by Charles Mangel
The first time she got up to sing, she almost undressed the performer in front of her. It was Jamestown, North Dakota, and Norma Egstrom, five, was waiting to sing in a church play. “We were in a row, and each of us had to sing. All during the verse before mine, I was so frightened I kept twisting the skirt of the girl in front of me. She kept crying, trying to pull her shirt down and trying to sing her verse.”
Now it’s a hot evening in Montreal, and the Expo amphitheater. Twenty-five thousand French-Canadians holler the former church singer – now Peggy Lee – back on to the stage for an encore. She catches them with the first words: “What are you doing the rest of your life / North and south and east and west of your life?” And suddenly, she was not singing, but merely a lady telling a little of her troubles. “Remember me, I taught you how to find love / First love, happy love and blind love / Now you’re leaving me behind, love.” And a little bit of her pleasures. “It’s cost me a lot, but there’s one thing that I’ve got / It’s my man.”
She is called “the queen” for her ability to interpret a lyric, to make each member of an audience feel that what she is saying is intimate conversation set to music. “I will only sing songs that mean something to me, that bring a mood, evoke a memory.” But she brings more than memory to a stage. She is an artful actress, orchestrating words, lighting, hand movements and facial expressions into a skillful blend of storytelling. With a flip of her hand and a “magical” change of spotlight color, she moves effortlessly from the kidding flavor of “Mañana” to the contemplation of “Is That All There Is?,” the record that won her a 1969 Grammy award.
A critic once tried to explain why Peggy Lee, alone of her generation of female singers, remains. “That classic musician’s ear picks up the best sounds of today,” he wrote. The answer may be deeper.
The afternoon before the concert in Montreal, heat was building up under the band shell, and a humid wind played with the sheet music. Peggy Lee and 20 musicians worked on arrangements of songs each already knew well. Would an emphasis here be handled better by a reed? What about a tuba there? A violin? The work in the sun went on, polishing musical nuances. Peggy Lee could have been back at the hotel. But instead, she chose to lead the band.
The Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Peggy begins to rub at her eye during one of her big numbers. She finishes the song wincing, then confesses something is in there and it hurts. She picks at it while trying to cover her discomfort with banter and while a 22-piece orchestra fills in gently behind her. It’s an awkward moment. The white spotlight, trained for the next number, fixes attention on that straining face in the big, blackened room. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a male voice booms: “Take your time, Peg. We’ll wait all night for you.”
It was a long way from Norma Egstrom to Peggy Lee. Her family lived along a 100-mile railroad her father worked for. Her mother died when Peggy was four, and not too many years later, Peggy and her six brothers and sisters were hired out as day labor to nearby farmers by her new mother. One by one, the older kids peeled off and left home. Finally, Peggy, at 17, went to the big city: Fargo.
“I always knew that I would leave and I didn’t really know where I was going. I knew at an early age that I wanted to sing. But beyond that…? I still remember the kind of emotions that went through my mind, a vague, formless kind of searching. When I look at high school and college students today, I sort of understand what is going on in their minds. They are trying to find their roots.”
She landed a local radio show — $1.50 for 15 minutes worth of songs – and supported herself working in a bakery. California, in the form of letters from a girlfriend already there, beckoned. “My father got me a railroad pass and I sold my graduation watch for $18.” But her friend had lost her job by the time Peggy got there and Peggy went to work – as a waitress and a carnival barker. (“At one of my concessions, people paid to throw baseballs at an old derelict, to knock him off a swing into a pool of water; I used to hope that nobody would hit him.”)
A friend arranged for her to sing at Palm Springs’ millionaire-tufted Racquet Club. (“Jack Benny was there and Peter Lorre and Franchot Tone…”) The girl from the Midwest was so petrified that she found little sound coming out. The noisy audience quieted, then strained to hear her. “By that accident, I discovered that if I could really find my way into a song itself and didn’t worry whether it was loud or soft but if it had the proper intensity and meaning, people would listen more readily. I began to think about meaning, about words, rather than just singing.”
A visiting hotel owner brought her back to Chicago, where Benny Goodman heard her. The bandleader needed a replacement for Helen Forrest. The new singer, just 21, got off to a nervous start (first-night critics advised Goodman to “send her back to the farm”). “I was afraid one of those nights someone was going to grab my ankles and pull me off the stage.” But then came “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” a Goodman record sung by Peggy that swept every existing music chart.
She married Dave Barbour, guitarist in the Goodman band, and quit to be a homemaker. It was a short retirement. “Why Don’t You Do Right?” kept selling, and the telephone kept ringing. After Nicki was born, Peggy went back to work. She and her husband collaborated on a number of songs, including “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.”
Peggy divorced Barbour in 1951, for reasons she will not discuss, but continued to work with him on songs and to refer to him in conversation as “my love.” She tried marriage three more times – to actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and bandleader Jack del Rio – but each marriage collapsed. Barbour died in 1965.
Illness forced her to consider retirement at least once more. She has endured seven major operations, spent much of one year in a wheelchair with a crushed spinal disc, and a case of double pneumonia forces her to travel with a deep-breathing apparatus to exercise a damaged left lung.
The prairie girl is gone, and in her place, at 51, is a show business dynamo. Peggy changes acts two or three times a year. In addition to her own musical director, she carries key musicians with her to help keep the local orchestra straight. Her own lighting expert flies ahead for each opening, remains until cues work right. In 1960, she was largely credited with bringing club business back to New York when fans piled around the block at the new Basin Street East to hear her – but for something more than her voice. She somehow manages, in what is after all a staged show, to speak about our emotions with simplicity and honesty.
Caption: Records, club and TV appearances are only part of it. Peggy writes poetry (a book was published), has collaborated on some 130 of the more than 500 songs she has recorded and on music for a number of films including The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. She won an Oscar nomination (for the part of an alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955), but peculiarly, has had no good movie offers since. She was the subject of a TV special and was the only female vocalist who sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Last year, she formed her own talent company in conjunction with Capitol Records, her recording firm.