by Helen Gould
Achieving success in one field may be a trying, sometimes impossible chore, but tripling in brass seems to be just what the doctor ordered for Peggy Lee. The tall, blue-eyed, platinum blonde hardly needs an introduction as a singer of popular songs, to judge by the myriad number of records her singular voice has helped to sell. Now she is about to emerge (if that is the proper word) as the unseen star as well as the lyricist of Walt Disney’s first feature-length Cinemascope cartoon, Lady and the Tramp.
How Miss Lee became involved in Lady and the Tramp, based on the Ward Greene story of a boudoir-eyed cocker spaniel and a sporty mongrel, assorted animal characters and even a few two-legged creatures called people, was an adventure that, “like Topsy, just growed,” she said.
“It’s strange, in a way. Production was already underway when I was called in to write the lyrics to Sonny Burke’s music. They liked the songs and my interpretation and everything else fell into place.” And to make the occasion complete, Miss Lee also wound up as the voice of four of the film’s characters, Darling, Peg, Si and Am.
The “sets” of Lady and the Tramp, which was three years in the making, are still fresh in her memory.
“You come to work and there is a ten-foot story board, which serves as a sort of synposis. The directors talk to you lovingly about the characters. There were three directors assigned to the picture, but it was always the same. A couple of seconds after you started you forgot the characters were dogs. You prerecorded the material for the artists, who worked from that. Vocal interpretation influences artists a great deal; they seem to be able to get a lot of things from one little inflection.”
Before she was through, Miss Lee’s talents and name were stretched in several directions. For the song, presumably sung by the Siamese cats named, naturally, Si and Am, and titled “We Are Siamese,” she did a duet with herself, recorded on two sound tracks. She is present, if by proxy, as one of the cartoon characters. When it came to naming the tail-swinging, canine vamp who sings one of the film’s seven songs, the torchy “He’s a Tramp,” there was only one choice: Peg. The picture is due to be dubbed in seven different languages, and the indefatigable Miss Lee wants to do those voices too.
The metamorphosis of Norma Egstrom of the farming country around Jamestown, North Dakota into the Peggy Lee of many voices is not too exotic.
“When I was a little girl,” she explains, “I wasn’t around children very much. I had an interesting childhood, but kind of rough; my mother died when I was four. I was interested in older people, some of whom had accents. The people I knew were very kind to me. Someone you like, you remember how they sound, and many of them are still fresh in my mind.”
While working on Lady and the Tramp Miss Lee’s other activities included the completion of a book of poetry, two weekly radio shows and a nightclub engagement at Ciro’s in Hollywood, as well as a costarring role in The Jazz Singer, She has finished a costarring stint opposite Jack Webb in Pete Kelly’s Blues, a job that led that actor-producer-director to sign her for three additional films to be made by his Mark VII Productions.
This pace, it might be gathered at this point, is not unusual for the lady. She has written the lyrics for, and sung, the title songs for two features, Johnny Guitar and About Mrs. Leslie, and has done a similar stint with “The Gypsy with Fire in His Shoes” for Universal’s Rawhide Years. She also has a couple of hit records – her own compositions – in “Straight Ahead” and “It Must Be So.” And she characterizes her recent six-week, one-night tour of nightclubs as “bringing home the bacon and putting it in deep freeze.”
Things are enlivened, however, in her hilltop home by the presence of 11-year-old Nicki (her daughter by her ex-husband, musician Dave Barbour) and three dogs. In addition to a collie named Banjo and a rare Norwegian elkhound who answers to the name of Viking, there is a cocker spaniel called Lady, who is real as well as animated. She is a solid memento of Lady and the Tramp given to Miss Lee by tunesmith Sonny Burke.