Peggy Lee

Peggy Lee: Girl in the Middle

Downbeat, May 28, 1959

Peggy Lee: Girl in the Middle

Her career hangs between jazz and pops

by George Hoefer

Peggy Lee’s combination of talents tends to keep her identification dilemmatic. She has been too successful in several areas to win acceptance in the jazz world, and not quite commercial enough to attain the pinnacle of fame awarded to lesser stars by an undiscriminating public. Musically, she’s too good for her own good, and fads have not shaken her taste.

There is something original about Peggy, a something that has not been clearly defined, although it has been sensed by many mentors. People like Benny Goodman, Jack Webb, Walt Disney, the late Victor Young, Gordon Jenkins, Mel Ferrer, Johnny Mercer, the late Tommy Rockwell, Carlos Gastel, Jimmy Durante, movie director Michael Curtiz, and many fine instrumentalists have “dug” Lee as she pertains to their respective fields, and they have nourished her many-faceted career.

Peggy has given jazz performances on records that mark her the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey. Her “Ain’t Goin’ No Place” (Capitol) and her interpretation of Willard Robison’s “A Woman Alone with the Blues” (Decca) are outstanding jazz renditions. The record with Benny Goodman that originally gave her nationwide recognition, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” is a jazz classic.

Turning to the Lee passion for songwriting – something she has had throughout her career – we find that she collaborated with Dave Barbour on two tunes that sold over a million records each: “Mañana” and “Golden Earrings.” The large sales were due not only to the tunes themselves. Her singing of them had a lot to do with their success. Again, she took the ballad “Lover” and interpreted it in stride style atop a Gordon Jenkins background – and the record barely missed a million for Decca.

She has worked all the best clubs across the country, always backed by a combination of jazz musicians, and she has known phenomenal success in this field too. Her act at Ciro’s in Hollywood back in the 1940s is remembered as one of the few with which an artist has been able to enthrall and keep quiet the most blasé supper club audience in America, made up as it is of superegos from the studios.

When Peggy worked at La Vie En Rose in Manhattan in 1953, Downbeat reviewer Leonard Feather commented: “If you don’t feel a thrill when Peggy sings, you’re dead, Jack.”

Peggy’s in-person act has always been a mood-setter. She enhances such tunes as “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” “Black Coffee,” “Rock Me To Sleep” (Benny Carter) with a tremendous personal appeal. She learned to out-Hildegarde Hildy on controlling her listeners – and besides, she was reported to have the sexiest shoulders in New York.

In the 1955 movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, Peggy gave a dramatic characterization that was superior to many performances for which Oscars have been awarded to other stars. A poll of 30,000,000 moviegoers gave her the New Star award.

Miss Lee has progressed and grown constantly in all her fields down the years. Possibly, identification and direction of purpose in one direction should have been more concentrated, or as one of her tunes puts it, everything is moving too fast – with too many things going for her at the same time.

There is no doubt, however, that her first love is music. One of the strong influences on her work has been Billie Holiday. So strong, in fact, that it has been hard to separate her from Billie on some tunes that they have both recorded. Peggy has used Holiday phrasing on such records as “Crazy, He Calls Me” (Capitol), “Easy Living” (Decca) and on “When The World Was Young” (Decca). Leonard Feather once played the latter for Raymond Scott on a Blindfold Test. Scott said, “It must be Billie Holiday, but it is so accurate, precise, and artistic that I can’t believe it.

Dick Haymes, on another Blindfold Test listened to Peg’s “You Go To My Head” (Decca) and surmised, “It must be Billie.” Peggy has said, “I honestly understand what (Billie) sings because she understands what she is singing… Sometimes I used to imitate her.” But no stretch of the imagination can qualify Peggy as a carbon of Billie Holiday. She has accepted a Holiday influence where it fitted – as have many other jazz creators. But she has also used some Lee Wiley, as on the 1944 Capitol jazzmen recording of “Baby,” issued in 1948.

It would appear that Peggy Lee has gotten on “kicks,” in the musical idiom. She and her then husband Dave Barbour were both on a strong Latin American music bender when they created “Mañana,” and one has only to remember her Capitol recording of “Caramba, It’s The Samba” during the mid-forties.

West coast jazz columnist Ralph Gleason asked Peggy, after she had had a bad week at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel Venetian Room in 1954, if she were going to retire. Her answer: “I should say not. When you like music, what are you going to do? It’s like a disease.”

Peggy seems always able to come up with new inspiration and a new musical interest. She has expressed herself as being very fond of the mood music written by Willard Robinson, and of the works of Alec Wilder. She has interest in the works of Duke Ellington. She picked “Warm Valley,” “Flamingo Sword,” and “Jumpin’ Punkins” as her favorite band sides.

Miss Lee was born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, on May 26, 1920. Even out on the Dakota prairies, where you can look in all directions and senothing but flat lands with wheat, there can be big dreams of glamour. The young Swedish girl was writing poetry as a child; by the age of 14 had decided she wanted to be a singer.

She didn’t waste much time in day dreams. It was depression time, but the Egstrom girl took off for the big city of Fargo, North Dakota, where she got a job singing over a local radio station, supporting herself as a waitress.

One thing about working as a waitress: It’s a trade that permits you to travel to far places and still make a living. Peggy headed for California, worked as a barker-singer for an amusement park concession called the Fun Zone. Then she got a singing job at the Jade nitery in Hollywood. She worked there a long time with her throat giving her considerable trouble. Finally, she had to give it up and return home to Fargo.

For the next two years, around 1939 and 1940, she sang in a coffee shop. It became the main entertainment center of Fargo. By this time she had changed her name to Peggy Lee, had begun to look around for band-singing experience, and she was considering the practicality of moving to the still bigger area of progress offered by the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

In August, 1940, Peggy Lee joined Sev Olsen’s Orchestra at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis, and the wives of the Olsen sidemen warned their men to watch their step with the new blonde thrush. She was already attractive enough (at 20) to make the domestic life of the band members a little nervous.

A rival hotel, the Nicollet, had a name band policy. Will Osborne came to the Nicollet. He needed what was then known as a “canary.” Osborne’s hotel tenor band worked all over the country, and it looked like a good deal for Peggy. She tried out, got the job.

Peggy has had her share of bad breaks along with the good. When the band got to St. Louis, she was again suffering with throat trouble. Not only did she have to leave the band (in January 1941), she also had to turn down an offer from Raymond Scott, who had heard her and wanted her to join him.

Heartbroken, she went back to Fargo for a long rest, then joined a cocktail unit traveling through the middle west. The group got her to Chicago during the summer of ‘41. She landed a job singing in the Buttery of the Ambassador West Hotel, an overflow room for the famed Pump Room across the street in the Ambassador East. At that time the Buttery specialized in intimate atmosphere with a single female singer. Peggy’s seductive sultry voice seemed a natural for the spot. She had no idea of the new phase her career was about to enter.

Bandleader Benny Goodman, then playing the Panther Room of the Hotel Sherman (under the same management as the Ambassadors), was staying at the Ambassador. After work he would relax in the Buttery listening to the girl. But he had a singer…

On August 1, 1941, Helen Forrest gave BG her notice, making way for Peggy’s big break. Benny hired Peggy immediately. The Goodman band at that time included Cootie Williams, Billy Butterfield, Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Big Sid Catlett, Mel Powell, and Vido Musso among others, and the Goodman followers immediately set up a howl, crying into their minimum’s worth of beer: “What’s with Benny and all this balladry?” Peggy at that time was very unsure, nervous, and confused. But Benny really believed in her and continued to give her more popular tunes of the day than the jazz fans thought were necessary.

Peggy’s first recording date came at once. On August 15, she sang the vocal on the banality known as “Elmer’s Tune,” written by a Chicago undertaker, whose name happened to be Elmer. BG gave her many vocals on forthcoming record dates. She sang with the backing of many Eddie Sauter arrangements: “Not A Care In The World” and “That Did It, Marie,” as well as Sauter’s treatment of Ellington’s “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good.”

Benny taught Peggy the value of rehearsal, made her work hard. She was a good student and so he used her on some of his more musical dates for Columbia, including some of the Benny Goodman Sextet sides. The idea was to recreate the flavor of what Helen Ward had done for the trio records on Victor a few years before. Peggy did “Blues in the Night” (sharing the vocal with trombonist Lou McGarity), “Where or When,” and “On the Sunny of the Street.”

Her recording of “Let’s Do It” with the big band was the first record that seemed to attract much attention. One tune she didn’t get a chance to record was one of her own: here first published ditty, “Little Fool.” But Benny did put it in the book, and played it occasionally. All of the Peggy sides with Goodman are now available on a Harmony LP sold in drug stores.

The Goodman band went east in September. Benny recalls that while they were playing the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia, Peggy spent her spare time in her dressing room knocking herself out with a rhythm-and-blues record by the late Lil Green on Bluebird. The title of the tune that got Peggy: “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

When the Goodman band recorded the tune with Peggy’s vocal early in 1942, no one thought there would be much interest in it outside the trade. And nothing much did happen – at first. But when the band got to California in the fall of ‘42, Peggy and Benny were amazed to hear that more than 200,000 copies of the record were on order in Southern California alone. The star was rising…

A little later Peggy did some vocals with Art London (now Art Lund) that were the first boy-girl vocals of her career. She has waxed duets with Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, and Dick Haymes. But these recordings were less successful than her singles.

Many glamorous pictures of Peggy have appeared over the years, but her first publicity shot used in Down Beat was not so dignified. Someone had given her a spaniel, which everyone called Torchy Lee, at the Meadowbrook. She posed with Torchy in her lap and she was holding a cradle phone in front of the dog’s snout.

A major change of direction came for Peggy in June 1942. In New York, guitarist Dave Barbour joined the Goodmanites. Before long it was getting to be a thing between Dave and Peggy. One spring night in California they disappeared together from the bandstand at the Palladium. They returned a few days later – as Mr. and Mrs. Barbour, married at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles. Bass saxman Joe Rushton was the witness.

Dave left the band shortly after the wedding to establish himself on the coast. The couple felt they wanted to locate in California. Peggy stayed with the band a while longer, but at last broke up the historic association with Benny when he was due to return to the east coast late in the summer.

When daughter Nicki was born to Dave and Peggy late in 1943 the singer retired from the music business. The retirement lasted until 1944, when Dave got her involved with the Capitol Jazzmen recordings. It was on this recording session that she made “Ain’t Goin’ No Place” and “That Old Feeling.” She remained comparatively inactive for almost a year, but finally, in December, 1944 she made her first personal appearance after leaving Goodman. It was at an Eddie Laguna jazz concert put on to thwart another concert being put on by one Norman Granz, whose name didn’t mean much to most people then. Despite the effort of Joe Sullivan, Herbie Haymer, Zutty Singleton, Les Paul and Peggy, the bash was a flop.

But the true rekindling of interest in her career came in 1945. The guiding hand was that of Carlos Gastel, who set both Dave and Peggy up for a recording date for the young Capitol label. The pair couldn’t find just the tunes to suit them, so they went home and wrote their own: “What More Can a Woman Do?” and “You Was Right, Baby.” It was an impressive debut for the combination destined to make so many winners during the next five years or six years; their first two sides for Capitol as a team turned out to be one of the best records of 1945.

Many originals followed, usually Peggy’s lyrics with Dave’s music. Out of this collaboration came such tunes as “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Just an Old Love of Mine,” “You Was Right, Baby,” “Happy Music,” “It’s a Good Day,” and, of course, “Mañana.” The success of the team helped Peggy win the 1946 Down Beat readers’ poll as best female singer not with a band. Most years since then, she has been in the first six on the poll. But she won only that one year, though the Barbour-Lee working arrangement went on for several years after that.

But the team, like the marriage, was headed for problems. The requirements of show business became too tough to permit normal living, and the marriage – as the more ardent fans can tell you – ended in 1951. Rumors of a rift had been current since 1948. Peggy has since been married twice: to actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin. Both marriages were short-lived.

Peggy continues to write a good deal, but has not been able to recreate the success of the 1940s. She has collaborated and worked with many top arranging names during the past decade – people such as Bob Haggart, Pete Rugolo, Sid Feller, Gordon Jenkins, Vic Schoen, Sonny Burke, Victor Young, Gil Evans. These men have seen to it that Peggy’s warm tones have had the best of instrumental backings. Her favorite trumpeters on accompaniments have been Ray Linn, Harry Edison, and Pete Candoli; drummers: Billy Exiner, Jack Constanza (bongos), Ed Shaughnessy, Larry Bunker, and Irv Cottler; bassists: Harry Babasin and Joe Mondragon; pianists: Jimmy Rowles and Hal Schaefer; and Red Norvo, vibes.

Musicians all like her, seem to have fun working with her. On the Capitol novelty record by “Ten Cats and a Mouse,” Peg was the mouse. They recorded “Ja-Da” with Peggy on drums, Dave Barbour on trumpet, Benny Carter, tenor sax, Bobby Sherwood trombone, Eddie Miller, alto sax, and Paul Weston on clarinet.

Peggy’s movie career has been sporadic. She made her first appearance in movies during the Goodman days, when she sang “The Lady Who Didn’t Believe In Love” with the Goodman band in The Powers Girl. Her first full-length movie role was in the remake of The Jazz Singer at Warner Brothers in 1952. Danny Thomas was the star. Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, in which she did the characterization of an alcoholic singer, came in 1955.

In 1952, after nine years with Capitol, Peggy signed a three-year recording contract with Decca, after which she again returned to Capitol, and has remained there. The two latest albums: Things Are Swinging, titled after an original tune she sang on the Swing Into Spring TV-spectacular recently, and I Like Men,on which she runs through a dozen standards.

Through the years, Peggy’s style has continued to grow. Where she almost whispered on some of the Goodman sides, she is now self-assured and sings out, phrases for herself, and does not depend on ideas from the group or band behind her.

She still has trouble with her throat from time to time. It was recently reported she had to have nodules (a sort of corn that forms on vocal cords when a voice has been strained) removed. It seems that into every life some rain must fall, as when Barbour-Lee were sued for a million dollars by a song writer who claimed “Mañana” was stolen from a ditty entitled “It Was Midnight In The Ocean” he had written in 1932. Peg and Dave had witnesses to the effect that they had dreamed up “Mañana” in a session held at their home overlooking the Warner Brothers lot. The title came from an expression used in fun between Carlos Gastel and the couple. Whenever one of them thought of something they should do right away the other would say, “Mañana.”

Peggy Lee will be around musically for a long time to come. She can’t stay away from music, not even to read philosophy or write her poetry for greeting cards. She rests a while in California, then feels the need to come to New York for stimulation and variety… or just to see what is happening in music. Then she is back singing in clubs or making records. Or she’d be on a theater tour if there were such things anymore. The theater singing has been replaced by TV, and Peggy Lee harbors a feeling that good jazz can be performed on TV without the vaudeville – if it is presented in the right manner. Too bad she doesn’t add “TV producer” to the list of her credits and talents.