Debby King, the ‘Soul of Carnegie Hall,’ Passes Away at 71

Debby King, the Soul of Carnegie Hall. Image: Steve J. Sherman/Carnegie Hall

Debby King, who was known as the “Soul of Carnegie Hall,” for her calming presence that put performers at ease backstage, passed away on September 20 at 71, the New York Times reports. Her daughter Sonrisa Murray confirmed that the cause of death was liver cancer.

Although King was not a performer, her work behind the scenes as a backstage liaison was important in supporting some of the biggest stars give their greatest concerts. In her role, she tended to the needs of the artists who occupied the Maestro Suite, a hallowed dressing room located on the second floor.

“She’s the soul of Carnegie Hall,” cellist Yo-Yo Ma said in a phone interview. “She enables the transition that takes place between a person backstage getting ready to perform and then going on stage to share everything that is important to them. That transition for an artist is often when they’re at their most vulnerable.”

King described herself as a “professional nerve-calmer,” and took seriously the task of making sure she knew all of the performer’s rituals and requests that made them comfortable before they went on stage.

On one occasion, she pulled Frank Sinatra aside to encourage him after he was having difficulties reading the teleprompter during one of his shows back in 1987. While everyone was nervous to approach “Ol Blue Eyes,” King gave him some timely advice.

“You look like you’re having a tough time out there,” she told him. “But listen, you’re Frank Sinatra. You can do anything. They will always love you out there no matter what. If you’re in trouble again, just smile, or say hello to a pretty lady on the balcony.”

After taking her advice, Sintra delivered another signature performance.

King, who was a single mother, had another full-time job during her time as an employee of Carnegie Hall. When each concert ended, she headed downtown to the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner, where she worked the overnight shift as an administrator.

In 2016, she retired from the medical examiner’s office and was diagnosed with liver cancer a few years later. She retired from Carnegie Hall in the spring of last year. 

Born Deborah King on Oct. 4, 1949, in Manhattan; she was raised in Harlem. Her father, John, was a deacon and her mother, Margo (Shaw) King, was a homemaker.

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Deborah had aspirations to be a cosmetologist and had applied for an internship at a salon in high school. But due to a clerical error, she ended up working in the morgue instead, which would become her life’s work.

In addition to her granddaughters, King is survived by a grandson and a daughter, Cheryl Leak-Fox-Middleton. Because of her hard work and determination, she put both of her granddaughters through college.

Outside of the Maestro Suite, next to all of the great artists who performed at Carnegie Hall, is a photo of Deborah King whose service made most of the performances possible.


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