Only in Hollywood movies, I had always supposed, do you see a frazzled maitre d’ hoisting tiny tables over crowds and jamming them into the already tight spots between the tables to squeeze in patrons desperate to get into a nightclub. But that was exactly the scene the other night at Club 53 in the Hilton as a crowd clamored to see Peggy Lee’s New York comeback.
It was Lee’s first major appearance since her Broadway show in 1983. Since then, she has spent hours in hospitals and in courts of law. The happy news is that she is miraculously resilient.
Broadway was really not a suitable setting for Lee, whose musical style has always been laid-back and intimate. She’s not a belter. She doesn’t go for big emotional moments. Her triumphs come in moments that are quietly, provocatively sexy. The style has treated her voice very gently. It’s possible that singers who had given their cords a more strenuous workout might not have survived all the ordeals Lee had with as much of their special sound intact.
But Lee’s voice is, for the most part, remarkably unstrained, and it still has much of its trademark velvet coziness. She’s also very savvy about the songs she sings, cannily blending her own standards (those she wrote, like “Fever” or “Mañana,” and those she made famous, like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “Is That All There Is?”) with other great songs from years past (an elegant version of “Always True to You in My Fashion” and a touching “I’ll Be Seeing You”).
In between she chats breezily.
“You think I’ve got millions of dollars,” she jokes, alluding to her successful lawsuit against Disney for royalties from the video sales of Lady and the Tramp. She has yet to collect, she tells us. “If they’re waiting for me to die, good luck!” she says after a rousing, spunky version of “He’s a Tramp.”
She keeps forgetting the lyrics for Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Walkin’ Happy.” Her masterly accompanist/conductor Mike Renzi whispers them and she still doesn’t seem to get them right. The high spirits are so infectious it doesn’t matter. As Cahn shouted to her opening night, “Even when you do bad, it’s good.”
Renzi’s arrangements are very skillful, his musicians all very mellow. He uses more synthesizer than I generally like, but it’s an effective cushion for Lee’s voice.
As she began her act to a tumultuous ovation, she said, “There’s something special about tonight. Not only did I get back to New York, but I walked to this chair. I’ve been lying prone for a year.”
The whole thing is indeed special. Her severely cut snow-white wig, her puffy features and a glitzy gown make her look like an embalmed Mae West, but she still knows how to control a room and the sound is still that special sound.
What Lee has done is heroic, and the most amazing part of it is that she manages to make herself not at all heroic but simply the familiar, unpretentious legend.