by Jay Sharbutt
New York – About five years ago, a blonde, smoky-voiced, famous singer from Jamestown, North Dakota, began her autobiography. Alas, she sighs, “it began to be so long and tedious and” – she chuckles – “grim.”
“It occurred to me to take bits out of it and do a musical instead.”
The singer: Peggy Lee. The musical: Peg, about both the bad times and the good times in her life and career. It is propelled by 29 songs, some her hits of yesteryear, others new tunes written for the show.
It is scheduled to premiere in November, and it will be her Broadway debut in three respects – as a lyricist, co-author and star. The star part wasn’t in her original plan.
“I didn’t intend to be in it at all, originally,” says Lee, a shy, soft-spoken woman. “I was writing it for someone else to do.”
That changed when she invited Irv and Margie Cowan, friends who own a hotel, to a party at her Beverly Hills home. Someone urged her to sing a bit of the score from the wok-in-progress.
“They loved it,” she reports. “They said, ‘We’d like to produce it.’” Then they summoned Broadway producer Zev Bufman to hear it. He also flipped, and asked to co-produce it. All insisted she be the star.
Which is how it comes to pass that when interviewed, Lee, clad in a red turban and sunglasses, is busy rehearsing for her debut as the star of a Broadway musical.
“Naturally, we’re only touching the highlights because I’ve lived a very active life and been around for a while,” she says with a gentle smile.
Once described by the jazz critic Gene Lees as “the most consistently intelligent female singer of popular music in America,” she’s been around since the late ‘30s, when she broke in as a teenager, singing on small radio stations in North Dakota.
Her name was Norma Deloris Egstrom then. Ken Kennedy, a program director on a station in Fargo, suggested she change her name to Peggy Lee. She did. And as Peggy Lee she became a star in 1942, when she cut her first hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with Benny Goodman’s band.
The session only earned her $10. But she has no gripes. “I don’t like to dwell on that, because you see what that song has done for me? And Benny taught me so much. Like the value of rehearsing.
“And integrity with your music. He really dedicated himself to it. I think his whole life is music. As is mine.”
At last report, her life in music includes the recording of 59 albums of songs. Songs like the finger-popping “Fever,” the joyful “It’s a Good Day,” the sassy “Big Spender,” the roaring Latino treatment of Richard Rodgers’ “Lover,” the wistful “Is That All There Is?” to list a few.
A gifted lyricist, she also has collaborated on songwriting with some pretty fair tunesmiths, like Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Victor Young and Cy Coleman, the last a longtime friend who is again working with her, this time as artistic consultant to Peg.
The show offers a mix of her old hits with new songs she has written with a young English pianist, Paul Horner. She co-authored the musical’s book with playwright William Luce, author of The Belle of Amherst.
She has had a durable career, no question. But it almost came to a halt twice, the first time because of domestic bliss in the late ‘40s, when she was married to her first husband, the late Dave Barbour, guitarist with the Goodman band.
Lee, who with Barbour wrote two hits, “Mañana” and “It’s a Good Day,” was thinking of dropping out of music then, perhaps write a song or two with him, but she was very content to be a housewife and take care of their young daughter, Nicki.
“I’d receive tremendous offers – when I think of it now it’s really quite funny – but I’d politely say no to these fantastic offers and go back to my housework… I loved every minute of it.
“Then one day I was asked to do a couple of sides with a group of jazz musicians, top guys, and I thought, ‘Well, that’d be all right, I can get a babysitter.’”
Encouraged by her husband, she returned to the recording studios, resulting in Black Coffee, an album that is now a collector’s item, and a resumption of her career – with the marriage, unfortunately, foundering in later years, with Barbour drinking heavily.
Then, in 1961, riding high, in heavy demand at the top clubs of Las Vegas, New York and London, she came down with double pneumonia and pleurisy. It forced her, she says, to include a respiratory machine as part of her backstage baggage for ten years.
She needed five sessions a day with the machine – she nicknamed it “Charlie” – just to keep going.
She doesn’t have it now, she adds, happily noting that she was able to donate it and a backup to the American Lung Association ten years ago.
“I was given six months to life – if I continued to work,” she recalled of her illness. “I guess people do consider it rather miraculous that I was finally able to give those machines away.”
Some consider it equally miraculous that she, like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, is a middle-of-the-road survivor, still singing her own kind of music in an age of rock that had ranged from bubble to punk.
She’s reluctant to knock rock: “I prefer whatever is good in music, like the Beatles’ music, which I think I was one of the first to do. Paul McCartney, in fact, later wrote the title song for an album of mine, Let’s Love.
But rock’s roar did alarm her when it first checked in the ‘50s.
“Yes, because everything changed overnight,” she says. “But gradually, because we stood our ground, we’ve been able to continue with something that’s sort of better musically.
“You really have to believe in what you do, you know. And I couldn’t believe in rock. It certainly is” – a quick grin – “remunerative. But you have to have a certain conscience about music, a certain integrity.”