by Sidney Fields
Peggy Lee has earned enduring and increasing acceptance as a music maker with a unique style that combines silk, fire, and ice. These are the gifts of her durability. What is the key to them?
She has sung and sorrowed and loved much, and knows she must sing and sorrow and love more.
“My mind and heart, or anybody’s doesn’t grow any gray hair unless we want it to,” she says.
Her full, fair, and strikingly handsome face is passive, except for her hazel eyes. But before an audience her passivity disappears. She compels, and commands. She is queen.
“As a kid I always had to force my steps to walk up and say hello to anyone,” she recalls. “I might be meeting another introvert. There’s less of that now, but there’s still a little fight going on inside all the time.
But she is a careful business woman and a shrewd showman. She is president of Peggy Lee Enterprises, the parent firm of her multiple activities including two music publishing firms.
Every song, every engagement is as vitally important as if it were the first time. At a rehearsal or recording session she will spend four hours on four bars to achieve one desired effect. When her musicians tell her to rest while they practice, she still stays. She must know everything that goes on.
The crowds that lined up when she returned to Basin Street East last Monday will continue on her final day, May 12th. They were lined up in rain and in blizzard on her last appearance there.
If you gathered all the stars and put them at her feet Peggy would still be thankful that she’s liked. She’ll always be Norma Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota. For which we’re thankful. The seventh of eight children, her father was a railroad station agent. Her mother died when she was four.
“And for a year before she did, she knew she was going and sewed us a lot of clothes so we’d be dressed for a long time,” Peggy says.
She sang on a Fargo, North Dakota radio station, and also addressed envelopes as part of her job. Pawning her graduation watch and with a free ticket from her father she went to Hollywood, failed, returned to addressing envelopes until she moved on to Minneapolis, then Chicago where Benny Goodman heard her and made her his vocalist.
In New York, at the Paramount, in 1943, in her dressing room she played Lil Green’s recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” incessantly. Goodman figured she liked the song, had her sing it, and it received a moderate, but hardly an earthshaking reception – until she recorded it. An overnight hit. And she’s been one ever since.
Peggy has been married three times. Nicki, 18, daughter of her first marriage, took a real state course while deciding what college to go. She is a fine dancer and singer.
“But would never say so, and won’t sing around me,” Peggy says. “and she mothers me.”
She points to Nicki and adds, “That’s love.” Her eyes rest on a vase of flowers. “That’s love too. And love is humor, and all the people around you. If we didn’t feel it there would be no reason for being.”
Ask Peggy Lee what her popularity is and the first thought that comes to her mind is, not her enormous record sales, her income, her top rating at ASCAP as a songwriter but “my friends.”
Or it’s when the captains and waiters and busboys at Basin Street East keep a jar in the kitchen in which they all put part of their tips for “Meals for Millions” because they learned Peggy’s interested in it with heart and hand.
Ask her what success is and she answers, “A fulfillment of what you were born to do. I know I was born to sing, but there’s more. I want to write more music, to paint more, and I have a burning urge, after experimenting with clay, to get a big hunk of stone and see what I can do with it.
The key to her durability? The music inside Peggy Lee.