In the summer of 1957, I was stretched out across the front seat of my parents’ Oldsmobile ‘98’ with my head in my mother’s lap. My father drove. The final hours of our vacation were counted off by the thump-thump-thump of the tires as they passed over the seams in the pavement. I remember dozing off, lulled to sleep by the radio and a soothing, sultry-voiced woman singing about a kind of fever I had never experienced. Now, thirty years later, the same voice slinks and slithers across the table of a penthouse suit as Peggy Lee interrupts her lunch to answer questions.
Although she doesn’t complain, the last few years must have been rough. She wrote and starred in a short-lived autobiographical musical called Peg that was trounced by New York theater critics. In addition, double bypass heart surgery and other health problems have taken their toll. A partial paralysis on the right side of her face required regular physical therapy, but her speech is clear and precise and there are no visible problems. She seems perfectly comfortable in a cream-colored pants suit and gray silk blouse as she sips a Coke over ice. Her long pink fingernails fondle a strand of pearls hanging from her neck and false eyelashes flutter behind the tinted lenses of exotic jewel-encrusted glasses. When someone asks if this sparkling array is made of real diamonds, she responds casually, “Of course.” But she also clarifies that she must wear tinted lenses to protect her eyes. “I’m not trying to do a Michael Jackson.”
I think I could learn to like this lady.
As the luncheon progresses from one course to the next, I notice that she does not drink liquor nor does she drink coffee with caffeine. She tells me that she is allergic to smoke and we discuss her longtime association with the Church of Religious Science and the Science of Mind philosophy. She explains that she was a personal friend of Ernest Holmes, who founded the church, and unequivocally states: “If it weren’t for Science of Mind, I wouldn’t be here today.” When it comes to metaphysics, she was there long before Shirley MacLaine. Her pursuit of things spiritual is a lifelong endeavor that has recently led her to investigate the healing power of crystals. Her current source of information on the subject is a book entitled Windows of Light by Randall and Vicki Baer. Obviously, this is not your usual grandmother of three, nor is it your two-dimensional Blackgama legend.
What we have here is a pro, a trouper. On her way to San Francisco for her current engagement at Marines Memorial Theater, she was informed that all flights out of Los Angeles were canceled due to rain. Undeterred, she turned to her producer and suggested, “Well, the limousine’s here, why don’t we just drive up?” This kind of determination has allowed her to go without sleep for the last three days while she stayed up nights working on her autobiography. The book chronicles her life from age three to about one year ago and she is writing it herself because she couldn’t find a ghostwriter whose style matched her own. “I love to write. I’m at the stage of feeling good about building things with words, like mosaics.” She goes on to explain that the book is still untitled. “I had considered calling it ‘Is That All There Is?’ but decided not to because that would give the critics the perfect opening to come back with, ‘I hope so.’”
I know I could learn to like this lady.
Although she glosses over her accomplishments, the book is just the latest phase in a career that includes 59 albums, concert appearances around the world, the New York Film Critics Award, and an Academy Award nomination for Pete Kelly’s Blues. As a composer and lyricist, her works include “Mañana” and “It’s a Good Day,” as well as nine songs from the recently released Disney classic Lady and the Tramp. Old Walt must have been as tight as his reputation because she admits that she receives no royalties for the songs she wrote for the film. In spite of this, she seems truly delighted with the film’s new success.
Her current appearance in San Francisco was a last-minute idea that resulted from a benefit she did in Santa Barbara last month for composer Sammy Cahn. Her producer tells us the performance was so well-received that they decided to bring her to San Francisco, deliberately avoiding her usual haunt, the Fairmont’s Venetian Room. Although she has nothing but nice things to say about the staff and management there, she now wants to play small theaters which allow her to create a greater feeling of intimacy with the audience. This also avoids the nightclub annoyance of tinkling glasses and bustling waiters who serve drinks throughout performances. She is going to Marines Memorial for the first time just after lunch and admits that “I do have quite a new show; there are a lot of things to work out.” But when I ask if she’s nervous, she calmly responds, “No. Why should I be nervous?”
Before leaving, she explains how, over the years, her response to reviews written by critics has changed. Bad notices used to upset her, but now she reads them, tries to understand the critic’s point, and goes on about her business. I’m glad, because I’m getting a little worried. In two days, I will see this woman perform for the first time. Afterwards, in the peculiarly ritualized fashion of critics, I will have to pass judgment on a performance that is the cumulative result of half a century as an entertainer. But, like an umpire among athletes, I call ‘em like I see ‘em. A pleasant luncheon, carefully orchestrated by the producers and the press agent, has not impaired my judgment. It has, however, clearly established one thing.
I like this lady.
Looking around me, I can’t help but think this crowd came out of central casting. Some producer must have put out a call for a modern dress Tower of Babel and asked for every conceivable age, sex and race to be represented. This is why I always prefer late shows.
The curtain goes up and a quartet begins to play. A voice announces Miss Peggy Lee and she walks out in a floor-length white gown that could have been ripped off the back of Auntie Mame. A crystal necklace dangles from her neck and a white silk and lace jacket, with an enormous ermine collar, is draped over her shoulders. Add in the white wig, the glasses and the long pink fingernails from our recent luncheon and you have a walking Erte print. Am I about to watch a grown woman make a fool of herself?
The band moves right into the first number, “I Love Being Here with You,” and by the time it’s over, I suddenly realize what I am watching. This is a jazz artist. She goes on to a moving rendition of “Watch What Happens,” zips off “Lover” and does a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek send-up of “Big Spender.” Even the costume is working by this point and the audience is eating out of her hand. Does she have a powerful voice? No, it is subtle and restrained. Does she have great range? Not really. Is she always on key? Most of the time. Does she make every note she reaches for? Not all of them. Does it make any difference? Not a bit. Carol Burnett could make every one of those notes, but would you want to hear it?
Miss Lee is a musician; her instrument is her voice. I now understand why she is referred to as a legend, and it has nothing to do with the story or circumstances of her life. Her legend pours out of the phrasing in every syllable of each word, in all the songs she sings. She is a song stylist who passes every lyric through the prism of her artistry and reflects it back at the audience in subtly shaded hues of light. It is as if I have never heard these songs before. When she attempts the insipid “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” I’m sure she’s going to lose me for the rest of the evening. But somehow it not only works, but it touches some silly soft spot inside that I though I must have left behind somewhere in junior high school.
Her band consistently delivers the goods in just the right amount, but it’s Peggy Lee who is the show. She relays silly stories, tells old jokes, and sings songs like “The Siamese Cat Song” and “He’s a Tramp” from Lady and the Tramp. And every time I think she’s going to fall flat on her face, she comes through with a warmth and artistry that just knocks my socks off. She even survives some horribly trite red spotlight effects during “Fever” that are unfortunately reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s devastating parody of “That Old Black Magic” in Bus Stop. The fever in question is in Ms. Lee’s voice and that message could be conveyed most effectively by turning off every light in the house.
As a tribute to Billie Holiday, she sings both “Don’t Explain” and “God Bless the Child” in an unforgettable medley that the audience talks about all the way out to the sidewalk. She alternates back and forth from her own voice to that of Ms. Holiday, as if they were both on stage and singing a duet. It is haunting and masterfully executed.
There are a few new songs, including a wonderful Paul Williams composition entitled “Love Dance,” but most of the material is familiar. She does “As Time Goes By,” “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “Is That All There Is?” and “Johnny Guitar” before she picks up a salsa beat and swings into her own composition, “Mañana.” Her last song of the evening is “I’ll Be Seeing You.” With her phrasing, she pulls from the lyrics the simplicity of a heart yearning for someone it has lost forever.
As the lights go down for the last time, the spell is broken and the sorceress leaves the stage. At last I understand how she could have unflinchingly responded to my question about nerves with the response, “Why should I be nervous?” Unless this has all been a post-hypnotic suggestion, the audience has witnessed a true artist. And since art has its own raison d’etre, no further explanation is necessary.