Peggy Lee


Peggy Lee: At Fever Pitch

by Bill Burrus

The rushing sound of tap water came from the bedroom of Miss Peggy Lee’s suite in the Waldorf Towers. Her traveling hairdresser, a blonde in red lounging pajamas, traipsed through the living room and the comb dangling from her hand indicated Miss Lee was in the process of being coiffed.

“Miss Lee is busy,” her road manager was saying to a long-distance operator from Virginia. “If it isn’t an emergency you’ll have to call back again.”

A friend of Miss Lee’s came and whispered to a public relation a little urgently. A maid poked her head through the kitchen door, messages sailed through a slot in the foyer door, and the phone rang again.

It was 3:30 p.m., the morning rush hour for Miss Lee, and things were hectic. And then she walked in, in her lounging pajamas, leopard, looking shy and inexplicably like a lonely little girl.

The song stylist, lyricist, poet, artist and sculptor was in the tuning-up stage for her opening at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room and a series of television appearances including those on Ed Sullivan’s show last Sunday and Johnny Carson’s show on Tuesday.

“You’ve been invited to see Promises, Promises on Wednesday,” her public relations man told her.

“I wish I could but I have a meeting and a rehearsal,” said Miss Lee a little sadly. “Sometimes,” she explained, “we stay over to see shows, but this time I have to be in Washington for an opening at the Shoreham.”

So the platinum blonde with 125th Street “soul,” one of the most exacting perfectionists in the trade, was back in New York giving it her all.

It was like Basin St. East in 1960, when she opened the nightspot and fans queued up around the block to cheer her on. She sang and sang and got double pneumonia, and nearly lost a lung.

Miss Lee was born 48 years ago in Jamestown, North Dakota, the daughter of a railroad station agent. At 16, Norma Egstrom became Peggy Lee – a radio announcer in Valley City, North Dakota thought it more lyrical for her 15 minutes of song every weekend.

Miss Lee, of Swedish-Norwegian descent, saw some tough times in the Dakotas. Her mother died when she was small and she worked as a milkmaid and did other chores to help out the family. The Egstrom children were “hired out” each summer. But she was singing and dancing in a statewide amateur minstrel show at 7, and by 14 she was a “pro” on Valley City radio.

The 18-year-old singer got one break, in the Jade Room on Hollywood Boulevard, but attracted little notice and was reduced to being a carnival spieler on a Balboa midway before going back to the hinterlands.

“During those growing up years,” she recalls, “things were often so bad they were funny.”

After the California flop, Miss Lee went to Fargo, North Dakota, and got a regular job singing on WDAY radio, and then signed up as a singer in the dining room of the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis.

She also sang with Sev Olsen and Will Osborne bands and a short time later, while appearing in the Buttery Room of Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, Benny Goodman discovered her. He was looking for a replacement for Helen Forrest.

A year later, Miss Lee had recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with the Goodman orchestra. It sold more than a million and put her among the stars.

She married Dave Barbour, Goodman’s guitarist, who became her songwriting partner on such hits as “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” They had a daughter, Nicki, before their divorce in 1951.

Miss Lee has also been married to Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin, both actors. Both marriages ended in divorce.

She has collaborated with the late Victor Young in writing such music as “Where Can I Go Without You?” and themes for the films Johnny Guitar and About Mister Leslie. More recently, she wrote words for the theme of The Russians Are Coming and collaborated with Tijuana Brass instrumentalist John Pisano in writing “So What’s New?”

With royalties from such music and more than 500 hit records, some people say Miss Lee could stay in her Beverly Hills home and count money forever, but she has “fever” too.

She signed an unprecedented million-dollar, two-year contract for appearances in the International Hotel opening in Las Vegas this summer, came to the Waldorf from an engagement at Chicago’s Sherman House and goes directly to the Shoreham after her closing at the Waldorf April 22.

“Well,” she said, relaxing in her leopard-spotted pajamas in her Waldorf suite, “I do want to leave some money for my family…” And she trailed off as if embarrassed to say she also enjoys the adulation her voice draws from a crowd.

Isn’t she afraid of overdoing it?

“Oh, I take very good care of myself.”

It isn’t widely known, but after Miss Lee’s bouts of pneumonia doctors considered removing a lung. Instead, they tried an intermittent Positive Pressure machine, which is hooked up to the IPPB – she calls it Charley – which applies pressure to help her breathe and also pumps in a mixture of 40 percent oxygen and 60 percent normal air.

“It’s improved my range considerably,” she said.

Nobody would spell out Miss Lee’s Waldorf contract, but…

In addition to the nine house musicians, it is stipulated that she can bring in nine more – sometimes just to add the warble of a flute at the right time.

The musicians and Miss Lee rehearsed for months at her Beverly Hills home before she left for Chicago and New York. Top lighting expert Hugo Granata had preceded her to the Waldorf, setting up an elaborate network of hues that emphasize every nuance of the 75-minute show.

She’s trying out several new songs there, including “Spinning Wheel,” as immediate as the Blood, Sweat, and Tears group that has also recorded it. Miss Lee’s version will appear as a Capitol single. Another is “Natural Woman,” which Aretha Franklin recorded and which Miss Lee is making the title song of a coming album.

Miss Lee’s fans wipe away several generation gaps, spanning those who sit and reminisce about the 1940s and her electric performances with Goodman, those who recall the alcoholic singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues in the 1950s, and those who first dug her after “Fever” was an instantaneous hit in the early ‘60s.

She is as “with it” as the Jefferson Airplane, and youngsters were sprinkled though her first-night Waldorf crowd, with more outside waiting wistfully.

“It’s been said I’m a ‘soul singer’,” Miss Lee said. “But I don’t quite understand. I think it is an overused word. I think I am contemporary, and I sing with feeling.”

On the side, she is finishing a portrait of Moshe Dayan she is painting from photographs, because “he has a marvelous face.” And she is a honorary national chairman of a fund campaign for the Salk Institute for Biological Research in San Diego.

“It’s the 15th anniversary of the Salk vaccine,” Miss Lee said. “They are doing marvelous work at the institute. I went out there and I was thrilled,” she said. “I felt if I could be of any help this summer I’d like to be.”

She will entertain at a society ball benefiting the Salk Institute Sunday night at the Waldorf – which would have been her only night off. And she plugs the sending of contributions to her at Box 1809, San Diego.

Despite such a schedule, the 5’7″ Miss Lee still has to diet.

The black-tie crowd came in from the Monday night chill for Miss Lee’s opening, many of them celebrities turning out to see a talent. Miss Lee came down from her suite to a dressing room outside the Empire Room, where she paced, and went over in her mind several of the routines.

Inside, one tuxedoed gentleman was trying to order double rounds of drinks for himself and his companion before the service was closed.

“Who needs it?” he said when the waiter told him it was too late. “Who needs another drink with Peggy Lee around?”

The 18-man combined house-and-Lee orchestra burst into a medley and then Miss Lee – shy and childlike – was before the microphone.

There were old favorites, of course, and Miss Lee took a break when she introduced drummer-vocalist Grady Tate to sing his “Windmills of My Mind” from The Thomas Crown Affair – for which he has been nominated for an Oscar.

And she also coyly plugged “Spinning Wheel” and “Natural Woman.”

“Before the day I met you / Life was so unkind,” sang Miss Lee, flame-colored lights playing off her white gown. “You’re the key to my peace of mind / Cause you make me feel” – pow – “You make me feel” – pow – “like a natural woman.”

The show ended and the crowd rose in a standing ovation that echoed through the corridors as the blonde from Jamestown picked her way down the hall.