One does not often think of Peggy Lee as a blues singer, especially when considering the cheery optimism of such self-penned lyrics as “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana,” two of the singer’s earliest hits. Yet the blues, as a feeling and as a musical form, has been a constant in her life and career.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, she endured a childhood of physical and mental abuse at the hands of her stepmother. The stepmother “hit me over the head with a cast-iron skillet, beat me with a heavy leather razor strap with a metal end, which made a scar on one side of my face that even now tries to show up in a photograph,” the vocalist recalled in her 1989 autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee.
“I think I always felt that inside,” Lee, 73, said of the blues. Speaking from her home in Bel Air, where she was recovering from an arthritic condition that kept her paralyzed for much of the past year, she added, “I could identify with any slaves.”
Lee found solace in songs and, as a teenager, began making up her own words for pop hits of the day. And she learned about the blues as a style by listening at night to remote radio broadcasts of the Kansas City Coon-shouters, a jazz band led by then-little-known pianist William “Count” Basie.
Lee, who made her professional debut at age 14 with the North Dakota orchestra of Doc Haines, also developed a fondness for the music of Billie Holiday. “I was a great admirer of hers,” recalled Lee, who frequently performs a Holiday medley in her shows. Both singers shared an affinity for the blues, a softness of tone and a relaxed sense of swing.
“People used to say I copied Billie Holiday,” Lee said. “But, of course, I didn’t. If you hear the two voices together, then you see that isn’t true. I always sang that way, but when I was with Benny, I wasn’t allowed to sing that way.”
Lee’s big break came in 1941 when swing bandleader Benny Goodman hired her as a replacement for Helen Forrest, who’d left to join rival clarinetist Artie Shaw. “I was doing Helen Forrest,” Lee explained. “That’s what was so difficult for me. You know, she was so well-loved. That gave me a little nervousness I didn’t need. Then [the songs] were in her key, not in mine. And to top that off, there was no rehearsal – none at all – right smack out on that stage.
“I was terrified. I remember how the spotlight reminded me of a freight train bearing down on me. I developed a psychosomatic cold because I was confused, tired and nervous. All that had to be overcome. But it was good training.”
Lee found her own niche with Goodman the next year, scoring a major hit with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Composed by Joe McCoy and first popularized by blues queen Lil Green, it became the first of several numbers Lee would borrow with great success from the blues idiom, including “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” and “Fever.” Lee updates “Why Don’t You Do Right?” on her new Chesky album, Moments Like This.
There are no actual blues songs on the singer’s other recent album, Love Held Lightly, an Angel compact disc recorded in 1988 but not released until several months ago because Lee was dissatisfied with the producers’ original vocal mix. “When they use those limiters and high-tech things on the human voice, it doesn’t even sound like yourself when you hear the playback,” she said.
The album, which subsequently was remixed, is a collection of 14 mostly obscure songs by Harold Arlen, the late Broadway and Hollywood composer whose music, like Lee’s, often betrays a subtle blues undercurrent. Eight of these selections received their first-ever recorded performances on this disc.
Besides Arlen collaborations with such lyricists as Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, Yip Harburg and Truman Capote, Love Held Lightly includes one with Lee herself. Titled “Happy with the Blues,” the lyrics were commissioned by Arlen for a 1961 CBS television retrospective of his music, in which Lee starred. The song, however, never made it to the program.
“I didn’t like it at all,” Lee explained. “My lyrics were so trite and dosey-dosey-do. Of all people, I admired Harold so much, and I wanted them to be really good. I suppose that’s what kept me from writing my best.” The new album afforded Lee the opportunity to revamp the words to her liking.
While the Arlen set is the most recent release under Lee’s own name, her latest actual recording is a duet with singer-songwriter Michael Franks on Dragonfly Summer, his just-issued Warner Bros. album. “You Were Meant for Me,” a Franks-composed bossa nova that reflects both artists’ long-held interest in South American sounds, features the two singers trading choruses, then singing the bridge in unison, their voices almost mirror images of each other.
“I think it’s natural for both of us,” Lee said of their quiet tones and behind-the-beat phrasing. “It’s a rather subtle thing; I don’t think it’s too explainable.”
Lee and Franks had been friends and mutual fans since the mid-70s but didn’t sing together until the album track was recorded in New York last August. “Considering the feminine voice and the male voice,” there were moments I thought they were so close,” Franks said by phone. “And she came up with all those really pretty harmony parts at the end. She ad-libbed that. It was amazing to be there with her and just to observe at such close range how she worked.”
Lee recently was awarded $2.3 million in videocassette profits for her vocal contributions to the 1955 Walt Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp. But it was “more of a moral victory than a financial one,” she said, because “by the time the lawyers got through and then the IRS, there was nothing left.” So now she’s concentrating on doing duets with an even older friend than Franks – Mel Tormé. First paired vocally in 1951 when they co-hosted an NBC television summer series, Lee and Tormé were reunited in July of last year at the Hollywood Bowl. Their appearance this Saturday at the 25th anniversary Fujitsu Concord Jazz Festival marks their first joint Bay Area performance.
“I love Peggy,” Tormé said by phone. “I think she’s one of the greatest singers of all time.”