Peggy Lee

Singer with Instinct

Time, June 16, 1952

Singer with Instinct

author unknown

Songstress Peggy Lee has always liked the old (1932) Rodgers and Hart waltz “Lover” (“Lover, when I’m near you,” etc.). She gets a picture in her head when she hears it: “The French Foreign Legion is riding out into the desert. They start off at a moderate speed. Then the leader raises his whip and swings it in the air, and they start to go faster and faster.”(Rodgers and Hart, who wrote the song for Jeannette MacDonald in Love Me Tonight, had a different picture in their minds: Jeannette jogging along a French country lane in a one-horse trap.)

Though Peggy’s dream leader – brandishing a whip – sounded more like Eddie Arcaro than a spurred cavalryman, Decca was impressed, agreed to let her record the old waltz as a triple-gaited mambo with a 37-piece accompaniment. In its first two weeks, Peggy Lee’s “Lover” has sold 250,000 copies.

Some of Peggy’s old fans, accustomed to a soft voice and easy rhythms from her, were not pleased. They thought they detected traces of the Johnnie Ray wail. They were bothered by the sound of Peggy’s gentle voice struggling against a clattering rhythm section, galloping violins, and something that roared like the MGM lion. The overall effect was a little like an echoing nightmare in a subway express. But it didn’t bother the fans of “the new sound” (Time, October 29): they were buying the platter faster than any Decca record since “Goodnight, Irene.” Peggy Lee’s attitude: “I sing the way the song seems to want to be sung.”

Peggy always trusted her instinct in such matters, and it kept her close to the big-time for a dozen years, while V-2-type careers were exploding all around her. She was singing before she could talk properly, back in Jamestown, North Dakota, where she was born Norma Egstrom 32 years ago. Eventually, she got up the nerve to give Hollywood a teenage whirl, got a singing job at $2 a night, but soon landed back home with an overstrained throat that required five operations. After that, she had to learn to sing softly.

Benny Goodman fell for Peggy’s voice in Chicago in 1941, signed her on. She bent an ear to his swinging band every night for two years, learned things about rhythm that put her in solidly with the hepcats, made her first hit records (“Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “Let’s Do It”). She married guitarist Dave Barbour, wrote a nonsense bestseller, “Mañana,” with him before they split up a year ago.

Songstress Lee has no immediate plans to make another “sound” record like “Lover,” but she has irons in the fire. She has a contract to work on the score of a new Walt Disney, is opening at Ciro’s Hollywood nightclub, and is planning her own TV film series. What with learning the 14 to 20 songs she sings on her twice-a-week CBS radio show (Club 88), it makes a pretty tight schedule. But Peggy says she’s “just gardening” on the West Coast. She wants to go to New York, where “the tempo of show business is really up.”