The smell of something burning drifts into the Terrace Room of the Ritz-Carlton, where Peggy Lee is moments from opening her show. People scurry, concerned glances are exchanged, and finally everything seems settled and ready.
inside some fans are suggesting that watching Peggy Lee sing in the midst of a raging fire might just be the perfect evening’s entertainment. “The intensity would be wild,” one says.
Just outside the room, apprehensively awaiting her first solo steps since breaking her hip in an onstage fall a couple of months ago, is Miss Lee.
She has to make her way some 15 feet to the stage where a chair is poised. Suddenly there are sound system problems. A squeal of feedback sends fingers to ears. “That’s all I need,” Miss Lee says.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Peggy Lee,” someone finally announces, and the singer slowly makes her way to the stage on a gem-encrusted cane and closely attended by one of her band members. Her ovation is long and loud.
She settles in her chair and is visibly more comfortable. Her hair is in a platinum pageboy style. She is dressed in a satiny white gown with a wrap. Her glasses are dark and large, somehow accentuating their trademark mole. Enormous jewels are prominent on her hands and neck. At 66 and a veteran of several brushes with death, she looks regal, enthroned.
An hour or so later, she is the last in the room to rise. Everyone else is engaged in a fervent standing ovation which continues during her difficult walk back from the stage.
Outside, she is back on her walker, moving slowly toward the hotel lobby and her room. A gaggle of upscale groupies surround her, and she lingers briefly.
A year and a half after emergency double-bypass surgery, Miss Lee remains as loyal to her fans as they have been to her. She toyed with the idea of retirement once or twice, but she still sings.
She is anxious about her reception in Washington. For one thing, the Terrace is a much smaller room than she typically plays. And for another, there is that problem of mobility.
“In my last show,” her first after her hip injury, she mentions during her show here, “I was already onstage when the curtain opened; I was already seated and the wheelchair was covered with balloons. I couldn’t do that here.”
Later, finally in quiet conversation, Miss Lee says she feels good about her D.C. opening. Some listeners remark that they felt as if they were in her living room, and she likes that.
“Well, it did feel that way, it really did. It feels comfortable. I’d feel better if everyone could see better, but even that didn’t see, to make too much difference, because I tried to look around to all the corners of the room.”
Her speech is slow and deliberate, sounding much like her singing voice. That velvety tone, along with her skill at songwriting and arranging, became her musical imprint soon after she got her start in 1941 with Benny Goodman.
It is little changed even now; her articulation, phrasing, slight vibrato are all still instantly recognizable.
Throughout her show she sprinkles songs from the highlights of more than 40 years in show business. She sings a smoldering rendition of “Fever.” She does her 1969 Grammy-winner, “Is That All There Is?”
Songs from her ill-fated one-woman Broadway show, Peg are included. A brace of tunes from her score to the 1955 Walt Disney classic Lady and the Tramp, including the humorous “We Are Siamese, If You Please,” bring down the house.
Her most poignant moment comes during the singing of “Here’s to Life,” a song recently written for her by Artie Butler. “All you give is all you get,” she sings. She seems to know.
Some things in her style today are very different. She says her whole approach to performing underwent a radical change after her sobering emergency surgery. Now she aims to make her shows more personal, more sharing.
“Around the time of all the heart surgery, I think I got over my shyness – I hesitate to call it shyness – being somewhat of an introvert.
“I decided to let people know that I really care about them and that I’m really interested. I just started to talk to them. I had a marvelous time and they seemed to have a marvelous time.
“Before I would just sing. It used to be that people would say, ‘Now don’t talk, just sing.’ So I did that, for a long time. But I think it makes a difference what you’re saying. Also, I’m just as surprised as the audience at what comes out; it’s kind of an interesting experience to see what we’re going to talk about, ‘cause I just wait to see what happens.”
At Tuesday night’s opening, one of those moments occurs when she looks into her glass of water at a table nearby and sees a piece of her wrap floating in it.
“Hmm,” she says. “A glass of water with a feather in it.” A fan gushes to his companion, “How endearing! She’s so real!”
At another moment she asks the audience, “Is everyone comfortable? Does everyone have enough to drink?” Her attitude suggests that if the answer were no, she might get up and call a waitress. There is nothing to suggest her very real apprehension before the show.
“Of course, the injury is temporary – please, God!” Miss Lee later says. “We had to rehearse getting on and off the stage yesterday afternoon, because those were my first steps since the accident. I’ve been walking with a walker. So I was kind of wondering what was going to happen; I felt safe in being there. I just hoped it wouldn’t be awkward for anyone and that they wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.
“My remedy for things like that is to laugh at myself, at the human predicament,” she says. That resilience through so much adversity has contributed to much of her legend today.
When she considers how she would most like to be remembered, she ponders the question for a time.
“The word ‘truth’ keeps coming to my mind,” she finally decides. “Truth is very important to me, honesty. That would include my feeling for people, and truth in music. Truth applies to anything, doesn’t it?”
“The emotion you convey in your music has to be sincere. That’s it. Sincerity.”