Peggy Lee


Great Comebacks

by Eliot Tiegel

Peggy Lee is in a fighting mood. The 70-year-old vocalist with the soft, velvety cool style is afire with enthusiasm for two reasons. She has lent her considerable prestige to the fight by artists and record companies against the entry into this country of digital audio tape recorders (DATs), which a good portion of the music and record industries believes will allow music listeners to become expert copyists without paying royalties. And she’s keen to having the public finally become aware that she’s a serious songwriter.

The world has known Lee, born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., as a distinctive vocal stylist with a sexy, smoky sound (sometimes called a pop version of Billie Holiday). But her accomplishments as a wordsmith have gone unheralded except by those hip musicians who’ve recorded the best of the several hundred tunes for which she’s either written the music and lyrics, or collaborated with some of America’s top composers, including Victor Young, Dave Barbour and Johnny Mandel.

Her second project for the eight-year-old Musicmasters label, The Peggy Lee Songbook, Volume One – There’ll Be Another Spring, has just been released to commemorate her birthday, May 26. Lee was assisted on the album’s dozen tunes by such musicians as John Chiodini (her musical director/guitarist), Emil Palame, Sonny Burke, Hubie Wheeler, Victor Young, John Davenport, Eddie Cooley, Jr., Jack Marshall and Johnny Mandel.

As one of the first artists signed to Capitol Records in Hollywood in 1943, Lee stated singing professionally when she was 17 and was given her show business name by the program director of WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota.

She has watched the music world go through its evolutions and revolutions, starting with a two-year stay from 1941-43 with the Benny Goodman Band and lasting through different regimes at Capitol, Decca, Atlantic, Columbia and several other members. Following a series of major health problems starting in 1978, she has been forced to sing sitting down, but her physical problems have not robbed her of her ability to sense the perceived dangers of DAT.

This concern is evident late one afternoon in the living room of her spacious Bel Air, California, home of ten years, where she is all dressed and made up to videotape a message to Congress against the “monster” of DAT recorders. “If they are allowed into this country,” Lee explains in a voice which is as soft as when she sings, “people can copy anything and make better copies than you can do in some recording studios. It will destroy us all as creative writers because our copyrights won’t mean anything. It’s an innocent thing, but it’s really insidious.” And now that she’s starting to emphasize her own songs, there’s the fear that DAT players will ace her out of her due royalties as songwriter. The tunes she chose for this first songbook, which she recorded with rhythm and ten strings for a gossamer backing, lean toward the lesser known of her works – though the album does include her 1958 hit “Fever” and “He’s a Tramp” (from the Disney cartoon classic The Lady and the Tramp for which she wrote several songs and created four voices.)

Her other smashes, “Mañana,” “Golden Earrings” and “It’s a Good Day,” are planned for a second volume, she explains. That album will almost be a tribute to her late husband and songwriter partner Dave Barbour, whom she met while they were both working in the Goodman band. They were married eight years, divorced and were considering getting remarried when he died in 1965.

Lee stayed with Goodman the longest of any of his singers, recording a string of hits from “Why Don’t You Do Right” to “Elmer’s Tune.” “He didn’t particularly like singers, did you know that? But it was wonderful. It was like boot camp. I really learned and he was good to me. Benny believed in rehearsing and so do I. He was a rather hard taskmaster.”

Although the musicians were told to stay away from her by Goodman, she did begin a romance with guitarist Barbour. “That was a no-no with Benny and he fired him. So I left too and I was going to retire, but Dexter [the recently deceased Capitol producer who brought the first Beatles EMI singles into the U.S.] talked me into recording two songs for his album.”

And that led to the launching of her recording career.

Of interest in this first songbook are the new lyrics for “Fever.” “It’s a big surprise to people that I’ve been so prolific a writer,” Lee says unabashedly. “I’ve not yet figured out why I was hiding my light under a bushel. While I like writing music and words, lyrics are my forte. They’re very easy for me to do.”

Although her songs are primarily geared to dissecting human dramas, her voice is always so soft, so silky. Even now, after her long string of health problems, that distinct Peggy Lee sound remains intact. “I originally started singing softly because I wanted to quiet the audience down,” she explains. “If the audience didn’t quiet down, then I was going to sing for myself. Fortunately I didn’t have to.” “She says she’s been able to keep her voice clean and strong over this long run in show business (appearing in movies, playing concerts all over the world, rotating through various record companies) by not doing any thing to strain it. “I think that’s the basic thing, and through the years the critics have said, and rightly so, that my voice is thin. I never let it out, but I can scare you if I want to. I can really belt it, but that’s not my style. If I started to yell, I don’t think people would enjoy it.”

She says that the idea for the songbook originated with Jeffrey Nissim, founder and president of New Jersey-based Musicmasters. “That idea intrigued me,” she admits. “John [Chiodini] and I went over all my songs, lyric by lyric, and we found that everything was still valid. I write so that it stays fresh for that moment and beyond. I don’t use expressions or phrases that are faddish terms of the day.” It was a comparatively fast process to select the tunes, she says.

Looking back on her vast catalog, Lee explains that several of her biggest hits almost didn’t get recorded. Capitol didn’t want to issue “Is That All There Is,” which she didn’t write, but which was her last major hit in the ‘70s. Earlier, the wise men there didn’t think her tune “Lover” was worth recording because Les Paul and Mary Ford had their own hit with it. So while she was singing at the Copacabana in New York she met two Decca Records executives, Sonny Burke and Milt Gabler. “I can still see them sitting at their table and they were going crazy over the song just like everyone in the audience. That’s how I knew it would be a hit. My contract was up at Capitol and when these people offered to record the song, I naturally went with them.

“I was there five years and then went back to Capitol. The last album I did for Capitol, Norma Delores Egstrom From Jamestown, North Dakota [in 1972], got lost in a new management shuffle and wasn’t distributed properly. Then I went to Atlantic to do Let’s Love and Paul McCartney wrote the title tune, and you can’t get much better than that. Just about the time it was going to be shipped I called Atlantic and the lady answered the phone and said, ‘Warner/Elektra/Atlantic,’ and I thought, ‘Oh-oh, the wrong number or I’m in trouble again.’”