by Herman L. Masin
Being sports editor of Scholastic Magazines, I seldom get to see anything more inspiring than a clout into the bleachers or a hook shot from the bucket. All in all, it isn’t such a bad life. But every once in a while, I yearn for the gay life of a feature editor – always seeing the latest movies and plays and interviewing pretty people.
That’s why when I heard our feature editor needed someone to interview Peggy Lee, the country’s number one female singer, I applied for the job.
“Give me a chance, I pleaded. “I’m tired of looking at foul balls and T-formations. I want to see the outside world – the bright lights, glamorous people.” While I waited for her answer, I silently slipped her four ducats to the Army-Navy football game.
I got the job, of course. Next day I presented myself at the stage entrance of the famous Paramount Theater (New York) and was ushered up to Peggy Lee’s dressing room.
I found Peggy in front of a long mirror, making with the nail polish. “Have a seat,” she said, flashing 36 pearly teeth at me. I looked at the teeth, the beautiful blonde hair, the big hazel eyes, and the perfect features. “Prettier than Ted Williams’ swing,” I thought.
Peggy proved to be a willing victim. She answered all my silly questions politely, and fluently, as if she enjoyed doing it. A tall girl – five feet, seven inches, weighing 120 pounds – she is very poised and worldly.
Peggy is a self-made woman in every sense of the word. Born on a farm in Jamestown, North Dakota, Peggy, or rather Norma Egstrom – that’s her real name – grew up surrounded by corn fields and brothers and sisters. While attending Nortonville High and later Wimbledon High, she helped support the Egstrom brood by cooking for threshers and working in the fields.
Singing came naturally to her, and after graduation she decided to become a vocalist. This meant working days as a ticket seller in a railroad station and singing nights with college bands. For 50 cents an evening, Peggy crooned her lungs out through a megaphone. “I always felt sorry for the leader,” Peggy told us. “I always made more money than the poor fellow ever did.”
In 1937 Peggy set out to conquer Hollywood. She hocked her graduation watch, got a pass from her father who was a railroad man, and arrived in California with just 18 bucks to her name.
The movie capital struck her out, one, two, three, and Peggy came running home. She landed a two-way job in Fargo – a program over station WDAY and a dinnertime singing job at one of the leading hotels. She proved just right for the digestion. She was booked for the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis, then the Doll House in Palm Springs.
It was at the Doll House that Frank Bering, a Chicago hotel man, caught her act and signed her up. She sang in Chicago for a solid year – until a pretty fair clarinet player named Benny Goodman happened to pass by and hear her. Next thing she knew Peggy was yodeling for the Goodman band.
The rest you probably know. Peggy made a tremendous hit with Benny. Their record of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (Columbia) became the top of hit of the year and Peggy was a real big-timer at last.
She stayed with Goodman for two years – just long enough to fall in love with the band’s crack guitar player, Dave Barbour. They were married a short time later, and Peggy left Benny to become a housewife.
Because they were now home so much, Peg and Dave began writing songs. “What More Can a Woman Do?” and “You Was Right, Baby” (Capitol) were among their first tunes. A friend persuaded them to record their songs and before they realized it, the Barbours were launched on another career.
With Dave supplying the music and Peggy doing the vocals, the Barbours today are among the most successful songwriters and recording artists in the business. They seem to bang out hits as consistently as Jackie Robinson. “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings” and “Mañana” (Capitol) alone have sold over 4,000,000 copies!
At this point in our interview, a stranger stuck his head in the doorway and shouted, “Thirty minutes!” I started speeding up my pitches.
“Who are your favorite singers?”
She pondered a moment. “Well, I like nearly all the popular vocalists for one thing or another. My favorites, though, are Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Maxine Sullivan.”
In the men’s division, Peggy couldn’t be specific, but she said some nice things about Crosby, Sinatra and Damone.
“What bands do you prefer?”
“Duke Ellington,” she answered quickly; then, after thinking a while, “I also like the Charlie Barnet and Woody Herman bands. The three Woody records I like most are ‘Autumn Serenade,’ ‘Four Brothers’ and ‘Lemon Drop’” (Columbia). That started us talking about bop.
“I never used to like bop,” she told me. “I thought it was too neurotic, and I was always annoyed at the younger bop musicians for the clothing and attitudes they affected. Then I started listening to bop records and began liking the simpler forms. They made me feel sort of happy. Now I can enjoy bop. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker are great original musicians, and I think the Gillespie recording of ‘Cubana Bop’ (Victor) is a fine piece of music.”
“Have you any hobbies?”
“Gardening, visiting art exhibits (I especially like oil paintings), and studying philosophy,” Peggy answered. “I’m really sorry I could never go to college. I liked high school, except for math, and I still like to jot down all the important ideas I find in my reading.”
By this time, Peggy was ready for the next show. I stuffed away my 13 pencils, mumbled my gratitude, and fled into the afternoon sunshine. You can put me down as one Yankee that Lee captured.