Rosa was born in Macon, Georgia. Her professional career found her playing with everyone from Ben E. King and Cab Calloway to Eric Burdon and Sly Hampton. Stealing the show at the 1978 North Sea Jazz Festival during a tenor sax battle with the likes of Stan Getz did much to catapult her into stardom. She has appeared in Sesame Street and various European television shows, as well as the cult film Comeback by Eric Burdon. Many careers were launched in her band, including those of Candy Dulfer, Saskia Laroo, and Alex Britti. She died from a heart attack in Italy shortly after a televised performance with Alex Britti in December 2000. Though quite the icon in Europe, Rosa had little exposure in America during her life except for a few stints in New York, where she maintained an apartment for many years (even while living in Amsterdam).
However, the year before her death Rosa returned to her home state of Georgia to play a handful of gigs with fellow Georgians and friends J. Lyon Layden and Eric Layden (guitar and bass respectively), Kristina Train (vocals and violin), Jeff Evans (drums), and Dan Walker (keyboards) under the name "Rosa King and The Looters".
That year she also played a huge jazz festival in South Africa and several dates in the Netherlands before her very last performance in Italy, which was a reunion with her former guitarist Alex Britti in a nationwide televised concert with nearly 100,000 people in attendance.
Despite having suffered several small heart attacks the previous week (which Dutch doctors told her was only indigestion), King was wheelchaired to the foot of the audience for this last performance. She was pronounced dead within 12 hours after this performance.
A Rosa King Foundation has been established in the Netherlands to help young female artists, and a memorial concert was conducted at the Melkweg concert house in Amsterdam in order to pay tribute to her.
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