Jazz Diva, Dead At 81, Left Indelible Memories With Her Sultry Sound
by Owen McNally
Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, January 23, 2002
You had only to hear Peggy Lee one time for her sultry sound, fluid phrasing and silken way with lyrics to become an indelible part of your musical memory bank.
Whatever Lee sang — including such hallmarks as “Fever,” “Is That All There Is?,” “Lover” or “Manana” — bore her deeply personal imprint. The singer, who died Monday, had a style that could sizzle, swing, seduce or lament in a profoundly moving way.
The pop and jazz legend, who had been in failing health for years, died from a heart attack at her home in Bel Air, Calif., said her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster. She was 81.
To have seen Lee in performance — especially when she was a young, beautiful and charismatic rising star — is an experience still treasured by devoted fans of her career as a singer, composer and actress, a career that spanned six decades.
As jazz critic Leonard Feather once famously noted, “If you don’t feel a thrill when Peggy Lee sings, you’re dead, Jack.”
Eugene Solon and Harry Lichtenbaum, two Hartford natives who got hooked on jazz by hanging out at the old State Theater as boys in the 1940s, are prime examples of the once-smitten, forever loyal Lee fan.
The State was a long-thriving downtown show-biz emporium that brought to Hartford the best of the big bands, singers, comics and entertainers. And Lee, both during her breakthrough stint with the Benny Goodman Orchestra from 1941 to 1943 and later into the 1940s, performed there often
“It must have been 1941, but I still have this vivid memory of this incredibly beautiful, blond singer wearing an off-the-shoulder, floor-length, lipstick-red gown,” Solon said from his home in Tucson, Ariz.
“I can still remember the spotlight illuminating her as she took the stage at the State. It was incredibly sexy, especially from the perspective of a teenage boy still in high school.”
“Her singing was so great, and naturally augmented her stage presence. It was absolutely mesmerizing. She was with the Goodman Orchestra then, and one of the songs she sang was ‘How Deep Is the Ocean?’
“The State was the grammar school, the college and the graduate school for my jazz education back then,” Solon said. “And that was the first and only time I ever saw Peggy Lee live. And it has stayed with me.”
In part because of the State and boyhood epiphanies like seeing Lee in her prime, Solon went on to become one of the formative, behind-the-scenes shakers-and-doers in the Hartford jazz community from the 1960s to his retirement and departure to Tucson in 1998.
Lichtenbaum, who also fell in love with Lee at the State, followed her wide-ranging career, which even took her to Hollywood. In 1956, the singer-turned-actress played a booze-sodden singer in “Pete Kelly’s Blues.” It won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. She also appeared with Danny Thomas in “The Jazz Singer,” a limp update of the Al Jolsen film. Her movie career fizzled, however.
An accomplished songsmith, she collaborated with Sonny Burke on the songs for Disney’s “The Lady and the Tramp” and supplied the voice for the dog who sang “He’s the Tramp (But I Love Him).”
Her work in that 1955 film, the Associated Press says, led to a landmark legal judgment 36 years later, when she was awarded $2.3 million after she sued for a slice of the profits from the videocassette sale of the movie.
Lichtenbaum, who honed his jazz education at the State into the ’50s, became not only an authority on and collector of all things Sinatra but also a connoisseur of pop and jazz vocal styles rooted in the Great American Songbook.
“As a kid, I started collecting all of Lee’s 78 recordings on Capitol Records. I have her stuff on vinyl and CDs, of course, but I still have those Capitol 78s in my collection in my home. I’d catch her every time she came to town,” Lichtenbaum says from his Wethersfield home, a mini-museum of jazz and pop history.
“I remember seeing Peggy Lee with her husband, the guitarist Dave Barbour. (The storybook marriage soured as Barbour slipped into the depths of alcoholism. It marked one of four broken marriages for Lee in a troubled life that came with a wicked stepmother who beat her brutally and often as a child.)
“She sang with sensuality,” Lichtenbaum says, “but also with great humor. ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ is just filled with humor the way she sang it. She was also a composer, and her song ‘Manana’ even added a phrase to the American lexicon. Instead of saying ‘tomorrow,’ people would say ‘manana,’ or echoing the lyric, ‘manana is good enough for me.’ She swings and she interprets the lyrics so that she is a genuine jazz singer, one of the leaders,” Lichtenbaum says.
Bobbi Rogers of Durham, one of Connecticut’s finest jazz divas and big-band singers, never met or even saw Lee in a live performance. Nonetheless, she feels a special bond with Lee that goes back to her childhood.
“l’ve always loved Peggy Lee since I was a kid and my grandfather would give me a quarter for my allowance, and I would go buy one of her 78s in a record store in New London. As kid in grammar school in our music class, we’d have to sing a song. I’d get up and sing a Peggy Lee song. Her melodic way of doing ballads and her phrasing were so great. It seemed unusual at that time to hear someone do something so lyrical,” Rogers says.
Art Fine of Bloomfield, a founding member of the Hartford Jazz Society, is another lifetime Lee fan, even though he never saw her perform live.
“She was someone I worshiped years ago. She was probably one of the greatest women singers that ever lived, in my estimation. I really think that she was that great.
“She had a presence about her that no one else seemed to have since [Billie Holiday]. She had a special, calm beauty when she sang. It used to knock me out. She was something wonderful, a great performer,” Fine says.
Besides her daughter, Lee leaves three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.