Singer Peggy Lee recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” her first hit, with Benny Goodman in 1942. The song is a challenge to an unreliable man. But Peggy Lee herself has been doing right by her audiences ever since, for 50 years.
She just finished selling out a five-week engagement at Club 53 in the New York Hilton, prompting a New York Times reviewer to write: “Miss Lee is still synonymous with high-style nightclub elegance and exudes a sultry charisma, despite her precarious health. She hasn’t lost the knack of making small rhythmic gestures and subtle changes of intonation imply volumes of information. The program includes well-known hits including ‘Mañana’ and ‘Fever’ and an eerie, trancelike rendition of ‘Is That All There Is?’”
In her show, Miss Lee talks about her personal life, her 1943 marriage to Dave Barbour, a guitarist in Goodman’s band. The mention of his name draws applause. “Thank you for remembering David,” she says. “I loved him then and I love him now.”
After her marriage, Miss Lee left the band and gave birth to her only child, Nicki, now a painter. “All the time I carried Nicki I played classical music,” she says. She and Barbour were divorced in 1951. She later married and divorced actor Brad Dexter, actor Dewey Martin and percussionist Jack del Rio.
She also tells the audience that she hasn’t received the $2.3 million awarded her by a jury in 1991 for the unauthorized use of her voice when Lady and the Tramp was released in videotape. Disney has appealed the verdict. Then she sang “He’s a Tramp,” one of her songs for that animated film.
Miss Lee has been diagnosed with PMR (polymelitis rheumatosis), which she says had her paralyzed for part of last year. The cortisone she takes makes her face puffy. She also has been recuperating from a broken pelvis, broken on a slippery Las Vegas stage. After each show, she sat in a wheelchair and greeted fans. She says of the wheelchair, “That’s not going to last.”
When she shared two evenings with Mel Tormé at the Hollywood Bowl earlier in the summer, Miss Lee says, “I was determined I was going to walk out and be seated and sing. I do that here, too. I have a feeling it makes the audience more at ease, to be seated with them. More intimate.”
During the New York engagement, with two shows a night on weekends, her voice maintained its vitality. In the fourth week, she began adding impromptu encores. During the last week, Chesky Records gave her a contract to record the whole show. Wearig a white satin caftan and backed by a jazz quintet, she sang up-tempo tunes and poignant ballads.
Miss Lee has written lyrics to movie themes for Johnny Guitar and About Mrs. Leslie with Victor Young, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter with Dave Grusin, “The Shining Sea” with Johnny Mandel and the entire score for Lady and the Tramp with Sonny Burke.
She used to say that Barbour wrote the melodies and she wrote the words to such songs as “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana.” “They were to my melodies,” she says now. “I’ve never told that much until lately. He put the harmonies to it.”
“Mañana” was inspired by a trip to Mexico. A few years later, Miss Lee went to a Foreign Legion movie in which horses trotted, then cantered, then galloped. She got the idea for key changes and Latin rhythms that could be used with an American song. When Capitol Records wouldn’t let her record “Lover” with Latin rhythms, Miss Lee went to Decca and gave them a big hit. “I hate blowing my own horn,” she says. “I think I did start that trend. I know I did.”
Madonna came into Club 53 one night and the next day she recorded “Fever,” her way. But Miss Lee – she added the Miss to her billing when somebody told her she should have a name as long as Anna Maria Albergetti – isn’t just reliving old hits. While in New York, she sang a duet and made a video with Gilbert O’Sullivan and also recorded with Michael Franks, at their request, songs each of them wrote.
And she’s writing lyrics again. “I just finished a piece I’m very proud of with a gorgeous melody by Benny Golson, ‘Flying Through the Sky.’ Red Norvo sent me a tune he wrote; I haven’t finished it yet. A lot of composers have been sending me things to write,” she says. “I have quite a few ahead.”
Author Henry Pleasants said of Peggy Lee, “She has mined a wealth and variety of color, inflection, eloquent lyricism and even grandeur hardly matched by any other singer.”
Critic Peter Clayton wrote of “a voice that has ripened but from which the early morning mist has miraculously never cleared.”
Miss Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom, of Swedish and Norwegian ancestry, in Jamestown, North Dakota on May 26, 1920. Her mother died when she was four; her father remarried when she was six.
Peg, her autobiographical show on Broadway in 1983, recounted an unhappy childhood. The show closed quickly.
“You get to a point where so many things have happened, you think ‘Is this it, God? Is this the final disappoinment?’ God has never let me down.”
Peggy toured with Jack Wardlaw’s band at 16, then with Will Osborne. She got a trio engagement in Chicago where Benny Goodman heard her and hired her in 1941 when Helen Forrest decided to quit.
In 1944, Dave Dexter, cofounder of Capitol Records, talked Peggy into singing two songs on a four-disc album, New American Jazz. Not long after, she was back singing, as a single.
Miss Lee has made more than 60 albums. In 1955 she was nominated for an Academy Award for playing an alcoholic nightclub singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues. The reason she didn’t go on in movies, she says, was that her agent could make more money booking her on the road.
She says she learned the value of rehearsing from Benny Goodman. “He almost over-rehearsed,” she says. “Oh, who am I to say? I thought it was good long before he called it a day. But Benny had his own feeling of perfection and was always following it. I have something like that going on.” It has been written that Miss Lee even rehearses where she’ll move her graceful, manicured hands.
“That’s not true at all,” she says. “I do what I feel at the moment. We do measure ‘Fever.’ I snap my fingers; there’s a light cue on my right hand. But I don’t know where my hands go half the time.”
Miss Lee travels with books on philosophy and theology. “The books give me strength and comfort and keep me extremely interested in life in general,” she says.