by Ray Bennett
LOS ANGELES – “I was prepared to go if it was necessary,” said Peggy Lee. “You know, ‘Is this trip really necessary?’”
Fortunately for Lee and jazz lovers everywhere, the “trip” wasn’t necessary. Lee survived double-bypass heart surgery in New Orleans last October and the complications that required a second operation two weeks later. Now, slim and fit again, and exuding her trademark sensuality that evokes more of the South than her North Dakota home, she recently returned to the stage in “Spring Fever” at the Westwood Playhouse.
“There were complications. Serious ones,” she said one evening at her home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. “But they’ve cleared up, and I’m doing just fine. It took a while. Six months. I’m walking a lot, and today I’ve been rehearsing since noon, so I’m holding up. I’ve always been sort of careful of my health, but what I was doing, I think, was overworking. I love it and I get into it and I forget, you know? I don’t have one of those indicators that says, ‘You’re tired; sit down.’”
“You wouldn’t want the details,” she said of her operation, but she credits her recovery to the reading and meditating that she has done all her life – “It all helped me, because I wasn’t afraid” – and to the outpouring of concern she received.
“One of the things I noticed, both at the hospital in New Orleans and at St. John’s here, was the love; the honest, no-faking love that these people had. And the messages that I got from people, when I was able to understand that I was being given messages. I wasn’t there for a while. But I thank those people for their prayers and their cards. It was a lovely experience to know that people cared so much.”
Lee smiled, remembering. “So then,” she said, “you have to make it. You have an obligation.”
Throughout her ordeal, Lee never lost her celebrated sense of humor. “Don’t you know,” she said, laughing, “that people were trying to avoid playing ‘Is That All There Is’ during that time.”
Of course, Lee always sang that song with the understated optimism that there is always more. And having life’s ultimate trip postponed has left her even more determined to pass that message on.
“There’s a tremendous amount of gratitude going on in my thoughts, she said, “not only for the things that others did, but just that I was allowed to live. And they say that when you have an experience like that, there is something else that you have to do. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s something that I would like to do for people. You know, when you’re given that large a gift and are allowed to stay here, it’s more to give something back. Maybe some work I’m going to do. Something.”
Not the least of that is her reappearance in concert. Besides her classic songs like “Fever,” “Is That All There Is?” and “I’m a Woman,” Lee will bring back “Where Can I Go Without You?,” a venture into country with a subtle waltz treatment of “You Don’t Know Me,” and introduce a new song she has written with guitarist John Chiodini called “I’ll Give It All to You.”
“You’ll see a lot of differences,” she said. “There are some subtle changes in pieces I’ve sung before, so that it’s updated. And I’m adding a few things that I’ve written. I don’t usually do that, but they’ve talked me into it. I’m a terrible song-plugger.”
It pleases Lee that her popularity covers many generations.
“I’m so lucky. I have a lot of young fans, because they like jazz,” she said. “And then I have the ones who enjoy Lady and the Tramp, so there’s always someone fresh to talk to. I’m pleased when their taste in music goes up and up. It makes me very happy. It doesn’t have to be mine, just as long as they like good things.”
As she approaches her 66th birthday in May, she wishes that more attention would be paid to society’s elders. “Learning, and growing by learning, that’s what we have to leave with our young people,” she said. “I am in no way a prude, but just in the basic things of living and trying to make something of their lives, let’s apply what we’ve learned. There’s nothing like rehearsal, and this is a big rehearsal. If only we could take advantage of some of these things, we wouldn’t have to bump our heads so much.”