Friday, December 27, 2013

Crowning The Kings

Along about Thanksgiving time this past year, one of my faithful friends in The Underworld expressed to me his love for The King Family Singers and their holiday specials. I had only the fuzziest idea who they were and had only seen occasional glimpses of them over the years. Well, Christmas Eve, after having endured my own personal family gathering, I decided to take a look at The Kings and ever since I've been OBSESSED with them!
The whole thing started in Pleasant Grove, Utah back in the 1930s. A Mormon music teacher named William Driggs found it hard to make ends meet on his salary, a situation made further pressing by the fact that he and his wife had eight children! He formed a family band, moved to California and they all successfully toured that part of the country. As his three eldest daughters (Maxine, Luise and Alyce) emerged as young ladies, they formed their own singing trio, taking their father's middle name of King and billing themselves as “The King Sisters” (rightly surmising that “The Driggs Sisters” didn't summon up the same sort of appeal.)

The gals were successful performers on radio, in clubs and even recordings. In a couple of years, though, one (Maxine) married and left the trio, only to be replaced by two younger siblings, Donna and Yvonne. Before long, Donna departed the group and the youngest sister Marilyn took her place. At this point, the foursome was making significant inroads in the jazz music business, their four-part female harmonies unique to the genre. They enjoyed thirteen Top 30 hits during the early 1940s and even began to pop up in movies!
Their films included Meet the People(1944), with Dick Powell and Lucille Ball, Thrill of a Romance, with Van Johnson and Ester Williams and Cuban Pete (1946) with, oddly enough, Desi Arnaz, who was already married to Ball, though they were not in each other's movies. In this shot from Pete, you can already see the matching outfits and frou-frou clothing elements that would forever punctuate their on-stage lives.

As the years wore on, The Four King Sisters (as they were now known) worked on their on local, Los Angeles based television show and continued to record albums. In 1957, they made a considerable departure from their previous sound and began to sing in lower keys with decidedly punctuated accents within the harmonies. The result was a newfound appreciation that even won them a Grammy nomination and occasional forays onto national television series.

By now married and with children of their own, they often incorporated their youngsters into the performances they were giving, making it a family affair. Like themselves, the next generation of Kings were inherently musical and most learned how to sing without lessons and play instruments instinctively.

Their church was host to one big King Family spectacular, which was a roaring success, and it led to further engagements of that sort. Once, when Brigham Young University enlisted them to perform a massive benefit shindig, the show was taped and King sister Yvonne (“Vonnie”) used an edited version of the tape to pitch a series to ABC television. And it worked!

They “tried out” on the weekly variety show Hollywood Palace a couple of times (to tumultuous acclaim and viewer response) before winning their very own special and, ultimately, weekly series, The King Family Show (1965-1966.) Here, the Four King Sisters, decked to the nines in satin, chiffon, rhinestones and wiglets, were joined by their extended family, sometimes as many as forty people (!) during the course of the telecast.

The younger generation had its own segment called Top 20, in which the gaggle of (mostly) blonde, wholesome youngsters would come out and take turns singing a variety of selections from that week's Top 20 Billboard magazine hits. After viewers fretted over not being able to sort out who was who amongst the multitude of King Cousins, the show's costume designer decided to emblazon each cousin's name across his or her sweater so that there would be no mistake as to who was who. And that designer's name? None other than Bob Mackie! There was even a third generation of Kings now, billed as The King Kiddies, and they would also make appearances on the show.

Anyone who is a regular here knows of my fondness for the hair, clothing and make-up of this period. The gals were blonde, bouffant and bubbling over with swoops and falls.
Though the series was eventually cancelled due to a change from one-hour to a half-hour and stiff network competition, that was not in any way the end of the King Family. They proceeded to offer up splendiferous specials, a dozen and a half of them sprinkled throughout the late-'60s and early-'70s, with color TV now providing some eye-popping sights.

Specials included holidays such as Valentine's Day, Easter (shown here, with the sisters sporting their various distinct bonnets and their broods of children who amusingly sang their own number), Halloween and so on. They also, naturally, began to provide Christmas specials. (These specials were so prevalent that a popular joke at the time was to make mention of the fictional TV special “Groundhog Day with the Kings!”)
This series of shots is from The Kings in Washington D.C. and a dozen of the King ladies singing “If They Could See Me Now” in front of The White House! Cars are ambling by without any discretion as the women form a kick line and strut their ever-blonde and bedecked selves! As the singers never forgot their Mormon roots, they would sometimes alter lyrics as when they replaced, “drinkin' fancy wine” with “eatin' chow so fine!” I can remember as a child seeing people from The Lawrence Welk Showand others doing that and it used to burn me up. Somehow I just chuckle at it now. In any case, the look, color and style of this frosted and tipped sister would have been to me in the early-'70s, THE last word in beauty! LOL

There would be inspirational songs, albeit often from musical theatre, such as when Alyce sang “Climb Ev'ry Mountain” while standing in a studio sprinkled with fake snow and evergreen trees while wearing a purple evening gown, pearls and a fur coat! “You'll Never Walk Alone,” naturally, meant that the family would be artfully arranged en masse to provide vocal back-up for the big finish. You can call it corny, cheesy, whatever you wish, but I live for stuff like this!

Their albums became (and still are) prized possessions, the covers featuring the whole gaggle of King Sisters, husbands, children, etc... All of the women were some shade of blonde, though there was one pesky brunette who was sometimes let out of her cage and permitted to breathe the same air as the rest of them! Knowing that you want to see the photos closer up - you do, don't you? - I am providing the album covers and then just the picture, cropped, which you can open in a new tab or window.
This album is like the sort of royal world I would have killed to be a part of during my childhood of divorced parents and lower-middle class income. (Yet, don't be fooled... several of the King women went through divorces along the way. They weren't superhuman.)
The ever-growing collection of Kings (none of who was ever actually born with the last name of King!) included Luise's husband Alvino Rey, a highly-accomplished guitarist, and Alyce's husband, Robert Clarke, who'd acted in movies and also produced some. However, it was the daughters of several of the sisters who began to carve out a name for themselves – the name being The Four King Cousins.

From left to right, Tina, Cathy, Carolyn and Candy began recording their own four-part songs and winning appearances on TV. (Like the King Sisters, they'd begun with one line-up, an additional cousin, but ultimately emerged with another as the foursome shown here.)  They eventually became the centerpiece of a revived, short-lived version of The King Family Show in 1969.

These gals did songs that were popular at that time, versus the standards that the elder ladies tended to gravitate towards. They would sing songs like The Turtles' “So Happy Together,” Petula Clark's “I Couldn't Live Without Your Love” or Beatles' medleys.

They would frequently change up their looks, nearly always blonde no matter what, from lengthy falls to bobbed hurricane-resistant coiffures.
Whenever the two foursomes met up, the older gals would be dressed in glamorous, floor-length gowns with long sleeves and then the young'ns would bop out in the same style dresses, but short-sleeved or sleeveless and with hems above the knee. (In this series, sister Marilyn appears to have suffered a hair-teasing accident and has her arm in a sling! She and her diminutive sibling Vonnie would often poke fun at their considerable height difference.)

The statuesque Marilyn never shied away from elongating herself further with a huge pile of additional “hair.” Sometimes, she would adopt a Grecian goddess look and perform amongst pillars in a one-shouldered gown and her hair pointing the way to heaven.

Whichever one of them in whatever combination, I am now utterly obsessed with them. The colors, the styles, the glitz, the music, the MASCARA!
The King Sisters had gone through vast permutations over their long career and while, yes, they might have looked just a tad silly in some of their frilly, festive, frolicsome attire while beating the door of middle age down, they remained dazzling.
Then as the '70s wore on, there were – like it was for so many folks – the occasional slips into dastardly hair-styling:
As glittering '80s and early-'90s arrived, the gals could once again turn on the sparkle without shame. The last major appearance of The King Sisters as a performing whole took place in 1985 at Ronald Reagan's inaugural gala.
The King Cousins had disassembled at the dawn of the '80s, their 1979 album seeing release only in Japan, where they were wildly adored.  They had families of their own to raise now as it turned out. Thirty years later, they began to reunite again for some concert engagements.

A few more tidbits. If bubble-haired King Cousin Tina looks at all familiar, it may be because you recognize her from her substantial stint on My Three Sons (from 1967 to 1972.)

She (as Tina Cole) played the wife of hunkalicious Don Grady and the couple became the parents of triplets on the long-running sitcom. (You knew I was going to try to sneak into this post some sort of handsome guy, right??)
How lucky can a girl get to portray the wife of one of TV's most adorable young men?! I don't know if she ever got her hands on that, but I couldn't blame her if she did... She was married from 1965-1970 to her first husband, then divorced. Grady didn't marry for the first time until 1976. Ironically, Tina later wound up marrying the real-life son of her Sons costar Beverly Garland, but in 1979, long after the show had been cancelled! That union also eventually ended in divorce, however.

This series of shots is from a 1971 special that the Kings did in San Francisco. Note the way a couple of the cousins had gone brunette! It is my favorite, favorite thing I've come upon from them. The song, “Leavin' It All Behind,” is so groovy, funky and fun that I have listened to it over and over and over and over the way I do anything that I become enthralled with. Sadly, it is interrupted after about a minute and a half by a segue into solo before returning again at the end. I cannot find the entire song by them anywhere. The “choreography” is positively hysterical, their clothes, hair and makeup divine... Note the way a cop is shown in he background corralling a Volkswagen Beetle out of the area while another one seems to be issuing a ticket! And then note the way the cousins scare off a series of seagulls as they be-bop down the pathway. If there is a heaven, the first 1:30 of this clip will be playing on an endless loop in my quarters! LOL

Lastly, by far, the most memorable moment EVER to come out of a King Family special was the time that Alyce King was positioned at the piano to sing “I'll Be Home for Christmas” while a photo of her handsome son Ric was in a frame nearby. This being during the Vietnam War, he was in the army at the time. Without her prior knowledge, it was arranged that he would come to the set and surprise her while she did the number. As she thoughtfully posed between verses of the number, he began speaking, then entered the frame, causing her to completely lose her composure and stamp the floor and flail around, her mind-boggling hair remaining firmly in place throughout. I cannot even type this without welling up, it's such a touching, real, manipulative (who cares?!) moment in TV history... It might take just a tiny bit of drama out of it to know that he was stationed stateside, performing in an army band rather than slogging through the dangerous jungles, but nevertheless it is an unforgettable occurrence. Of course, her inbred professionalism required that she finish out the number one way or another!

All of The King Sisters are now deceased, but their legacy of music lives on. The contemporary, Grammy-nominated band Arcade Fire, was co-founded by grandchildren of Luise King and Alvino Rey, and their music has dotted the soundtracks of The Hunger Games (2012) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty(2013), among others.

I have never once claimed to have even an ounce of taste (it still amazes me when I post something here and an avalanche of people come forth to testify that they too happen to love it, whatever it is!) I am a longstanding devotee of the cotton candy cholera that was The Lawrence Welk Show and now have been introduced to something as good or better! If you think you might be apt to like these people, check them out on youtube, where there is a healthy hunk of material to sift through. Just make sure you allot enough time to the task because it can become addicting!


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