by Laurie Henshaw
Peggy Lee is that eternal paradox – the good singer who doesn’t “sell.” At least, not to the mass market.
That same paradox, of course, applies to instrumentalists and bands; the outstanding performers are rarely box-office. Happily, public approval sometimes runs parallel with good taste, but more by good fortune than design.
A former recording executive described the Peggy Lee paradox as “terrifying.” It is. Especially when one considers that quite a few top-line British vocalists nominate Peggy as their favourite.
Peggy Lee has had one or two moderate hits. “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, which she made with Benny Goodman in 1942, was probably her biggest. It was certainly the most important, for this was the recording that brought her fame.
With her former husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, she wrote and waxed “Mañana.” This was also successful. Later came “Lover” – but this was bigger in the States than in Britain.
Explaining the comparative lack of mass enthusiasm here, that same executive said: “It was probably too noisy.” A pithy comment that surely strikes at the root of public reaction to so many recordings.
The underrated Lee started her career with a “blacked-up” song-and-dance act for a minstrel show at the age of seven. In those days she was known as Norma Egstrom, one of six children raised by parents of Swedish-Norwegian descent in Jamestown, North Dakota.
At 14, she turned semi-pro. After high school she did a fifteen-minute radio spot on a small station in nearby Valley City. It was then that she adopted the name Peggy Lee.
She was sponsored by the local café, earned five dollars a week and free meals. She then worked with a local band part-time. But she still had to subscribe to the family income; her father, a railroad freight agent, wasn’t exactly a Rockefeller.
With the other members of the family, Peggy worked on farms during the summer. She milked cows, pitched hay.
But she kept on singing. Even turned waitress to save enough money to make the stardust trip to Hollywood. There, she auditioned for a job at the Jade Room and was hired – at two dollars a night.
Bad luck as well as bad pay dogged her. The Californian smog brought on a throat ailment and she had to return to North Dakota. The affliction was serious; she suffered eight consecutive throat hemorrhages before the doctor won through.
Peggy was in bed two and a half months. When she got up it was with a new voice – the voice that was to be described as “electric blue” in Look magazine. It was a husky voice. But it was attractive, and it has remained Peggy’s one single asset.
That asset soon proved itself. In quick succession, Peggy obtained jobs with the bands of Sev Olsen, Will Osborne, and at the Claridge in Palm Springs. Next step was Chicago’s Ambassador Hotel – a theatrical haunt that directly brought her to the attention of Benny Goodman.
Goodman was looking for a vocalist. Helen Forrest had just left him. So Peggy was hired. She was just 21.
But the Goodman of those days was bigger than the Goodman of today. For an “unknown” to step up to the mike in front of the Goodman band, and under the Goodman “eye” – which was said to strike terror into the toughest sidemen – was tantamount to putting a first-grade violin student into the lead chair with the New York Philharmonic under Toscanini.
Peggy opened with Goodman in New York – and froze up. As one onlooker put it, she “sang lyrics like a mechanical doll.”
The critics licked their lips with relish and turned out enough vitriol to scorch Peggy for keeps. Even the band chipped in. They urged Goodman to send her packing.
Goodman’s confidence was rewarded. Especially when she made “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Collectors still cite this as one of her best efforts, and with it they bracket “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” made with the Goodman Sextet.
While singing with the Goodman band, Peggy met Dave Barbour, who held down the guitar chair with Goodman. Romance blossomed, they left together, married – and subsequently divorced.
But it was with Dave Barbour that Peggy made some of her most outstanding recordings. Notably “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “All Dressed Up with a Broken Heart,” “Riders in the Sky” and the exquisite “While We’re Young” – which was recorded at midnight, and sounds it.
But to these must be added “Would You Dance with a Stranger?”, surely one of the most atmospheric recordings ever made. Here, credit for the inspired accompaniment goes to Sid Feller.
Dave Barbour was also responsible for the outstanding accompaniments on Capitol Presents Peggy Lee, the first Lee LP issued here.
Peggy Lee’s incursion into films started some 12 years ago when she sang “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with Goodman in Stage Door Canteen. Far better was her appearance in a party sequence in Crosby’s Mr. Music, when she sang “Life Is So Peculiar.”
Her first major role was in the remake of The Jazz Singer, over which it might be kinder to draw a veil. She made some impact upon the critics and public as the pathetic figure in Pete Kelly’s Blues, but it was her acting rather than her singing that drew notices.
But the Peggy Lee aficionados are unlikely to worry about that. So long as Peggy sings in that smoky, seductive style, they will be satisfied.