She’s still got it. That was the overwhelming consensus of the 800 people who heard Peggy Lee sing at her tribute from Society of Singers on Monday night at the Beverly Hilton.
A wheelchair-bound Lee sang two songs, “S’Wonderful” and “Here’s to You” for an appreciative crowd that gave her two enthusiastic standing ovations. With a little help, she stood to acknowledge them.
“I think I’ve felt more heart here in this room tonight, and I know that is the shining truth,” said Lee, dressed in white satin and marabou.
Lee was the fourth singer to receive the Society’s “Ella” Lifetime Achievement Award, named for Ella Fitzgerald, the first recipient. (Frank Sinatra and Tony Martin also have won.)
The Society of Singers was founded in 1984 to aid singers in need, since there is no union solely for singers, giving them benefits and insurance. The tally on this event was expected to be $500,000.
During a photo session earlier in the evening, when friends came by in droves to say hello, Lee said of the award: “This is incredible. It’s like a movie of my life. This is wonderful because it’s for my career, and it’s absolutely the highest and the best because it’s from my peers.”
Lee’s two numbers capped off a two-hour show featuring her songs interpreted by Joe Williams, k.d. lang, the Manhattan Transfer, Jack Jones, Ruth Brown, Rosemary Clooney, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, and Natalie Cole. They were backed by the Frank Capp and Juggernaut orchestras and the Society of Singers Choir, directed by Earl Brown. Gary Owens emceed and George Schlatter produced the show with Jack Haley Jr.
Some performers reminisced about Lee’s influence on their lives and careers.
The first time Williams heard Lee’s voice on a record, he said, “I went into a puddle.”
Johnny Mathis said when he was young, his father brought home one of Lee’s records. “He said I might as well learn from the best.”
And lang said she would listen to Lee’s songs over and over, “trying to copy her phrasing.” She also hung around the lobby of a Canadian theater for two weeks to hear Lee in person.
“They finally just let me in – I was broke,” she recalled.
Lee represents “the perfect marriage of talent and material,” said Ginny Mancini, one of the Society’s founders and current president.
Clips from Lee’s appearances on film and television showed the breadth of her work, from Pete Kelly’s Blues, for which she received and Academy Award nomination, to her repertoire of jazz numbers, torch songs and ballads.
Also among those who came to pay tribute to Lee were Bob and Delores Hope, Tony Martin and Cud Charisse, Chaka Khan, Hugh and Kimberley Hefner, Polly Bergen, Bea Arthur, Frances Bergen and Helen Forrest. Charing the event were Mancini and Jeanne Hazard.