Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota on May 26, 1920, the legendary Miss Peggy Lee soon left the heartland to become one of the most glamorous icons in American show business. But underneath the big round tinted glasses, glittering sequined gowns, and elegant pearly-white wigs smolders a spirit to true to life it goes straight to the heart of every song – and listener. Due to a variety of ailments, Miss Lee performs infrequently these days, but when she does, the voice still flows out of her, coursing with an organic ease that transcends the many layers of self-constructed persona.
With her deep, low, sensuous voice, Miss Lee helped define the American songbook, both in her interpretations as a cabaret singer and as a lyricist herself. Her many trademarks – “Fever,” “I’m a Woman,” “It’s a Good Day,” “Mañana,” and “Is That All There Is?” to name but a few – have enriched our popular music for decades. Whenever you hear remarkable singing, you can feel Peggy Lee’s presence.
Ray Rogers: There don’t seem to be as many huge stars today as in previous eras. Why is that?
Peggy Lee: Different reasons. Some have retired, some have died.
RR: Has what we want from our stars changed?
PL: I think for a while that was true, but not now. There are several singers I’ve heard who are excellent, but I think they aren’t quite ready yet. One is Natalie Cole. And of course k.d. lang is terrific.
RR: She’s a huge fan of yours, as are many famous singers, from Madonna on down. Do you feel that these artists are, in a way, carrying the torch that you lit?
PL: Well, I intend to sing again, the good Lord willing. But first I need out what’s going on with my heart, and then I have diabetes and poliomyelitis, which is terrible, like having arthritis all over your body.
RR: That must be very painful.
PL: Yes, it is. And I’m at least going to sing concerts when I go back. I loved the last couple I gave.
RR: I wanted to ask you about your singing. How did you come to realize the quiet power of your voice?
PL: By using different levels of it. Whenever I get very quiet and very intense, the power goes right through.
RR: It goes right to the heart of the song.
PL: Yes, and people respond differently than they would otherwise. Then occasionally I do a belting thing, but I don’t really like that. If the song is dramatic enough, I let it all come out. But I think about singing the way I think about conversation, so with the use of dynamics, I get my message across.
RR: Did you always know you had that power?
PL: No, not always. I think I learned that when I was singing at a benefit in Palm Springs. I didn’t have the audience’s complete attention, so I dropped the volume way down and sang with quiet intensity, and it was amazing the way the crowd reacted.
RR: You wanted to talk a little today about the essence of singing.
PL: Well, I think we are. The use of dynamics and conversation is very important, and then the lyric makes everything – all the feeling depends on the lyric.
RR: You can’t really deliver unless you have something there to give.
PL: That’s true, absolutely true. I’ve always known that the songs I like best are kind of conversational, easier – one-to-one or telling about someone.
RR: Why do you think your songs and your singing have been able to transcend time?
PL: Because along with the gift of singing, God gave me the gift of analyzing lyrics. Though I had a little difficulty with “Is That All There Is?”
RR: What was it that gave you difficulty?
PL: Well, the whole thing is a bit of a riddle. It’s like trying to portray what’s been in your life.
RR: Even so, it shows a healthy life philosophy.
PL: Yes. I had to spend a lot of time explaining that to people when it was first performed, because many of them took it the short and easy way – “Oh, is that all there is?” – and that’s not it.
RR: How do you feel about that sentiment now, having lived through so many struggles?
PL: Well, I still think the same.
RR: Tell me about “Fever” and “I’m a Woman.” When you first sang those songs, what kind of reaction did you get?
PL: I think people get a kick out of them. “I’m a Woman” is a funny song if you look at the lyrics. And “Fever,” I wrote that.
RR: There’s a real zest to “Fever,” a great sexual flare. Today singers are more explicit in their lyrics. Do you think there’s something to be said for a bit of restraint?
PL: Yes, I do. I think they’re killing the romance.
RR: Yet we’re experiencing a return to lounge and cabaret culture. Why do you think that is?
PL: Because there’s more to what a song does to people than just what’s on the surface. A good song is inspiring.
RR: I understand you’re worried about American songwriting, about songwriters not being heard, not having the forums they had in the past.
PL: I think that’s true, but it’s improving.
RR: How do you think we got to this point?
PL: It’s the state of the world and the economy, and everything affects it. The audience can’t afford to go to some of these things. And with rock concerts, they don’t need to think too much about lyrics, because it’s mostly sound. So that’s also part of it. There aren’t the proving grounds there used to be.
RR: Do you still sing for your own enjoyment?
PL: I have nurses around the clock, and I don’t want to sing when they’re here. But once in a while I just try it out to see if it’s still there – and it is.
RR: Do you have an innate need to sing?
PL: I was born feeling that way. When I was just a small child, I sang all the time. I think Peggy Lee was in there from the start.
RR: Does it hurt you to sing now?
PL: No, it doesn’t. Standing up does, so I use a wheelchair. I don’t mind too much, and audiences are wonderful about it. New York audiences have always been very, very good to me.
RR: What makes a New York audience special?
PL: Their intelligent grasp of things. Before you even begin, they have that… you know that energy they have in New York, where the minute you get into town, you think “Oh, it’s here, it’s still here.” I think I still have a firm grasp on what they want. And right now they’re a little short on singers. Frank [Sinatra] isn’t very well, and Andy Williams is down in Missouri. Ray Charles, I don’t know where he is. He plays in Branson [Missouri] every once in a while, doesn’t he? That’s a good spot, but it sounds like a step towards retiring.
RR: Something you have no desire to do.
PL: No. No, I don’t. I don’t want to get into that yet. Some of the fan mail I get makes me want to weep, because they think I’ve retired already.
RR: What do you do with your free time?
PL: I read some. And I’ve even gotten into watching basketball. And golf I love, it’s so soothing.
RR: Like your singing, something I hope to experience here in New York sometime.
PL: Well, it all depends a little bit on the bones and the body, but I’ll come if I can get there. I don’t mind hearing from those people out there, though. If you want to, write and tell me should I come or should I not.
RR: Come, come, come!