As a shy, frightened little girl of 8 growing up in Jamestown, North Dakota, Peggy Lee had a childhood obsession: aviation.
“I wanted to fly so badly,” she recalled one afternoon last week over tea in a Manhattan hotel suite with a view over Central Park. “I knew a barnstormer who was able to pick up a handkerchief with his wing tips at county fairs. He said, ‘I’ll take you up if you dance the Charleston.’ I was so shy that I couldn’t look at anyone, but I danced the Charleston for him, and he took me up in his bi-wing plane with an open cockpit. I wasn’t in the least bit frightened.”
On Tuesday, the 67-year-old singer and songwriter who epitomized nightclub chic will open a two-week engagement at the Ballroom, the fashionable Chelsea club where she appears every year and a half. The engagement is being billed as her fiftieth anniversary in show business, but it is in fact her fifty-third.
“I don’t like marking time,” she said with a rueful, tough-sweet smile. “I like to think of everything as now. Haven’t the scientists more or less proven that that’s true?”
Even today, that paradoxical mixture of reticence and audacity that made the shy girl who was christened Norma Deloris Egstrom beg to be whisked into the sky defines both the art and the personal style of Miss Lee. With its pastel shadings, Miss Lee’s singing communicates an air of perpetual dreaminess. At the same time, she is able to communicate a subtly powerful and precise rhythmic momentum.
Off the stage, the singer exudes a combination of heart-tugging fragility and mystical resilience. Miss Lee is still recovering from an accident in Las Vegas last February, when she fell and broke bones in her feet. Ever since, it has been very difficult for her to walk. And for her Ballroom engagement, she will sing seated. Two years before the accident, Miss Lee underwent double heart bypass surgery with serious complications and survived. These ailments are only the most recent of a host of physical problems that have been exacerbated by the singer’s being a diabetic.
But Miss Lee shrugs off her troubles. “I was strong all through my childhood,” she said. “It was when I started going on the road and overloading my schedule that my troubles began. I haven’t been temperate about working, and stupidly, I’ve never taken a vacation, because if I took one I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Along with her fragility, one senses the indomitable spirit of a North Dakota farm girl who, 46 years after she first visited New York, is still overawed by the city’s skyscrapers. As she reminisced about her life and her music, her eyes burned through oversized, tinted, pink glasses that brushed her corona of platinum hair. Clad in a white silk gown with long winding strands of pearls draped around her neck, Miss Lee conjured up images of an etherealized, vaporous Mae West.
“It was while I was writing this book that it finally dawned on me where my musical style came from,” she said, gesturing to several thick bound volumes of typescript on the glass coffee table beside her. The volumes represent the nearly completed first draft of an autobiography that Miss Lee has been working on since her accident, first in the hospital and then in her Bel Air home. The singer writes in longhand, and then an assistant types her words into a computer. Because the singer is working her way chronologically forward and backward at the same time, the volumes look like unfinished scrapbooks. Miss Lee has decided not to submit the book for publication until it is finished.
“People say I emulated Billie Holiday,” she explained. “Although that is a great compliment, it isn’t true. Growing up, I lived in such a remote section of North Dakota that at the beginning we didn’t even have electricity. When we did, I discovered the Bennie Moten Orchestra, with Count Basie, coming out of Kansas City on an Atwater Kent radio with five dials on it. I didn’t think of it as swing or jazz. It was just good music.
“I wasn’t drawn to any particular singer until a little later when I heard Maxine Sullivan,” she went on. “I liked the simplicity and economy of her work. She communicated so well that you really got the point right away. Later, when I came to New York, Mel Powell – Benny Goodman’s pianist – introduced me to Billie Holiday, and I loved what she did, although we never became terribly close.”
Today Miss Lee plays only fleeting attention to the contemporary music scene. Among rock generation songwriters, she especially admires Paul McCartney, who wrote a song for her, “Let’s Love,” in the 1970’s.
“I was in London and wanted to meet him, and so I invited him for dinner at the Dorchester,” she recalled. “When he came, he handed me the song and said ‘This is instead of champagne.’”
The two younger singers that have caught Miss Lee’s ear recently have been Sade, whom she described as “very good,” and Whitney Houston, whom she would like to see branch out and sing some standards.
Miss Lee was 14 when she made her professional debut at a local radio station in Jamestown and was still a teenager when a program director at WDAY in Fargo gave her her stage name. In 1941, she was chosen to replace Helen Forrest by Benny Goodman, who discovered her at the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago. She stayed with the Goodman band for only two years. It was her sulky, tough rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” a song recorded two years earlier by Lil Green, that made her an international star in 1943.
That year she also married the guitarist Dave Barbour, who became her songwriting collaborator on late 40’s hits like “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana.” The first of four husbands, he was the great love of her life, but his alcoholism caused them to be divorced. In 1965, after he had been sober for many years, they decided to remarry. But a few days after his proposal, he died.
Each of the first three decades of Miss Lee’s recording career left her with at least one signature song. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” established her as a first-rank band singer. The sizzlingly percussive novelty “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” became her biggest hit and began her long association with Latin-flavored music. Her swirling, stampeding 1952 version of “Lover,” with its rhythms that seemed to cascade over one another, and a spare, jazzy “Fever,” in 1958, established her as one of the most rhythmically inventive and versatile vocalists in all of pop. In 1969, the world-weary Leiber and Stoller song, “Is That All There Is?,” launched what might be called the most recent, “philosophic” phase of a career during which Miss Lee has projected onto her material the mystique of a great, fading courtesan.
“Though the song wasn’t written for me, it just happened that the lyric paraphrases a lot of my life,” Miss Lee said. “Leslie Uggams had recorded before me, but I didn’t know that when Leiber and Stoller came over to my hotel. Out of several things they played me, it was the one song that stuck in my mind and kept me awake at night. I kept running through it thinking, ‘How can I get into a more positive frame of mind than this?’ because it’s a ponderous question. I decided I would have to think of it as a record of experiences from which one has learned something. But because I’ve been through the death experience, I believe the song is positive. There is more.”
In addition to working on her autobiography, Miss Lee continues to record and write songs. Mike Nichols recently hired her to record “How High the Moon” to be used under the titles of the movie of Biloxi Blues. And she has plans to record four albums for two different record companies, including one live at the Ballroom. One of the others will concentrate on vintage blues songs of the Bessie Smith era.
Miss Lee, who has never stopped writing songs, has collaborated with a number of writers over the years. Her characteristic lyrics of late have a wistfully upbeat philosophic tone. “A Circle in the Sky,” one recent song she may perform at the Ballroom, evokes a simple, mystical image of eternal love: “I drew a circle in the sky / Inside I wrote you and I / I heard the wind that rushes by / And still our love remains.” Diaphanous imagery also suffuses “Butterfly,” a song that compares love to the powder left on one’s fingers from butterfly wings.
Among her own songs, Miss Lee harbors a special affection for “Johnny Guitar,” the theme song of the 50’s movie, with music by Victor Young. Her favorite among her 59 albums is The Man I Love. Orchestrated by Nelson Riddle and conducted by Frank Sinatra, it contains a rendition of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein chestnut, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” that transforms a dream of domestic bliss into a hushed prayer for spiritual peace.
Many of the songs that Miss Lee will perform at the Ballroom she has done hundreds of times before. Doesn’t she ever find that they feel stale?
“In the majority of songs, I always find new meanings and impressions,” she explained. “Finding the impressions to fit each song is like preparing for a role. But once I enter the world of a song, it never gets old.”
Miss Lee smiled slyly. “I really have no sense of time except swing time,” she said. Ever so gently, she began nodding and snapping her fingers.