Dubbed ‘the Queen’ by Duke Ellington, the indomitable Miss Peggy Lee and her smoky voice set the standard in swing
by Gayle MacDonald (with files from the Associated Press)
Toronto Globe & Mail, January 23, 2002
Peggy Lee’s voice was small, encompassing little more than an octave and a half. But her sultry, purringly seductive interpretation of the tunes she sang — the raw emotion she poured into hits such as Fever or Is That All There Is? — left indelible imprints on anyone who loved swing, the big-band sound or jazz.
Miss Lee died late Monday night of a heart attack at her pink palace (so named for its nude colour) in Bel Air, high in the Hollywood hills where she reigned as a pop legend the past 40 years.
The woman — once dubbed “The Queen” by jazz great Duke Ellington — was 81.
“She made audiences feel glad to be alive,” said Toronto impresario Gino Empry, who has known Peggy Lee for almost 25 years, from the days he booked her into the city’s glitzier venues like The Imperial Ballroom in the Royal York Hotel.
“She realized everyone had some problems . . . of loneliness, unhappiness, broken romances. And she communicated that to the audience. But, most of all, she told people you can beat it off. You can overcome all that. You can survive.
“One day we were talking on the phone,” Mr. Empry remembers. “And she complained to me: ‘I wish they’d stop calling me a legend.’ But I said: ‘Darling, you are a living legend.’ To which she replied: ‘Legends are dead and don’t get jobs.'”
During her half-a-century-long career, Miss Peggy Lee, the ash-blond with the cool, breathy voice, recorded more than 631 songs and 60 albums, including such classics as Big Spender, Manana and the ruminative Is That All There Is?, the latter winning her a Grammy Award in 1969.
She performed with some of the biggest names in show biz, like Mr. Ellington, Benny Goodman, Benny Carter, Frank Sinatra, to name a few. She was considered in the same league as Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. Besides being a singer, she was also a gifted lyricist, composer and musical innovator, says long-time friend Gene DiNovi, a veteran piano man who worked for Miss Lee in the 1960s.
“She was someone who never sang a note out of tune, or a note out of time,” says Mr. DiNovi, 73, who lives in Toronto. “She was one of the few performers who was a complete musician who became popular, which is a rarity.
“In other words, most people who are big stars are not necessarily musicians. She was. Her greatest skill — like all truly great singers — was her ability to communicate, to generations of listeners.”
George Hoefer of Down Beat magazine called her “the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey,” and Leonard Feather in The Encyclopedia of Jazz (1960) described her as “one of the most sensitive and jazz-oriented singers in the pop field.”
Born Norma Deloris Engstrom in Jamestown, a farm town on the Great Plains in North Dakota, Miss Lee was only 4 when her mother died and her father, a railroad station agent, left home. Through sheer grit, she rose from an abusive Depression-era childhood (her stepmother physically abused her), and decided to become a singer at age 14, when she would earn 50 cents a night at gigs for local PTAs.
A few years later she travelled to Fargo, N.D., where she sang on a local radio station. The program director suggested a name change, and she became Peggy Lee.
Her legend has it that Miss Lee eventually arrived in Hollywood with $18 in her pocketbook, supporting herself as a waitress in between nightclub jobs.
Benny Goodman, then the King of Swing, hired her to sing with his band after hearing her while she was performing at a Chicago hotel.
A string of hits, notably Why Don’t You Do Right? — her challenge to an unreliable man — made her a star. Then she fell in love with Mr. Goodman’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, and withdrew from the music world to be his wife and raise their daughter, Nicki. But she returned to singing when the marriage fell apart eight years later.
“I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and the failure of our marriage,” she said once in an interview. “And I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say: ‘You have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song.'”
Three husbands followed after Mr. Barbour — actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and bongo player Jack Del Rio — but all of the marriages were short-lived. Miss Lee once said of her last three trips to the altar: “They weren’t really weddings, just long costume parties.” (Miss Lee and Mr. Barbour were about to get back together in 1965, Mr. Barbour having been sober for 13 years, but before it could happen he died of a heart attack.)
Through her tumultuous personal life, Miss Lee’s smoky voice kept her a favourite in radio, on records and later in television. She collaborated with Sonny Burke on the songs for Disney’s 1955 animated classic The Lady and the Tramp and was the voice who sang He’s a Tramp (But I Love Him).
Her work on that film led to a landmark legal judgment 36 years later when a California court awarded her $2.3-million (U.S.) after she sued for a portion of the profits from the videocassette sales of the movie.
She also did Broadway, co-writing 22 songs for the autobiographical musical Peg, in which she made her debut in 1983 at the age of 62. And Miss Lee made her mark in Hollywood as an actress, winning an Academy Award nomination for her role as the hard-drinking singer in the 1955 jazz saga, Pete Kelly’s Blues.
“Like Ellington, Lee was really beyond category,” says Mr. DiNovi. “She was better than a jazz musician. She could reach a wider audience than that, which is a kind of genius. Peggy didn’t have to be labelled, she just communicated with everyone. I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t like Peggy Lee.
“She always had the best musicians around her. That was her first priority . . . for everything to be artistically right.”
As a person, Mr. DiNovi remembers her as having a mystical, spiritual side. “There were always great people around her. It was always a learning experience to be with Peggy. The conversation after the gig was as good as the gig,” says the musician, who remembers sitting around, chatting with Jimmy Marino, an atomic-bomb scientist and colleague of Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer. (Mr. Marino spent a year recuperating at Miss Lee’s California home after losing an arm when he fell into a uranium-refining machine).
“Peggy was very warm, very appreciative of what musicians did,” adds Mr. DiNovi. “And she proved you didn’t have to be loud to sing, or to reach an audience.”
In the sixties and seventies, Miss Lee was a frequent performer on musical variety shows. But it was as a nightclub singer and recording artist that she achieved her most enduring fame, headlining in such landmarks as Ciro’s in Hollywood, the Copacabana in New York, and the Flamingo in Las Vegas. In 1961, she brought her tour abroad and performed for Princess Grace of Monaco in a Red Cross benefit. Miss Lee was also invited to sing at President John F. Kennedy’s legendary birthday party in Madison Square Garden in May, 1962 (a contribution that was eclipsed by Marilyn Monroe’s breathy solo).
A diabetic, Miss Lee had a litany of medical problems, including a heart condition and Ménière’s disease, which left her near-sightless and with a paralyzed face. In 1976 she had a near-fatal fall in a New York hotel. She was again seriously injured after a topple in Las Vegas in 1987. In early 1985 she underwent four angioplasties — balloon surgery to open clogged arteries — but resumed her singing tour. In 1998, she suffered a stroke which impaired her speech.
Mr. Empry says the woman’s indomitable will made her a success, and a survivor: “She understood life. God knows she had enough problems,” he says, referring to her ailments. “She was declared dead at least four times by various doctors over the years. But she kept conquering her illnesses. She kept fighting back. They called her the cat of nine lives.”
Indeed, at the time of her death, Miss Lee was leading a potentially groundbreaking class-action lawsuit against Universal Music, a unit of Vivendi Universal. Just last week, the music giant agreed to pay $4.75-million (U.S.) in back royalties to as many as 300 performers to settle the suit.
Besides her daughter, Peggy Lee leaves her grandchildren David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells and Michael Foster, and three great-grandchildren.