by Joseph Wershba
Jazz historian Leonard Feather has already written the definitive critique of Peggy Lee: “If you don’t feel a thrill when Peggy sings, you are dead, Jack.” But this doesn’t completely explain how a nice, shy, flaxen-haired, Gretchen-faced Swedish-Norwegian girl from the plains of North Dakota became a leading white American singer who comes closest to the free-throated style traditionally associated with the greatest Negro jazz singers. Miss Lee isn’t sure of the answer either.
“I keep getting deeper into the songs,” she says. “I learn from musicians. I like variety – folk songs, jazz. Ray Charles, now… he’s an inspiration to many singers because, while he’s a jazz artist, he sees nothing wrong in singing country-western. He does it because he loves it. Variety…that’s always been my conception of singing.”
Miss Lee, currently singing to standing-room crowds at Basin Street East, developed her distinctive styles 20 years ago with Benny Goodman’s band and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” The Lee style can be insinuating, lowdown growly, hushed, provocative, lullabyish – almost always effortless, almost always a woman in love. When sex is deliberate, she humors it; when she means business, the audience has to sense it. Audiences never seem to have any trouble.
“Of course,” she says, “if I tried to vamp and manufacture the sexiness, then I’d really be funny. Anything that is forced comes over fake.” Onstage, she comes over as the apotheosis of one of her songs: “I’m a W-O-M-A-N.” Offstage, she has been quite properly compared to a friendly, small-town librarian. “But I don’t know why people have written that I’m moody or depressed. I’m not that at all. I’ve had a lot of sadness in my life, but sadness is not my nature,” she says.
She travels on tour with 13 people: dresser, hairdresser, road agent, light man, press agent and eight musicians, the largest entourage of any solo performer in show business. “I’m lucky; we all project together. The things that get me sore are the stupid mistakes; like the spring in the hair dryer breaks. The people,” says Miss Lee, “are wonderful. It’s the machines you gotta watch out for.”
Besides nightclubs, records and television, Miss Lee earns her bread as a successful composer (“Mañana,” “Golden Earrings,” among others). She’s president of Peggy Lee Enterprises, which includes two publishing houses. She relaxes with sculpture, poetry, readings in philosophy. She also has strong feelings about non-profit, civic responsibilities: she’s chairman of the Tom Dooley Foundation for medical aid to Laos and Vietnam.
She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom, daughter of a railroad station agent in Jamestown, North Dakota. “I sang even before I could talk. I sang in churches and at colleges. I was annoyed with the college boys. They always thought of me as their little sister. I was 14. I made a tremendous amount of money – got 50 cents one night. Gave it back to the band leader. He bought me chili. Then we were both broke. But al least I could consider myself a professional.”
She borrowed her father’s railroad pass, took her savings of $18, tried to break into Hollywood and flopped. Back home again, she sang on the local radio station, changed her name to Peggy Lee, began her one-night club stands with bands. “I remember these days now happily,” she says, “but I can’t understand how I did it. I took care of my hair, my gowns, lived out of valises and buses, never got any sleep. I was young; I didn’t know any better. When I think of some of those gowns, I shudder. Now I have a wonderful designer, Sebesta. He’s an engineer, the way he creates gowns you can move around in. But the gowns must never dominate.”
Miss Lee has a 19-year old daughter, Nicki, from her first marriage, to guitarist-composer Dave Barbour, with whom she has written a number of her best songs. She has been married and divorced twice more since. A fourth venture may be in the cards. Of her current escort, she says: “Love that man.”
Miss Lee wants another try at the movies. Her last time around, in Pete Kelly’s Blues, she won an Academy Award nomination as the alcoholic, mentally-ill blues singer. “But I don’t want to be typed,” she says. “After that picture, I started getting calls from AA’ers on the 12 Steps back to sobriety, and people kept advising me how to overcome mental despair. I don’t want roles of violence. There’s too much of that in films, even perversion. When it’s over, it doesn’t prove a thing.
“I’d like to do some bewildered comedy. I’m not funny myself, but things that happen to me are funny.
“I’m really not very theatrical. Whatever has happened to me seemed just to happen by itself. I don’t think I had much choice,” says Peggy Lee.