by Terry Atkinson
Miss Peggy Lee was doing The Merv Griffin Show.
In the greenroom, other guests waited their turns, along with Griffin staffers and publicists, all half-watching the taping on a monitor and half-talking among themselves. A couple of kids in jogging suits did warm-up stretches on the floor, and author Bob Woodward (Wired) sat on a couch between a couple of them.
When Lee was introduced by Merv and started singing “Heart,” the greenroom grew quite for a moment and then one of the woman said, “She looks great, doesn’t she?”
“How old is she?” wondered Woodward.
“Oh!” exclaimed the woman. “That had to be a man asking that.”
Probably no one expected Lee, at this stage of her career (her 64th birthday was on May 26), to be anything more than a respectable shadow of what she was in her prime – a pop-jazz singer who practically defined suave and swingin’ with songs like “Fever” in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
This version of “Heart” was OK, but it wasn’t Peggy Lee at her best. The phrasing was as delicious as ever, the pitch right on, but the voice was smaller than it once was. The interview with Griffin was mildly interesting but meandering, and greenroom attention was lagging by the time he plugged Lee’s two-week engagement at the Westwood Playhouse (tonight through July 1).
Suddenly, though, the room became completely quiet, except for the sound from the monitor. Lee, sitting right there next to Griffin, was going “Is That All There Is?” And it wasn’t merely a good-for-her-age performance. The half-sung, half-talked interpretation was top-drawer – beautiful, chilling. Leiber and Stoller’s song of hopeful disillusionment may fit Lee better than ever at this stage of her career.
Miss Peggy Lee was eating Cobb salad at the Hollywood Brown Derby, just up the street from the studio. In a slow, calm voice with a tone much like her singing, she talked about why the Westwood engagement had been scheduled so quickly, with the initial ad running only nine days before the first performance.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I came back from New York to do the On Stage America (syndicated TV) show, and I suddenly got a little homesick. I thought if we could get everything together in a hurry, I’d love to play someplace and see everybody before I go back to New York. Fortunately, the Westwood Playhouse was available, and everything fell into place.” Now, with tickets selling briskly, she’s discussing doing the same thing at a New York theater.
Playing with a small combo, she’ll do “as many songs as they want to hear and that we know,” she says. Besides the pop hits, she’ll include some of the more obscure, jazz-infused material like “Black Coffee.”
In a fashion, Lee’s career began here. She was a North Dakota girl who knew she could sing, and she wanted to see this lovely California a girlfriend kept writing her about. To her surprise, her father, a railroad employee, gave her not only his permission but a train pass as well. “He wasn’t trying to get rid of me,” Lee points out. “He just had faith in me.”
After evading an insistent lecher on the train, she said, she actually got a brief engagement right away, at a Hollywood club called the Jade Room. But soon she was working as a waitress, and even a carnival spieler.
Lee developed into one of the most expressive, lyrics-enhancing pop/jazz singers of all time. “If there’s meaning in the song, I love to dig into it,” she explains. Lee attributes her constant search for meaning to the impact of her mother’s death when Lee (born Norma Deloris Egstrom) was four years old. “That was the largest influence – above anything. I wanted to find out where she was. I’m still reading.” Nothing, Lee says, has given her more solace than reading – except maybe music. Philosophy is a favorite subject.
Her life has been filled with tremendous ups and downs, including her big break – joining Benny Goodman’s band in 1941. She became a songwriter, initially with her first husband, Dave Barbour. She had hits, fame, three movie roles and an Oscar nomination for the last one, Pete Kelly’s Blues. There were also three much-publicized divorces and several illnesses.
It all virtually demands an autobiography, and Lee’s attempts to fulfill that demand have caused her most recent heartaches.
She started writing a book about her life in the ‘70s. That turned into a stage play, Peg, on which she worked six years. When the production finally made it to Broadway late last year, it closed after 18 performances.
“People just didn’t want to leave on the last night,” she says. “Those superb musicians – they were so shocked. They were just walking around afterward, a lot of them crying. Because… it was such an opportunity for music. I don’t know the reason for it (failing.)”
Critics applauded the music, and the way Lee revealed such painful things as being abused as a child (song title: “One Beating a Day”) and the breakup of her marriage to Barbour. But there were objections to the impassive, reverential tone of the work.
Strangely enough, Lee didn’t come back to her Bel Air home after the closing. (She uses it so little that she’s thinking about leasing it.) She stayed at her New York apartment. “I got out my books. I read them. And then I decided to pick up and go on.”
Lee would like to record the music from Peg as her next album, which would be her first LP since 1979. She has to clarify her legal rights to those songs, however, and for that reason probably won’t do anything from the show at the Westwood.
She said she has come to understand the meaning of all the trying experiences in her life and she wants to get that understanding across to others – that doing one’s best under the circumstances is what counts. The quality of Peg mattered more to her than its commercial outcome. “You see, there’s a part of it I don’t feel badly about, because I know that it was good.”
Also, she observes, there’s often something unexpected that’s gained at the end of a difficult period. “I feel so close to the audience now. I don’t quite understand what’s happening, but I like it.”