Morgana King, the acclaimed jazz stylist who released dozens of albums but is perhaps best known for portraying the wife of Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in the first two Godfather films, has died. She was 87.
King died March 22 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Palm Springs, a representative from the Riverside County coroner’s office told The Washington Post. Her death had gone unreported until a friend, John Hoglund, wrote about her this week on Facebook.
King had a music breakthrough in 1964 with her operatic version of “A Taste of Honey,” originally composed by Bobby Scott and also recorded by the likes of Herb Alpert and Billy Dee Williams. At the 1965 Grammys, she lost to The Beatles (who also performed “A Taste of Honey” early in their career) in the category of best new artist.
Her album debut for Mercury Records, 1955’s Morgana King Sings the Blues, was a tribute to torch singer Helen Morgan. King also recorded three albums for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, including 1965’s It’s a Quiet Thing, described as “an aching diary of loss” released after the death of her second husband, trombone player Willie Dennis, who was killed in a car crash.
King, who also had a hit with “Corcovado” (“Quiet Nights”), made a comeback with 1973’s New Beginnings and recorded her final nine albums for Muse Records.
In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), King as Mama Carmela Corleone dances with Brando and sings “Luna mezz’ ‘o mare” during the opening wedding sequence. When she didn’t want to be photographed in a coffin in the 1974 sequel, Coppola’s mother, Italia, doubled for her.
Talking about her onscreen sons, King said that Carmela “really thinks Michael [Al Pacino] is going to come out of this whole situation to possibly run for the presidency; she thinks that’s perfectly logical. Whereas Sonny [James Caan] is a good boy … she’s probably been protecting him all his life against the hassles he’s found to get involved with.”
King said she got the part after a brief meeting — “just hello and goodbye” — with Coppola and producer Al Ruddy.
“I’ve been a singer for 26 years. I act when I sing,” she said in a 1971 interview with United Press International. “So you could say I’ve been rehearsing for this part all my life. I read [Mario Puzo’s] The Godfather two years ago and knew I had to be a part of it. I went to my hypnotist to program and condition myself for becoming a member of the cast. It worked!”
King also appeared in Brooklyn State of Mind (1998) with Danny Aiello and on the ABC soap opera All My Children.
With Sicilian roots, she was born Maria Grazia Messina de Berardinis on June 4, 1930, in Pleasantville, New York. Her father, who died when she was 11, had a job delivering coal and ice and played classical guitar and piano at home. She was raised in the Bronx and attended James Monroe High School.
King was performing in Greenwich Village by age 16. Her mother, she told The Washington Post in 1981, was “of that very old concept that to be in show business, you had to be a hard-nosed 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.”
According to a 2016 JazzTimes article written by James Gavin, King was taken as a youngster to sing “Body and Soul’ for Billie Holiday in her dressing room. Holiday then remarked, “You better all take care of this baby, ’cause that’s my child.”
King went on to perform in Las Vegas and around the country as well as on television on The Tonight Show, Playboy After Dark and The Hollywood Palace and on programs hosted by Andy Williams, Danny Kaye, Pat Boone, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Mike Douglas.
King’s first marriage was to trumpeter Tony Fruscella. Their daughter, Graysan, died in 2008.
Rhett Bartlett contributed to this report.