Peggy Lee cracked the Top 10 in three different decades and was wedded to her art until the end
by Kevin Jones
The Australian, January 23, 2002
Peggy Lee, like Frank Sinatra, had that almost uncanny ability to find and bring out the meaning of a song.
Lee’s voice may have been small, slight and even fragile as she created an illusion of intimacy by drawing on a deep sense of life behind the lyric, but few singers, if any, had the ability to play so many characters.
In a concert or nightclub, Lee could be a happy character in one number, a comedienne in the next, then a tragedienne. She instinctively knew how to change the mood of a performance by adding excitement or slyly inserting humour with wicked connotations into words that an audience may have thought devoid of such meaning.
She was hard to categorise. She did not win acceptance among hardcore jazz fans, who were suspicious of her diverse talents as a singer, songwriter and composer; nor was she commercial enough to arouse the interest of an undiscriminating mass public.
But she was a class act. She entranced concert audiences, record buyers and moviegoers for half a century despite several life-threatening illnesses, four troubled marriages, and rock’n’roll. Lee was the only woman to have Top 10 hits in the 1940s, the ’50s and the ’60s.
Her death in Los Angeles of a heart attack at the age of 81 has further depleted the pantheon of the 20th century’s great entertainers.
One of the most hypnotic singers in either popular music or jazz, she understood the power of suggestion — something she conveyed so easily through the creamy, sensual warmth of her voice, with its conspiratorial quality.
Listen to Fever — her big hit of 1958, which was to become almost her theme song — in which with just finger-snapping, bass and drums, she took heated sensuality to new heights.
With an indefinable aura, crisp phrasing, faultless diction and sincerity, she turned the presentation of a song into a fine art.
She was ever the perfectionist, planning every detail of her delivery in advance — including her coiffures, costly wardrobe, lighting, and stage entrances and exits. This obsession was to take its toll on her health over the years.
Lee was a diabetic; she had weight and glandular problems; she nearly died in a fall at a New York hotel, and later at another in Las Vegas; she underwent angioplasty and double-bypass heart surgery; she had a speech-impairing stroke in 1998.
The big band drummer Don Lamond tells of a date he did with Lee at Disneyland in the ’70s when, obviously not well, she moved offstage behind a screen every few numbers to take a whiff of oxygen.
A class act indeed.
But where did this passion for perfection come from? From the daydreams amid the prairies of North Dakota of a 14-year-old girl of Swedish descent — born Norma Egstrom on May 6, 1920 in Jamestown — who wanted to be a singer? Hardly.
More likely it was the result of her association with the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, who always demanded the best from his performers.
Goodman was notorious for his cold brutality and rudeness to musicians. Helen Forrest, recognised as the best of the white big band singers of the swing era, who, almost on the verge of a nervous breakdown, gave her notice to Goodman in August 1941 and decided to join Harry James, once quipped: “Benny was great — until he took the clarinet out of his mouth.”
But Goodman believed in Lee despite the protests of jazz followers, who were upset that a singer who appeared unsure, nervous and confused was given so many ballads to sing at the expense of the band’s star-studded line-up.
And this great Goodman band included such stellar sidemen as trumpeters Cootie Williams and Billy Butterfield, trombonists Lou McGarity and Cutty Cuttshall, drummer “Big Sid” Catlett, pianist Mel Powell and tenor saxophonist Vido Musso.
But Goodman’s belief in Lee never wavered. She was a good student; he taught her the value of rehearsal and hard work, and the improvement was remarkable. One only has to compare the first tune she recorded with the band on August 15, 1941, the banal Elmer’s Tune written by a Chicago undertaker called Elmer, with her singing on the Eddie Sauter-arranged Soft as Spring, ‘Tis Autumn and Duke Ellington’s I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good, or her recordings of Where or When and On the Sunny Side of the Street with the sextet, to realise Goodman’s faith in her was justified.
Those 20 months with Goodman not only made her a star and launched her career, but also had a great influence on her phrasing and technique as she enhanced her voice with the slurs and pitch distortions borrowed from the band’s soloists.
Looking back over Lee’s 50-year recording career, three songs stand out: Why Don’t You Do Right, Black Coffee and Lover.
The first was a rhythm-and-blues record by Lil Green which Lee used to play continuously in her dressing room in her spare time. It sold more than 1million copies after she talked Goodman into recording it in 1942. She was to reprise the song with Goodman’s band the following year in her first movie, Stage Door Canteen.
The second showed her debt to the great Billie Holiday, with Lee adding her personal appeal.
She left Capitol Records for Decca in 1952 so she could record the third of these songs in the way she wanted. Lover, written as a sedate waltz by the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, had become a bacchanalia for brass under the banner of Stan Kenton.
In Lee’s hands it became the height of covert sensuality above throbbing Latin rhythms.
The 18-year-old Powell is credited with drawing Goodman’s attention to Lee while she was singing at the Buttery in the Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel. Musso was her minder in the band who kept the more avid male fans at bay.
But love did not come from outside the band. In June 1942 guitarist Dave Barbour joined the band. He was the love of Lee’s life. One spring night the following year, they disappeared together from the bandstand at the Hollywood Palladium.
They returned a few days later as man and wife. Goodman was not impressed. He sacked them both.
The marriage was to fold in 1951 as a result of Barbour’s chronic alcoholism, after yielding a daughter, Nicki, and a husband-and-wife songbook that included the 2-million seller Manana, Golden Earrings, A Good Day and I Don’t Know Enough About You. Plans for Barbour and Lee to remarry were scuttled by his death in 1965.
Her double Grammy-winning 1969 hit Is That All There Is? really summed up her life.
Her dramatic characterisation of an alcoholic singer in the 1955 movie Pete Kelly’s Blues earned her an Oscar nomination. Lee joked that her agents kept scripts from her in case she decided to give up singing.
Her later career occasionally proved traumatic. When dogged by ill health, she sometimes went on the road in a wheelchair, with a portable oxygen tent and other necessary equipment. Towards the end she was down to six gigs a year, but she was still writing songs and recording.
In all, Lee recorded at least 650 songs and more than 60 albums. Like Sinatra’s, some of the best were on the Capitol label — including Beauty and the Beat (with George Shearing), Things Are Swinging and Mink Jazz.
Is that all there is? For the young girl who daydreamed on the prairies of becoming a singer, worked as a waitress as a teenager in Hollywood during the Depression, sang on local radio stations and with anonymous groups and overcame the early throat trouble before her big break with Goodman, it probably was.
And it’s more than enough.