You had plenty money nineteen twenty-two;
You let other women make a fool of you;
Why don’t you do right, like some other men do?
It has been a quarter of a century since a shy blonde our of Jamestown, North Dakota (real name: Norma Egstrom) sang that lament with Benny Goodman’s band. She did right – and made plenty money. The intervening years have brought her smash hit records (“Lover,” “Fever”), success as a songwriter (“Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day”), an Academy Award nomination as an actress (Pete Kelly’s Blues), ardent fans (ranging from Duke Ellington to Rudolf Nureyev), and top nightclub engagements at $25,000 a week. They have also brought her serious illness and four divorces. But last week, as she finished a three-week stand at Manhattan’s Copacabana, she wore it all with a light, insouciant snap of the fingers and a knowing smile. And her performance was, as always, socko.
A lavish spender in private life, Peggy Lee hoards her musical resources, parceling them out with a parsimony that makes every jot count. Her sound, never big or brassy, is growing thin at the top and breathy at the bottom. So she spends her notes in the same way that dispossessed nobility lives on a dwindling income: with frugal selectivity but stylish aplomb. As she puts on weight, it becomes a little easier – but only a little – to believe that she is 47 and a grandmother. So she tones her act down to a quieter hush, focuses her emotions in an even narrower hypnotic beam, and makes the lifting of an eyebrow do what other singers strike poses to accomplish. “If I tried to be a vamp and manufacture sexiness, I’d really be funny,” she says. “Anything that’s forced comes over fake.”
Nothing is forced in her performance. Strain only shows offstage, when she takes long rests, sits in her dressing room in a wheelchair to ease the pain of a crushed disk in her back, and dismisses visitors with the sigh, “I must do my breathing now.” Since pneumonia damaged her lungs in 1961, she has had to inflate them several times a day with a pressurized oxygen tank that accompanies her everywhere. (She calls it “Charlie.”)
Her appearances are fastidiously staged and rehearsed from a black loose-leaf notebook that programs every musical sequence, every lighting cue, even every hand gesture. Even more important to her than the craft of show biz is the art of the popular song. Over the years, she has learned the arcane alchemy through which a tune can be transformed by its treatment. When her warm, smoky voice curls languidly around a lyric or teases it along with up-tempo jazz phrasing, familiar material reveals unsuspected meanings and yields new freshets of feeling. “There are always deeper layers to discover in a song,” she says. “That’s why I’m never bored.” Neither are her listeners.