by John Berlau
Ever since Peggy Lee heard the melody and lyrics of a quirky song called “Is That All There Is?” she knew she had to record it. Unfortunately, her record company was dead set against it.
It was 1969, and acid rock was the rage. Who would buy a song that was mostly spoken-word with classical strings in the background?
But Lee believed in the song and knew from 30 years in the music business that “songs I really had to fight for turned out to be successful,” she recalled in her autobiography, “Miss Peggy Lee.”
She appealed to Capitol Records co-founder Glenn Wallichs, who’d signed her when the label had started in the 1940s. Wallichs agreed to let her record it, but then Capitol refused to release it as a single.
Lee didn’t give up. She saw her chance when Capitol wanted her to perform on “The Joey Bishop Show” on television. She would do the show only if the company would release the song. The Capitol honchos reluctantly agreed, and Lee sang the song on TV.
Lee knew best. It became a Top 10 hit, and in 1970 gave her the Grammy that had eluded her. The song ensured Lee would become the only female artist to have Top 10 pop hits in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
As one of pop music’s first female singer-songwriters, Lee, now 80 and recovering from a stroke, has influenced performers from pop star Madonna to alternative singer k.d. lang to jazz diva Diana Krall.
More important to her than the glory from “Is That All There Is?” was what she thought of as the song’s message of moving forward no matter what life throws at you.
Although some took the song as cynical, “We get letters from people who say that that song changed their life,” said Nicki Lee Foster, Lee’s daughter. “They were able to look at [the message] the same way [Lee did]. Is that all there is? It’s not such a big deal. I can go on.”
Lee herself has had much adversity to overcome.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., she had tiring farm chores. She also had an abusive stepmother who kicked her in the stomach, hit her over the head with a cast-iron skillet and poured scalding water over her hands as she did dishes.
Norma latched on to music as an escape. She poured all the pain of her childhood into her singing.
Milt Gabler, who supervised Lee’s recordings at Decca Records, said what made Lee great, like Billie Holiday, was “the feeling she put into her songs.”
When she was 14, Norma sang on the air and ran errands at radio station WDAY in Fargo, N.D. The station manager renamed her Peggy Lee.
Lee took every opportunity she had at the station to learn, not just through singing but also through filing. She read the sheet music carefully before she filed it to develop her own songwriting skills.
Lee put everything she had into her singing, but in California in the early 1940s she learned that she was putting in too much. She was belting out a tune at The Doll House in Palm Springs, but the audience was busy eating and drinking.
She decided to try something different. For the next song, she lowered her voice to a near whisper. Suddenly the audience hushed.
Lee came to learn that singing was much like acting. “I draw on memories or my subconscious when I’m singing,” she told the New York Times. “To me each song is like a little story.”
Word soon spread of the lady who sang with the quiet intensity that mesmerized audiences. Bandleader Benny Goodman hired Lee as a vocalist on the spot after seeing one of her shows.
Yet she refused to confine herself to big band music when she began her solo career in the mid-1940s. She listened to all types of music for ideas.
Fascinated with Latin music, Lee and her then-husband, David Barbour, wrote a song called “Mañana,” which Lee sang backed up by Carmen Miranda’s band, the Brazilians. In 1948 it became the first Latin-flavored song to hit Number 1 on America’s pop charts.
Lee’s openness helped when big band singers were threatened by a new form of music in the 1950s: rock ‘n’ roll. At first Lee, like many other singers, was frightened.
“I felt very insecure, and I turned it off whenever it came on the radio,” she told the New York Times in 1970. “When you feel left out of something, you don’t like it at all.”
Then Lee started listening to rock closer. Although she still thought the lyrics were empty-headed, she came to appreciate the simple rhythm and beat.
So when a band member played her the song “Fever,” and rhythm-and-blues hit for Little Willie John, Lee made it her own.
She kept the song’s finger-snapping rhythm, but added some of her own lyrics about Romeo and Juliet and the “very mad affair” between Captain Smith and Pocahontas. Even with stiff competition from songs by young rock stars, “Fever” climbed to Number 8 on the Billboard pop charts in 1958.
From then on Lee sought out talented young musicians and songwriters to work with, such as Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote hits for Elvis Presley and the Coasters. And she listened to them. Leiber recalled that he advised Lee to sing the Leiber-Stoller song “I’m a Woman” “a little bit more bluesy and not as monotonish.” She took Leiber’s advice, and the song became one of her best-known tunes.
One thing that Lee never changed was her dedication to her fans and her extensive preparation.
Since the 1950s, Lee has kept a black notebook to outline nearly every detail of a show, from gowns and lighting even to her hand gestures. “I’m interested in the whole process of the show,” Lee told the New Yorker. “I think preparation is the key to the whole thing.”
But sometimes the unexpected happens. In 1987, Lee slipped on a steel plate while she was performing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, fracturing her pelvis and breaking several bones.
Lee didn’t want to let the audience down. She simply called for a chair and sat on one hip.