One song and one singer redefined the meaning of the word “cool” that summer of 1958. The singer was Peggy Lee. The song: “Fever.” At the height of the rock and roll era, Peggy pulled back, stripped away the non-essentials, and created a classic that epitomized the cool, laid-back style that has since become her trademark.
As a landmark in the history of a singer, “Fever” stands for more than just another hit in the Peggy Lee repertoire. It represents a singer who is more than a singer – a stylist with a jazz influence. A composer. A lyricist. A perfectionist who involves herself in every phrase of her recordings and concert appearances by personally selecting the arrangers, musicians, lighting designers, soundmen and materials.
During a career that has now spanned 53 years (Peggy began by singing at radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota. It was WDAY’s Ken Kennedy who renamed Norma Deloris Egstrom “Peggy Lee”), Peggy’s infallible musical instinct has often paid off. While touring with Benny Goodman’s band in 1941, Peggy would listen repeatedly to a Lil Green blues number on the Victrola in her room. Picking up on the fact that his girl singer must like the song a lot, Mr. Goodman finally asked Peggy if she wanted to record the song, which was titled “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Recorded July 27, 1942, it became the first of Peggy’s big hits.
The story almost ended there. Lee married Benny’s guitarist Dave Barbour, and left the band to start a family. Peggy tells what happened: “I had intended to retire. David had more foresight than I did. He always felt that I should continue to sing. He said, ‘Someday you’ll regret it if you didn’t.’ He was a fan.”
It was a phone call from Dave Dexter, Jr. that brought Peggy Lee back to music. With the wartime record ban lifted in November 1943, Dave had ideas of gathering some of the hottest jazz musicians in Los Angeles to record for a new label called Capitol records. The resulting sides were released as an album titled New American Jazz. Peggy’s cuts, “Ain’t Goin’ No Place” and “That Old Feeling,” garnered such praise that offers came pouring in. And with her husband’s encouragement, Peggy returned to music with David. They toured and wrote as a team.
“Mañana” was an original Lee-Barbour composition. Instead of following the trend of combining pseudo-Latin rhythms with nonsensical lyrics, Peggy and Dave fused a genuine samba rhythm with English lyrics. The hit was not without drawbacks. Built around the word “mañana,” meaning tomorrow, various Spanish groups did not take kindly to the story of the lazy country bumpkin for whom “Tomorrow is good enough for me,” although no offense was intended. On the heels of that incident, Peggy and Dave found themselves in the center of a plagiarism suit brought about by one “Hats” McKay, who claimed to have written the song exactly as it was recorded, in 1919. Coming to Peg’s rescue, Jimmy Durante pointed out to the court that there was no samba in 1919!
Peggy and Dave parted a few years after, but Lee continued to perform, write and develop as a performer. By the time she recorded “Fever” she had become a song stylist – a pop singer with a jazz influence, and had proven herself to be one of the timeless greats, no matter what kind of tune she performed. But she followed a rather circuitous line of events before setting upon “Fever” as one of them. Her recording of Rodgers and Hart’s “Lover” was instrumental in opening the door for “Fever.”
While watching a film about the French Foreign Legion, Peggy noticed how the trot and gallop of the horses suggested Latin rhythms. “Lover” was the result of an idea that she then worked on for over a year. Taking Latin rhythms and juxtaposing them to the delicate waltz rhythms of the classic Rodgers & Hart song, Lee combined driving, swirling strings, the big band rhythms of horns, Latin percussion, and her torchy vocal in syncopation to the music. With this, Peggy provided herself with another hit, and a single that sold almost one million copies upon its release (May 1, 1952). The only catch was that she had to change record labels to do it.
Capitol Records, Peggy’s label, just had a big hit with Les Paul and Mary Ford’s version of “Lover” shortly before Miss Lee approached company executives with her idea for the song. But they refused to let her record her arrangement. “That’s right,” the singer recall, “Les had a huge hit. I said, ‘Mine’s just different. It doesn’t compete with it.’ But I could see their point.”
“I felt so strongly about it, that’s why I went with Decca. They heard me sing it at the Copa, and they were crazy about it, ” she says. “Capitol never came to hear it.”
Having heard Peggy Lee perform “Lover” at the Copacabana, Decca execs saw the audience reaction to the song, and asked her to record for their label. As her contract was up for renewal, she accepted Decca’s offer and recorded for them for five years before returning to Capitol once again. During that time, she produced one of the definitive jazz vocal albums, Black Coffee, as well as the soundtrack to the films The Jazz Singer (1953), in which she appeared and which also featured her singing “Lover,” Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, and Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, also in 1955, for which she co-wrote the score with Sonny Burke.
She returned to Capitol in 1957 with an album of romantic ballads conducted by Frank Sinatra, The Man I Love, and when she approached the label heads asking to cover a previously recorded song, they asked no questions. They had seen Decca profit from Lee’s magic touch, and gave her carte blanche. “They didn’t say anything!” she remarks. “They always more or less said that I could do what I wanted. But there were a couple of things that I had to record that I didn’t like in order to get to do something like “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” for example. It was hard to do, but I did.”
The song Peggy wanted to record was Johnny Davenport and Ed Cooley’s “Fever.” Recorded in May 19, 1958, Peggy took the song, which was an excellent jukebox rhythm and blues record by Little Willie John, stripped away the horns, electric guitar and gospel voices, wrote special lyrics, and accompanied her finger-snaps with only bass and drums. Peg remembers: “Max Bennett, my bass player at the time, brought me Little Willie Jonh’s record and said ‘This would be a great song for you to sing.’ I listened to it and I agreed, but I thought the lyrics should be a little different for me. So I wrote some lyrics, and I didn’t copyright them. It didn’t occur to me. I thought, ‘That’s what I want – just that rhythm in there.’ I had a lot of faith in it. Jack Marshall was the conductor on that.”
Following her own, infallible instincts, Peggy took “Fever” out of obscurity and pushed it into Billboard’s Top 10, where it remained for three weeks, peaking at number eight on August 25, 1958. It remained in the Top 40 for twelve weeks, and in the Hot 100 for fourteen weeks. Oddly enough, although “Fever” was released as a single, and in several EP releases, there was never a long-playing album built around the song. “That’s true, isn’t it?” Peg exclaims. “I don’t know how that happened. It must have slipped our minds!”
“Fever” first appeared on LP on the 1960 compilation All Aglow Again. A live version was heard on Basin Street East Proudly Presents in 1961. It has since been included on dozens of compilations of Peggy’s best. It also brought her a Grammy nomination for Best Female Vocal and one for Best Arrangement for Jack Marshall.
The song has been her signature for the past thirty years, and she cannot leave a nightclub stage without performing it, with her original arrangement. One exception, though, was during Peggy’s brilliant but short-lived Broadway production Peg, for which the song was performed with an ominous string accompaniment. Her version of “Fever” has been adopted and adapted by such performers as Sarah Vaughan, Elvis Presley, Madelene Kane and even The McCoys, who had a Top 10 hit with their garagish interpretation in 1965. The song also helped spur a new buzzword in marketing and advertising. “Think of the fevers that’s set off,” Lee interjects. “Until the Songwriters Guild gave me those awards, very few people knew that I had wrote those [lyrics].”
During the next fourteen years, Miss Peggy’s association with Capitol was a fruitful one. Songs such as “Heart,” “I’m a Woman” (written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), “Alright, Okay, You Win,” “The Alley Cat Song,” “Pass Me By,” “So What’s New” and “Big Spender” have all become synonymous with her name.
Unlike many singers, who have only one or two arrangers they can feel comfortable with, it was Peggy’s idea to record every other album with a different arranger. Nelson Riddle, Jack Marshall, Billy May, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter, Shorty Rogers, Bill Holman, Dave Grusin and others have all showcased the singer’s versatility and creativity. “That was my idea,” explains Peg. “My whole thing is to interpret the song, so therefore I always felt that it should have the right setting, and that certain arrangers could write better for brass than others, etc; whoever would understand the intrepretation of the song as I wanted to sing it. I could never just give a key to somebody and say, ‘Do that.’”
Her albums were released at a rate of two to four each year from 1959-67, when there began a two-year break during which time no new product was issued. “That’s when my producer (Dave Cavanaugh) died. [New] Rock came in, and that probably had something to do with it, too.” When she resumed recording in 1969, she made the breakthrough album A Natural Woman, celebrating the current rhythmic trends in music and paying homage to such songwriters as Billie Holiday, Carole King & Gerry Goffin, Otis Redding, Sly Stone, D.C. Thomas and Randy Newman.
Later, she was approached by writers Leiber and Stoller with an original song very much different than the bulk of their original material. The verses were spoken, the chorus slightly existentialist. Eerily paralleling her own life, “Is That All There Is?” was a song of hope in Peggy’s hands. Seemingly a song of despair, interpreted by Lee, it became an anthem for those who believed in tomorrow…with its new hope and new opportunities. “For ‘Is That All There Is?’ I really had to pitch,” she remarks. “I went to see Glen Waller and he said ‘Peggy you don’t have to show me a demo or ask me. You helped build this [Capitol] building!’ You go ahead and record it.’” Her reading of the number went on to win her a Grammy for Best Female Vocal, 1969.
Sadly, the ‘70s were to see the end of Peggy Lee’s association with Capitol records. It happened in 1972. ‘That’s when Capitol was taken over by EMI; the day my record was ready to be released” (Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota), she recalls. “That album didn’t get proper distribution at all. People were finding it here and there, and there was nothing I could do about it. The same thing happened at Atlantic. I made an album for them with Dave Grusin. We co-produced it. We finished the album and took the publicity shots. I called the next morning expecting to hear ‘Atlantic Records,’ but someone on the phone said ‘Elektra-Asylum.’ I thought I had the wrong number!”
The album Lee recorded for Atlantic in 1974 was built around the title tune, “Let’s Love,” which was written especially for her by a devoted fan named Paul McCartney. With this album, Peggy successfully experimented with funk, gospel, pop-rock and ballads. This was followed in 1975 with Mirrors, on A&M, entirely written for her by Leiber and Stoller, with each song a riddle with themes ranging from a murder to mild anti-war and social commmentary to slightly eccentric characters. “Leiber and Stoller get the credit for that,” she stresses. “They wrote all of those things and I think that I interpreted their art songs better than most. They had a definite opinion about that.”
Unfortunately, this creative brilliance was not rewarded with commercial success. But Peggy, never one to be afraid, continued to experiment – to grow. Her last album, Close Enough For Love, was recorded in 1979 for the DRG label, and put Peggy back into the small combo setting for which she was most popular in the 1950s. Always the quintessential interpreter of a ballad, the album highlighted such classics as “Come In from the Rain” and “In the Days of Our Love.”
Today, at 68, Peggy still performs and is recording once again. Despite changing trends in music, illness and personal setbacks, Miss Lee endures. And the reason is simple. Peggy Lee is a natural. No gimmicks. No special effects. She sings straight from the heart. No, much deeper. From the soul. She is believable. She sings as if she’s lived each song…as a matter of fact, she probably has. That’s what will continue to keep her audiences coming back for more. The curiosity that maybe each new performance or recording will give another glance into her life, or a reflection into ours. Who knows? And what does Peggy Lee has to say about it all?
“It’s nice to know that you’ve left some kind of mark.”