 35 years ago. The memory is still delicious.
"I was sixteen and a half when I played here at the Crystal Caverns, billed as the 'Creole Songbird From the Ramparts Section of New Orleans.' It was a black club and in 1946 you didn't find too many white people working black clubs. Anyway, they didn't believe me. They kept asking 'Are you sure you're Creole?' So eventually I told them I was Sicilian. 'Well,' they said, 'that's good enough.'" (Good enough to land her the role of Mama Corleone in "The Godfather.")
That initial visit to Washington also brought her into a close friendship with another great vocalist, Dinah Washington. "She was my overseer when I was here," King recalls. "I stayed at the Dunbar Hotel, where no white people lived, and she had me living in the suite next door to her. I was like her ward, her protege." That was apparently not enough for King's mother, who promptly packed her away back to James Monroe High School in the Bronx.
Morgana Messina had changed her name to King because "I couldn't use the family name. My mother wouldn't allow it." King communicates in classic Sicilian style, wrapping her words in broad gestures, pushing them away and clearing the table for new ideas and old memories. King's father, a guitarist-pianist, died when she was only 11 and her mother was "of that very old concept that to be in show business you had to be a hard-nose broad. When I was singing she never came to see me in a nightclub because of the kinds of people she thought were out on the streets at night."
That attitude began to change in 1964 when King followed up her hit recordings of "Corcovado" and "A Taste of Honey" by including one of her mother's favorite Italian songs on a concert album. "When my husband played it for her, I went to hide in the bathroom," she says. "Finally, my husband came to get me. My mother was sitting alone in the living room, listening to it . . . and she was holding her heart. That was like winning the Pultizer Prize."
Another great family moment came in 1972 at the first New York screening of "The Godfather," in which King played opposite Marlon Brando. The cast was staying at the swank St. Regis ("I had Cecil Beaton's suite"), yet when Mrs. Messina showed up, "she was wearing the everyday clothes that she'd go to work in, her stockings rolled up. She didn't even wear a girdle. 'They don't know who I am,' she insisted. 'I will not sit in a theater for three hours in a girdle. If you want me to go home, I'll go home.' After the film, I was dying to know her reaction. 'It's all right,' she said . . . 'but Sicilians don't talk that much.'"
Over the years King has been more noticeable for her absences than her activities. A Blues Alley visit last year was her first to Washington in 30 years. King once sat out a record contract for three years because her company would not allow her to record a new sound she'd brought back from Brazil in 1960. It was called the bossa nova.
All that was a long way from King's Bronx childhood when at 14 she started performing at New York and Long Island hospitals and USO clubs. "I would do arias all day at home and then impersonate the pop singers of the day -- Margaret Whiting, Jo Stafford, Rosemary Clooney, Sarah Vaughan. The guys loved it, it was almost like a comedy routine."
King's reputation rests on her ability to take over a lyric, to personalize it, to customize it. "It's all interpretation and experience value," she insists. Although she used to be at the mercy of record company artists and repertoire men for material, she now screens all potential songs herself via an instrumental cassette and a lead sheet. "I don't want to hear anybody's interpretation," she emphasizes. "I want to read the poetry and then apply it to my experience."
King has had her share of tragedies. Her husband, musician Willie Dennis, was killed in a car crash in 1965. Four years later, she almost met the same fate. "I was crippled, paralyzed for nine months. My instrument," she says, pointing to her body, "was totally destroyed -- broken ribs, torn stomach, crushed left side, reconstructed mouth. I had to heal, so I went into that intense sun in the desert." After five years of living in Palm Springs, Calif., and being off the scene, "I felt I was well enough to work again." Oddly enough, her "instrument" changed, stretched more. "I can now get into five octaves."
The singer admits that she doesn't persevere as much as some people would like her to. She's gone back to college, wants to write a book about her life experiences, wants to put out her own records -- all remarkable ambitions for a woman of 51. "I live very fully within my own circle of friends, who are primarily bohemian people," King says firmly. "I don't go chasing after the rainbow; you can get totally lost. I am my own captain and this is my ship. I don't want anybody messing with my steering wheel or my navigation."