Her sultry voice had emotional breadth
by Richard Dyer
Boston Globe, January 23, 2002
Nobody ever did more with less than Miss Peggy Lee, who used an art of indirection to reach her listeners where they live.
Lee died of heart failure Monday night in her home in Los Angeles; she was 81. Born Norma Deloris Egstrom May 26, 1920, she began performing at 14; her final public appearance was at the Hollywood Bowl in 1995, so her career spanned more than 60 years in live performance, recordings, radio, television, and movies. It is impossible to think of decades of American popular music without hearing her sultry, caramel voice. It spanned the full spectrum of emotions, attacking them through the libido.
Yesterday Andre Previn, a longtime friend and fan, said, “For the singing of popular songs, Peggy Lee was about as good as you can get, with the exception of Billie Holiday. When she did some of those unbelievably slow ballads, she would still swing like a house afire. Her sense of rhythm was unbeatable, sensational. And when she sang a song of unrequited love, she really got to you.”
Lee sang out of tough personal experience and a rich musical life. She was an abused child, and much of her career was shadowed by poor health — diabetes, heart trouble, lung ailments, and a fall that put her in a wheelchair.
She became a star in 1941, when Benny Goodman heard and signed her, and she spent the next 40 years working with the best in the business — Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Paul McCartney, among others. She identified with her songs like an actress, and lived inside them; she had an original take on everything she sang. Although she wasn’t exactly a jazz singer, she had a jazz musician’s sense of time, and some of the best jazz instrumentalists collaborated with her on her records.
She made her screen debut in 1943 in “Stage Door Canteen” and won an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of an alcoholic vocalist in “Pete Kelley’s Blues” in 1955. That year she reached a vast new audience with the songs she wrote and sang in Disney’s animated film “Lady and the Tramp,” for which she also dubbed four spoken roles.
She temporarily retired after her marriage to Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour in 1943, the first of four marriages, but was seldom idle after returning to the studio in 1945; she recorded more than 600 songs. In collaboration with Barbour, she wrote some of her early hits, and she kept writing throughout her career. Among the songs by others most closely identified with her were “Lover” (1952), “Fever” (1958), and “Is That All There Is” (1969).
Legend says that Lee started out as a belter, but no one stopped talking to listen to her. Her response was to bring the volume down to an intimate level, so people had to pay attention, and before long they wanted to. She chose to sing within a restricted range of pitches and dynamics — but through them, as in a mirror placed at a slant, she expressed everything she wanted to. Her singing was husky and sexy, but shot through with healthy humor and a resilience that was both natural and hard-won.
Over the years the bubbling big-band girl-singer persona evolved into the grand and remote “Miss Peggy Lee,” who attended to every detail of her arrangements; of costume, lighting, and gesture; of her totally artificial, iconic appearance. She was as meticulous in these matters as Marlene Dietrich. Unlike Dietrich, however, Lee was close-up, personal, and spontaneous once the music started. No one could predict what she’d do next, but you learned that she’d get you.
Lee is survived by her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.