by Larry Kart
“Last night,” says Peggy Lee, her speaking voice no less hazy and lilting than the voice she brings to her songs, “last night I was up till about 4, going over old tapes, editing some and throwing others out. I’m the only one who can do that for myself.
“When I do that, though – go over what I’ve sung at different engagements – sometimes an odd thing begins to happen. I’ll hear a song that, at the time I sang it, I may have thought would be what the audience wanted to hear, yet now I find that it touches my own need. I realize that I was the one who wanted to hear it, you know?”
“Of course it’s necessary for me to keep some distance between myself and the songs. In performance, I’ve lost control of that only twice, maybe – to the point where I wound up weeping and had to leave the stage. Why? Well, a relation suddenly developed between the song and something that had occurred to me, something that gave the song a dimension I just couldn’t handle.
One of the major vocal artists of our time – critic Gene Lees has described her as “the most mature, authoritative, sensitive and consistently intelligent singer of popular music in America” – Peggy Lee is in the midst of a project that calls upon her to do the very things she speaks of above – find moments from her musical and emotional past that touch her own need and explore dimensions that may be hard for her to handle.
She has, with composer Paul Horner and playwright William Luce, written an autobiographical musical titled Peg, which will debut on Broadway next November.
In Peg – “That’s what most of my friends and a lot of musicians call me” – the child and adolescent Peggy Lees will be played by two yet-to-be-cast young performers. But for the most part, Lee will play herself, “coming into and out of it all the way through.”
That may seem like an audacious, even ill-advised decision, given Lee’s age (62) and her imperfect physical resemblance to the lissome young woman from North Dakota who joined Benny Goodman’s band back in 1941, “wearing one of those Yukon Lil dresses, off-the-shoulder with a little bit of decolletage.”
But if anyone can bring it off, Peggy Lee probably can. Even though Peg is a full-scale musical drama and not one of those one-woman, “lady and her music” affairs, it is also, Lee explains, “a kind of impressionistic piece” that should leave room for the imagination to go to work.
Then there are Lee’s considerable histrionic gifts, which are apparent in every song she sings and which won her an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress in 1955 for her portrayal of a blowzy barroom singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues. And besides, the life and times of Peggy Lee are what Peg is all about, so who would be better equipped to get to the heart of the matter than Lee herself?
“Writing the show,” she says, “I really had to confront my past. The truth is one of the things I promised myself it would be, because I knew it wouldn’t be fair to write a fairy tale. At one time I started to put it all down in a book, but I stopped because it became so dark and violent. But somehow, maybe because it’s a musical, the show seems to be doing itself.
“When I started to work on Peg, I went to see a lady who is very wise and also quite psychic. I knew this because she was able to read my past without knowing anything about it. Finally she said, ‘Look what’s happened from all this, look what you’ve accomplished! You’re like a lily in the mud.’ And that’s the story of Peg.”
Norma Deloris Egstrom, Lee’s given name, was born in 1920 in Jamestown, a small farming community some 50 miles from Fargo, North Dakota. The seventh of Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Egstrom’s eight children, she was “a weird little child with a tremendous imagination. I used to daydream my way through some of the more difficult things,” which included the death of her mother when Lee was four years old.
“What did I daydream about? Well, singing had a lot to do with it. I used to dream I was a big star driving up in this tremendous, beautiful car, and the back seat would be full of presents for my family. They’d say, ‘Oh, is this for me?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, that’s for you.’ I really didn’t have a childhood, but I loved my daddy very much, and I loved my mother, too.
“Jamestown was a place where, well, when you say that you never had to lock a door, doesn’t that say a lot? I learned so much from the character of the people there, a certain honesty and integrity that I wouldn’t trade for anything. But the place itself, most of the things I remember are gone now. The railroad my daddy worked for, the Midland Continental, the last time I went back, that was gone. They’d even taken up the tracks.”
Lee began to sing in her church choir and high school glee club. But isolated though she was in North Dakota, she discovered early on that there was more to music than “The Old Rugged Cross” and “The Whiffenpoof Song.”
“I can remember,” she says, “getting Kansas City on our old $5 radio and listening to Count Basie. And I gravitated toward black singers a lot, especially Maxine Sullivan. I had a record of hers, ‘Just Like a Gypsy.’ She sang very lightly, like a painter using very light brush strokes.”
Lee headed for Fargo after her high school graduation and got a staff singing job on a local radio station with a group called “Four Jacks and a Queen.” And she got a new name, too, when the station manager suggested that “Peggy Lee” might be more euphonious than Norma Egstrom.
A trip to the West Coast, where she sang briefly at a Hollywood club called the Jade Room, was sandwiched between jobs with now-forgotten territory bands. Then came a gig with Will Osborne’s orchestra (a step up from the likes of Jack Wardlaw and Sev Olson), an engagement in Palm Springs, and finally the all-important lucky break came in the summer of 1941, when Lee was working at the Buttery in Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, and Alice Goodman, Benny Goodman’s wife, happened to catch her act.
Looking for singer to replace Helen Forrest, who was about to jump to Harry James’ band, Goodman heeded the advice of his live-in talent scout. So, on August 15, 1941, it was time for Peggy Lee to step in front of a recording studio microphone for the first time, to wax a less-than-immortal number called “Elmer’s Tune.”
“Oh, that,” says Lee, giving way to an involuntary shudder. “First, I hated ‘Elmer’s Tune,’ and second, it was in Helen Forrest’s key.
“I lamely tried to follow her, and it was very difficult for a while because she had so many fans. At the beginning I don’t think the people wanted to hear me at all. But then I did ‘Where or When’ and ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?,’ which was on the back of ‘Clarinet a la King.’ Those helped a lot.”
Already a popular performer by 1942, thanks to what critic George T. Simon described as an “unforced ‘cool’ quality that was quite new to band singing at the time,” Lee really broke through with “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” which became a major hit.
Based on blues singer Lil Green’s version of the tune, which Lee had been listening to between shows on her “funny little wind-up phonograph,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (or, as Lee sings it, “Why Doncha Doo Raht?”) is still a delightfully relaxed, swinging performance.
But the reason her version of the tune was so popular had a lot to do with the honest ease with which Lee borrowed Green’s salty, rhythm-and-blues mannerisms and turned them to her own ends. “Here was a white girl of Scandinavian origin,” wrote Henry Pleasants in his The Great American Popular Singers, “sounding like a sister or girlfriend of Nat King Cole.”
With a big hit behind her and one that clearly established her as a distinctive, hip personality, Lee was ready to move out on her own. Or rather she and Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour were ready to move out on their own, for Lee had fallen in love.
The first of Lee’s four husbands and, she says, “the love of my life,” Barbour was a gifted but troubled man. Lee’s accompanist and songwriter collaborator – together they wrote such hits as “Mañana” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You” – he was also an alcoholic who divorced Lee after seven years of marriage because he didn’t want to subject her to his increasingly erratic behavior.
“Dave figures very prominently in Peg,” Lee says. “We’re being very honest about our relationship in the show, and he comes off quite nicely.
“He joined Alcoholics Anonymous after our divorce and was sober for 13 years before he died [in 1964]. We remained very close until the end, and in fact we were talking about remarrying just three days before he died. It was a terrible shock.”
“In our early days, there was a solo he played on ‘Goodbye, John’ that I would never let him change. I made him repeat it every time. It was so beautiful that I would get lost in it and forget to come back in.
“Well, I did remember to come back in after the first couple of times, but I just never wanted him to stop. In fact, I think I fell in love with Dave’s playing before I ever noticed his face.”
Settling in Los Angeles, Lee and Barbour signed with Johnny Mercer’s new company, Capitol Records, an association that would last, in Lee’s case, for more than 20 years – from the tail end of the Big Band era to the advent of rock, a span in which Lee had any number of hits (including “Lover,” “Fever” and, of course, her latter-day theme song, “Is That All There Is?”).
Then the elegant supper clubs in which she used to appear began to go the way of the woolly mammoth, while the sophisticated style of singing she had made her own became an equally endangered species – at least in the eyes of the youth-market-hungry recording industry.”
But Lee not only survived, she kept getting better and better, even though some of her most remarkable recordings of recent years – notably Mirrors (A&M) and Let’s Love (Atlantic) – were allowed to languish through lack of promotion.
“The people are out there,” Lee says. “I know they are. But the problem is that the people in the recording business are in business, meaning to produce money. Tony Bennett, myself, singers of that quality – all of us want to earn our keep. But mostly we do what we do for love… love of the music. And in the commercial world, I guess you can’t afford to do that.
“On the other hand, if I could do anything I wanted, I might spend a fortune on something that might not be understood by people of a less esthetic bent than myself. It would be wonderful for me and maybe not so wonderful for them. But I believe that we are coming back, I really do.”
Peg, of course, is the basket in which Lee has placed most of her eggs right now. Her collaborator on the scrip, William Luce, is well known (he wrote The Belle of Amherst for Julie Harris), but her co-composer, Paul Horner, is a relative newcomer.
“Paul is from England,” Lee says. “I met him when I was doing a short run in Side by Side by Sondheim to get the feel of the legitimate theater. He was one of the pianists in the show, and he told me later that he took the job because he wanted to write with me.
“Then one day during a rehearsal break, I was staring into space when he started to play a song. ‘What is that?,’ I said, and he said ‘It’s mine.’ So I asked him if it had a lyric, and when he said it didn’t, I asked if I could write one. That was the start of our collaboration, and we’ve been working on and off ever since.”
A meticulous crafter of words, probably because she knows just how to sing them, Lee is understandably proud of the 28 songs she and Horner have written for Peg. But like any perfectionist, she sometimes finds that the rest of the world isn’t attuned to her standards.
“It’s funny,” she says, “but just before you called, my secretary was retyping a lyric, and we discovered that another secretary had ‘corrected’ what I had written and made it all wrong.
“It’s supposed to go like this: ‘Listen to the rhythm of the railroad train / It taking me away from all the grief and pain / It take me out to California where the oranges grow / I’ll be swimming the sunshine before I know / I love to hear the hooly whistle blowin’ down the track / Goodnight, world, I hear the clicky-clack.’ There, you got a little bit of a preview.
“Well, the secretary had changed ‘it taking me away’ and ‘it take me out to California’ to ‘it’s taking me’ and ‘it takes me out to California.’ To her it must have seemed like a little thing, but to me there’s a big difference in there.
“I’ve written a wide variety of songs for the show, and they do carry the story along. But I’ve written them in such a way that they can also stand on their own. And as I play them for different people, I find that they can identify their own happiness and sadness with the happiness and sadness that’s in the songs.”
Especially the sadness, one thinks, for no one eclipses Peggy Lee when it comes to expressing the side of romance that shades from wistful regret to full-blown pain.
“I used to think,” she says, “that Sophie Tucker was wrong when she said that you had to have your heart broken at least once in order to sing a love song. In fact, I used to almost resent that. But I’ve found out that she was right.”
“Of course you don’t go around looking for those kind of experiences. But I’ve often wondered why so many great singers have had a lot of grief and pain in their lives – Mildred Bailey, Billie Holiday, Judy Garland… I’m sure there are many more. Maybe it’s because the soul needs to be pressed down or heated up in a flame, tested in some way in order to promote future growth.”
But isn’t there, one wonders, an easier way? Would Peggy Lee, for instance, be willing to trade in her difficult past and the art it has given rise to, accepting in return a relatively simple, happy life?
“Well, yes,” she says. “That would be all right for this time around. But maybe next time you would get a very different experience.
“Will there be a next time? Oh yes, I think so. I can’t believe that this is all there is. And that’s not making a pun about the song, either. If this is all there is, I really think it would be a tremendous cosmic joke.
“I remember when I was a little girl, daydreaming in North Dakota. I had a lot of thoughts about infinity, though when I started thinking about it, I really didn’t know what the word meant. And perhaps I don’t know what it all means yet.”