The valley’s first lady of song

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John Annarino

Roberta King is one of the stars who packed the Purple Room in Palm Springs during its Rat Pack heyday.
Photo by Gordon Parr

That Sunday evening, Sept. 1, 2013, was a celebration of sorts. The next day Club Trinidad’s Purple Room in Palm Springs would shut down for a renovation that would mark a new chapter in its famed existence. 

To celebrate the occasion, Roberta King and her husband, Bob Branscomb, were invited to attend. When they entered, the crowd broke into thunderous applause, paying homage to “The Lady of Song,” whose remarkable talents had packed the lounge in its Rat Pack heyday. 

 “Sinatra stopped by the club several times a week,” said King. “One night he wanted me to accompany him on a song. I hesitated, but Tony Riccio, the owner of the club, informed me that you don’t say ‘no’ to Frank Sinatra.” 

With a four-octave voice trained for opera, her Trinidad show was a tour-de-force, showcasing her talents as singer, pianist, songwriter, poet, actress and mimic. 

Her voice defied description — soaring to operatic heights and then descending to the smoky depths of bass notes. A delicate-looking blonde chanteuse and a classically trained pianist, her performances ran the gamut — boogie, ballads, jazz, toe-tapping novelties and Rachmaninoff concertos. 

Equally amazing were her “fun” voices, invented when she studied with Mel Blanc. For her Christmas fairy tale, “Katrina, the Little Tree,” she was the voice of 15 characters, wrote the dialogue and composed the music. 

International roots

Roberta Louise Sawyer King was born on April 25, 1926 in Chuquimata, Chile, where her father worked as a civil engineer. In 1933, she moved to Los Gatos, Calif., with her parents, her older brother, Fredrick, and her younger twin sisters, Frances and Elizabeth. She began private piano instruction and remembers performing “Annie Laurie” for her first piano recital at age eight.  

When her parents returned to South America on business, she continued studying piano and started vocal instruction at a boarding school in Piedmont, Calif., then at Saint Margaret’s School for Girls in Victoria, British Columbia. When she was 15, the family reunited in Oakland, Calif., where she trained under Russian opera diva, Madam Zamourakova. 

At 17, she met her first husband, Donald E. King, a medical student at Stanford University. They married in 1944, and their daughter, Kathy, was born in 1949. Donald E. King became the Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology for the Army. 

When they moved to Little Rock, Ark., in 1953 King studied under the guidance of Metropolitan Opera singer Marjorie Lawrence and landed roles in Amahl and The Night Visitors and Aida.

At 28, when her marriage ended, she returned to California and started performing in clubs in Los Angeles. She discovered jazz. And blues. And Charlie Grasso. She married Grasso, a former sax player with the Glenn Miller Air Force Band. 

Desert triumph

King teamed up with Charlie and formed a band called The Four Moods, entertaining all over Southern California. While performing at a club in Ventura, they received word to contact the owner of Club Trinidad in Palm Springs. That led to the wildly-successful run in the Purple Room lounge. 

Word got around about the multi-talented, one-of-a-kind performer. Long-lasting stints at the Wilde Goose and Perrina’s in Cathedral City followed. Then an avalanche of club dates, recordings, radio spots, TV appearances and charity events. 

“I experienced several very memorable moments,” said King. “One was receiving a 30 second standing ovation after performing for the Martin Luther King Day Celebration on Jan. 15, 1984. The other was performing a musical salute with Buddy Rogers at Angels Stadium in Palm Springs on Sept. 17, 1987 for the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States Constitution.”

King is seventh in descent from Carter Braxton of Virginia, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. 

“It was also in 1984,” said the deceptively shy, soft-spoken King, “that something truly terrifying happened.  I was rehearsing for a concert tour when suddenly my  voice cracked and disappeared completely. The years of entertaining in smoke-filled lounges had taken their toll.” 

Doctors diagnosed extensive throat damage and prescribed 30 days of absolute silence, followed by a lengthy regimen of medication and treatments. For an entertainer called upon for rousing versions of “Chicago”, “Route 66” and “New York, New York,” it was a bitter pill to swallow. 

 After the 30 days of utter silence, King’s first words to her manager were, “Let’s get back to work. Get some synthesizers, and let’s do the keyboard bit.”

She returned to the stage with new keyboard arrangements, playing piano with one hand, the organ with the other — and with a voice that had become deeper in pitch and emotion.  

Squeezed between the two keyboards, she sang popular songs and old favorites, inserted a novelty number, a shrieking bird call, a Katherine Hepburn impression, and sang opera on request. She sang not only in English, but in French, German, Spanish, Yiddish and Italian. 

Ups and downs

 “While my career flourished,” said King, “my first two marriages didn’t. My third marriage in 1995 to Robert Ragland, a long-time fan from the Trinidad days, ended when Robert passed away.  But I definitely got it right when I married Bob Branscomb. He’s not only my manager and my drummer, he’s my soul mate.” 

“We met seven years ago,” said Branscomb. “She needed a CD made for ‘Starfair,’ an annual celebration of the stars who had been honored on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. I recorded the live recordings she needed to complete her album ‘Then and Now’ that contained her most famous songs. We started dating and soon married.” The couple resides in Palm Desert. 

 Her 2000 Walk of Stars tribute was this: For her lifetime achievement in the field of entertainment and her contribution to the world prominence of Palm Springs. 

 It might well be added: If ever there was a performer who can do it all — and do it all so beautifully — it’s Roberta King.