by Mary English
With the record industry currently overrun with singers of the bleat-and-bellow or moan-and-mumble school, it gives me great satisfaction to report that 1955 is very likely to go down as biggest to date in the career of Peggy Lee. Already established as a singer and songwriter, her performance in “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” Jack Webb’s film concerning the life of a Kansas City jazzman during the Torrid Twenties, is practically certain to win her an Academy nomination. It could even bring her Hollywood’s highest award for acting honors — the coveted “Oscar.”
I have seen only a few of the scenes in which Peggy appears, enough to discover that “Pete Kelly’s Blues” is no light and laughable ramble “behind the scenes” in the band business; it has plenty of that violence for which the film industry has been under fire of late — and the drama that goes with it. Peggy’s role is that of a washed-up singer who has become an alcoholic. In one of the bits I saw, she was in a mental hospital, babbling over a toy piano. Pretty strong stuff, and Peggy makes it one of the most memorable scenes of its kind.
Peggy Didn’t Run
But the sequence that impressed me the most was one in which Peggy, trying to sing against the noisy clatter in a crowded speakeasy, breaks down in the middle of her song, and runs off the stand. That scene is very much like the true-to-life incident that started Peggy on her career — except that Peggy did not run off the stand.
That occurred during Peggy’s first try at Hollywood (her arrival here with Benny Goodman in 1943 was not her first visit). She had landed a job in a small cocktail lounge in Palm Springs. Things went well the first week — until Saturday night — when she found herself trying to sing to that typical roomful of noisy drinkers that has broken the hearts of so many singers. Later, she told me how it went:
“I knew I couldn’t sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘softly with feeling.’ The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience — softly, with feeling.”
Among the listeners that night was a Chicago hotel operator; he hired her on the spot to sing in one of his cocktail lounges. From there she joined Benny Goodman’s band as featured vocalist — a position held to be the peak of the profession among girl singers in that period — 1941. During her two years with Benny Goodman her vocal on “Why Don’t You Do Right” did much to give Benny what to my recollection was just about his last big-selling record. She also married his guitarist, Dave Barbour.
In those days, almost everyone who left Benny Goodman was fired. When Peggy and Dave left during an engagement at the Hollywood Palladium, almost immediately after their marriage, some strange stories circulated. One was that Benny fired Dave because of jealousy over Peggy. I am quite sure that neither was fired. Dave left because he wanted to stay in Hollywood. So did Peggy, who like most youngsters had wanted desperately to get to Hollywood since the days when, during summers, she pitched hay with the rest of the kids out in North Dakota as little Norma Egstrom.
Back to Hollywood
So, she was in Hollywood — again. But she had to go into temporary retirement right then to await the birth of little Nicki, now eleven years old. It was during this time that she first turned to song writing, the collaboration with Dave that later produced such successful songs as “It’s a Good Day,” “Mañana,” “Just an Old Love of Mine,” the bluesy “You Was Right, Baby,” and others. She moved right up as recording artist with — and was one of the reasons for — the phenomenal growth of the Capitol record company. She also made it to the top in radio, when radio was still the top, as star of the Chesterfield Supper Club in 1948-49.
During one of the sales slumps that all recording artists have from time to time, Capitol let her slip over to Decca. There she promptly rocked the record business with “Lover,” in which, in the words of one record reviewer, she “achieves the highest degree of pure sensuality ever projected into a song.” Peggy’s comment on that: “Everyone hears what he’s listening for. So I guess that’s the way the man heard it.”
Also on Peggy’s list of 1955 accomplishments goes her extraordinary, double-barreled triumph as songwriter (in collaboration with Sonny Burke) and off-screen voice in Walt Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.”
So now the little girl who pitched hay back in North Dakota is making hay in Hollywood. She lives in a beautiful hilltop home, which she decorated herself, paints, and writes poetry for relaxation.
But there were dark spots, too, along the way. Both of her two marriages were unsuccessful (her second husband was actor Brad Dexter), though she is now on friendly terms with both. (Dave still plays on all of her recording sessions when available.) During her early years, Nicki suffered from what appeared to be a serious eye ailment, but has now almost completely recovered.
And about that poetry, Peggy laughs it off as “just another hobby,” but she takes it seriously enough to work at it, and her first volume of poems will be published within the next few months. The title? You’ve guessed it: “Softly, With Feeling.”