In New York last week the new Peggy Lee recalled her old self: “Remember those singers with the big bands? Between numbers they’d snap their fingers, and tap their feet as if they had trouble sitting. Not me. Sitting in front of the Benny Goodman band, I was frozen stiff like an Egyptian mummy.
In those days Peggy sang scared too, motionless, straight-faced, stiff-armed, tight-lipped. “I was lucky to get my mouth open,” she said. Not even successes like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” or “Mañana” could strip away the veil of reserve from that ivory voice. “I wasn’t much of a mixer,” she said. “I didn’t understand people. Sometimes, as I sang, I was afraid that someone was going to reach up and grab me by the ankles.”
Her serious illness in 1961 changed Peggy Lee. While at Basin Street East in New York she collapsed suddenly with double pneumonia. She was left with permanent lung damage, which has restricted her engagements, made long rests a necessity, and “Charlie” her inseparable traveling companion.
Charlie is a large oxygen tank which Peggy must use four times a day to keep her lungs from filling up with fluid. “Charlie has helped me understand people, too,” she said. “And so has David,” she added, meaning her five-month-old grandson. “He calls me ‘Blama’… You know, grandma.”
Secrets: Last week, back at Basin Street East, there was nothing innocent or artless about Peggy Lee. Her husky, cracked breathlessness made each note a secret. Her phrasing of oldies like “Lover” turned time back; she sang “Hello, Dolly!” so low and blue and slow it became sad rather than glad.
Buxom, hippy, leggy, in a low-scooped, clinging, sequined blue gown, Peggy Lee had a new flip side. She had become a mixer, making the evening a housewarming, liberally blending hot and cold, sweet and spicy, soft and loud, slow and fast with an artfulness that would have made her old, frozen-mummy self blush. She beat out “Fever” and “I’m a Woman” with come-ons of arms and hands, and a barrage of sinuous body movements from the cha-cha-cha to an amplified twist, and even an uninhibited bump and grind.
This was the new Peggy Lee, mellowed with sex and burnished with skill – youngest of the red-hot mamas.