Peggy Lee


On With the Show

by Joseph McLellan

The first number Peggy Lee sings every night in the Ritz Terrace is “I Won’t Dance.” The Otto Harbach song is not only a good, upbeat curtain-raiser; it is, in context, an existential statement – a kind of manifesto. At the moment, Peggy Lee can’t dance; she even has trouble walking.

Two months ago, while doing her act at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Lee suffered an accident. “I fell down and fractured my pelvis,” she says. “If anyone tells you it’s a fractured hip, that’s because they don’t want to say ‘pelvis.’ I have a bruised coccyx, too, but nobody mentions that; forget about that.”

Lee can’t forget about it, not yet. But she’s healing. Last month, at the Pasadena Playhouse, she had to come onstage in a wheelchair. This month at the Ritz-Carlton, she makes her entry with a cane in her right hand and her left arm firmly supported by percussionist Mark Sherman. Once settled into the chair from which she performs her hour-long show, she shares her problem with her audience like a family joke: “Your part is to applaud until I’m thoroughly seated in the chair. My part is to get there.”

As a singer, Peggy Lee “got there” when she was young. She reached the top in 1941 when, at 21, she began singing with Benny Goodman and his orchestra. The next year, also with Goodman, she made her first million selling-record, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

But she did not start at the top. At 21, she had already been working her way into show business for seven years, beginning as Norma Deloris Egstrom of Jamestown, North Dakota, and singing for the church choir, the high school glee club and the local radio station. “I’ve been singing professionally since I was 14,” she says. “The salary was very low, but I was paid.” One reason she got started so early, she says, was an unhappy situation at home – in particular, an unsympathetic stepmother – that made her want to become independent as early as she could.

More than half a century after beginning her career, Lee still holds her special place in American popular music. With more than 600 songs recorded in more than 60 albums (including quite a few million-sellers), she is as busy as she chooses to be. This year, because of her injury, she and her jazz quintet will spend only about half their time on the road. Most years are busier. She will wax lyrical about her home in Bel Air, California, but she spends most of her time in hotels. “Of course, when I get [home] I appreciate it all the more because I’ve been away,” she says.

Her work as a songwriter is less known but significant. With guitarist Dave Barbour, who worked with her in the Benny Goodman Orchestra and became her husband in 1943, she composed such standards as “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana.” With Francis (Sonny) Burke she composed nine songs for the soundtrack of Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, as well as creating four voices (including two Siamese cats) used in the film.

A memento of this film is included in her show (which will be at the Ritz-Carlton through Saturday night) when she sings “We Are Siamese If You Please,” still sounding remarkably like the soundtrack. She also sings some songs that are associated with other performers – occasionally, for example, a Billie Holiday medley. On one recent evening, midway through the show, she turned to pianist Emil Palame and suggested, “Let’s do Bogie.” He leafed quickly through the sheet music lying atop his piano, and a moment later she was singing “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca.

The show’s main emphasis is nostalgic, though it has a bit of new material, including one song, “Just Keep Holding On,” from a show that will not reach Broadway until next season, probably after tryouts in Washington. The years dissolve when she begins to snap her fingers and launches into one of her best-known numbers, “Fever,” which still has a mesmerizing effect on nightclub audiences, though it may seem understated in comparison with the Beastie Boys. The vocal timbre, the phrasing, the pace and the arrangement are all calculated to send the mind spinning back through the memories: “You give me fever when you kiss me / Fever when you hold me tight / Fever in the morning / Fever all through the night.”

With her quintet, Lee has enough material prepared to do three or four shows without repeating a number. But some items are mandatory at every performance. “Fever” is one; another is Leiber and Stoller’s anthem of disenchantment, “Is That All There Is?” But while Lee still sings “Fever” with fervor, she fools around with “Is That All There Is?,” changing the words, exaggerating the sentiments for comic effect and inserting little jokes.

“I really have great respect for that song,” she says, “and sometimes the audience lets me know that they don’t want me to make jokes and little side remarks. In some ways, the song does parallel my life, but it wasn’t written for me. It was based on Thomas Mann’s essay on disillusionment.”

History has made it almost her theme song (it won her a Grammy in 1969), but it doesn’t really fit her personality. She would be more comfortable with “A Cockeyed Optimist” or (if Frank Sinatra would loosen his stranglehold on it), “That’s Life”: “Everytime I find myself flat on my face / I pick myself up and get back in the race.”

Lee has been knocked down more often than most people who still hold places at or near the top, but each time she has come back. In 1961 she caught pneumonia and suffered lung damage that made it necessary for her to carry a respirator. Indomitable, she nicknamed it Charlie and kept on singing. Other health problems include diabetes, which she says is “under control,” and heart ailments that culminated in double bypass surgery in October, 1985.

“It was not only double,” she says. “They had to go back in later. There were two terrible infections. One is staph infection, and the other I can’t pronounce. They had to reopen and leave me open for six weeks. They treated it night and day, around the clock.

“I think these things that have happened to me just go to prove how healthy I am, because I couldn’t have taken them if I weren’t. I’ve also learned to have an ever-increasing respect for that temple of the living spirit, the human body. The things that it heals and fixes are just amazing to me. I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about that when I was lying in the hospital – various hospitals – for months at a time.”

Although recovering from her fracture, she still uses a walker offstage – impatiently. “I’ve heard that some people go for two years with this sort of thing,” she says. “The first time I saw it, I said ‘I will not use that!’ Well, there it is.”

In the background in Lee’s suite at the Ritz-Carlton, a portable tape cassette player is busy with a piece of music not usually associated with the singer: the adagio from Mahler’s 10th Symphony. “It’s one of my traveling pieces,” Lee explains. “That music soothes me so; I take it with me wherever I go. I also like Delius… ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo’ and ‘The Walk to the Paradise Gardens.’”

After her stay in Washington, Lee is planning a return engagement at Caesars Palace. Then she goes on to engagements in Michigan, Dallas, San Francisco. Of her home in Bel Air, she says with a little sign of regret, “I haven’t been there a lot; I sort of visit. I don’t really like to come home to an orthopedic bed. The last time I came home, my pretty French furniture was crowded over in a corner. But when I go home this time, they can take that bed out; it’s probably gone already. I want all evidence of any mishap to be gone when I get back there.”

All the family she has left to go home to are her daughter Nicki and her three grandchildren. Her marriage to Barbour ended in 1951, although they remained colleagues and friends until his death in 1965. She had a second marriage, but she prefers not to talk about it except to say that it “didn’t last long.”

Although she doesn’t spend much time there, she does talk about her home enthusiastically: “It’s French Regency, very comfortable, with views all over the place and two large decks where you can look out at the ocean. I have an elevator; I don’t ride it very often, but it’s just kind of fun to know you have it. And I have chandeliers; I can’t even count how many chandeliers.”

Her land is “great for raising roses – the ocean air is good for that,” she says. “I have a group of prize-winning roses, Mr. Lincoln and Peace and Helen Traubel and Royal Highness – I like Royal Highness very much – and Mon Cheri. There are quite a number of those, and I am really honored that the American Rose Society named a rose after me. I am thrilled with that. It’s a very long-stemmed cabbage rose, really, it gets to be seven or eight inches in diameter.”

Although there are 48 Peggy Lee rosebushes on her land in Bel Air, and they bloom for ten months of the year, Lee has no plans to retire and enjoy them. Why not? “First of all, I’d be bored to death. I’ve tried to retire three times, and it just didn’t work. Each time, I would try something as a hobby, and the hobby turned into a business. Then I’d get too busy doing that. It happened with fabric design; all of a sudden, I was stick with deadlines that I couldn’t meet.”

As a singer, she has no trouble meeting her deadlines, even if she needs a wheelchair, a walker or a cane to do it, and she plans to continue as long as people are willing to listen to her. “It’s a wonderful release,” she says. “And there’s something about the way the notes vibrate in your system. I think it’s very healthy to sing; I think it’s healing.”