Peggy Lee


The Many Faces of Peggy Lee

by Leonard Feather

Her multiple personalities make it all but impossible to combine them in one story. In fact, recently a publicist wrote three separate press releases: “Miss Peggy Lee – the Professional Side,” “Miss Peggy Lee – the Personal Side,” and “Miss Peggy Lee – the Creative Side.” They overlapped only rarely.

Recently, all three of them were on hand at her airy, handsome Bel Air home to bring the story up to date. In the course of the afternoon, many new career projects came to light and several myths were demolished.

Myth Number 1: Peggy Lee is aloof. Well, let it be established once and for all that Peggy Lee is not aloof. People who call you up to tell you shaggy dog stories, who laugh a lot, who are concerned about the problems of others, do not tend to be aloof; yet this adjective has been pinned on her time and time again.

“I have no idea why,” she says. “It’s really strange, because I care so much about other people that it’s very easy for me to talk with them. It just isn’t true.

Myth Number 2: Peggy Lee is a sick woman. Because she has indeed suffered through a variety of health problems, rumor has turned her into a chronic invalid. Recently in better shape than she has been in years, she spent most of the past year on the road, sharing concerts with another talented painter who dabbles in singing, Tony Bennett. (Lee works mainly in oils and acrylics.)

Her big imminent event is a guest appearance at the American Cancer Society’s annual black-tie fundraiser, Thursday at the Beverly Hilton. “I’m deeply honored to be doing this concert,” she says. “I feel we all have slipped into a way of thinking that accepts the inevitability of this disease. So much time and energy and money has been devoted to the fight that we need to get the mind power of everyone, everywhere, to help the researchers and the doctors. We can’t become defeatist.”

Myth Number 3: Peggy Lee consumes inordinate quantities of alcoholic beverages. This was perhaps an inevitable outgrowth of her Academy Award-nominated role as an alcoholic singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues. She sums this one up succinctly: “I don’t drink, I gave up smoking ten years ago, and other than my macabre sense of humor, I have no vices to speak of.”

So much for the false alarms. The realities are far more interesting. During 1982, the public will be able to see, hear or read her work in a variety of media. Due for immediate release is Sharky’s Machine, the Burt Reynolds movie for which she sang “Let’s Keep Dancing,” sharing the soundtrack with Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Troup, Julie London, Manhattan Transfer, Doc Severenson and Chet Baker. (In the movie, you’ll have to strain to hear her, but the number is prominently heard on the soundtrack album on Warner Bros. Records.)

In addition, she points out, Walt Disney’s classic Lady and the Tramp, for which she collaborated on the score with the late Sonny Burke, has been reissued and is doing well at the box office.

Of special significance to her at the moment are three writing ventures.

“I have written part of a small book that will come out next year. It’s called The Men I’ve Loved. That’s all I can tell you right now. It covers a rather broad choice of men. Of course, there are others that I’ve loved, whom I can’t include because there are no particular anecdotes of interest involving them.

“The partial manuscript is with a publisher in New York. I wish I’d thought of this idea a little earlier; it would have made a great Christmas gift.

“In addition to that, I’m writing my autobiography. That’s going to take me a while, because I’ve lived a lot. I’m doing it myself for the moment, in longhand, then having my secretary type it up so I can look it over and edit.

“Along with the autobiography, more or less as part of the same plan, I’ve begun to write a musical play based on my life. We have 18 songs; I wrote the lyrics, and the music is by a fellow from England, Paul Horner. Although the songs are tied in with my life story, they can all be sung independently of the show.

“Tony Bennett is very anxious to get at the score. People who have heard it seem to be enthusiastic. When someone like Mel Powell thinks it’s a great score, there must be something worthwhile about it.

Powell played piano in the Benny Goodman orchestra, which Lee sang with in 1941. He and his wife, Martha Scott, have remained friendly with Lee during the years Powell devoted his time to classical music; during the 1970s he was dean of music at CalArts.

Powell’s is among the many friendships she has retained through the decades. At one of her legendary New Year’s Eve parties you are likely to see someone who played guitar or drums for her back in the early days, rubbing elbows with movie and rock stars. A woman of limitless interests, she has collected friends with impassioned eclecticism. In her library of rare books she cherishes affectionately autographed copies of works by Albert Einstein, Dr. Jonas Salk, Igor Stravinsky, Dr. Albert Schweitzer and the Dalai Lama.

Where will the Peggy Lee story end?

“I’m really not quite sure. There are several things happening at the moment that might make a fitting climax for a book, and the play. If not, the fact that I’m still alive, after all the trials and perils I’ve been through, should be enough. Of course, I have to be careful in dealing with this. I have to keep a light hand, leave room for amusing spots here and there. For drama, there are some surprising tragedies in my life that nobody knows about – great dramatically, but not so much fun to live through, believe me.”

“How much of your married life will be in the play?”

“A lot. I have Nicki’s blessing and permission to say whatever I’d like. I’m sure David wouldn’t mind – in fact, I think he’d like it because it turns out nicely.

David is the late Dave Barbour, the guitarist (in the same Goodman band), a fine musician, who became her first husband and the father of Nicki. When Barbour’s name comes up in conversation, one has the impression that he was more than just the first husband; in a sense, he was the only one. It was Barbour who encouraged her to go back to work, when she went into retirement before and after Nicki’s birth; Barbour, who worked with her on her first and most durable compositions, “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” “Mañana,” which sold more than 2.5 million copies during its first year alone, was prophetic in its use of authentic Latin rhythms and Latin musicians in an American pop setting.

At the mention of any song from the Barbour years she becomes nostalgic. When I recalled a beguiling but long forgotten tune called “What More Can a Woman Do?,” she said: “I wrote that when David was at work one day on a recording session. Those were really our lean days, when he was waiting to get his local Musicians’ Union card. I was standing at the kitchen sink – a lot of ideas have come to me over the kitchen sink – and while I washed the dishes I was thinking about how much I loved David. So it was really written for him, and when he came home I sang it, he put the chord changes down, and that became our first collaboration on our first record date. I’d really like to record that again.”

If the Lee songwriting image has been neglected, perhaps the fault is partly her own. She has re-recorded none of her hits from the early years. Later, songs that became standards could also use a revival: “The Shining Sea,” written with Johnny Mandel for a film, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” her lyrics to a theme Duke Ellington wrote for Anatomy of a Murder, a 1959 movie. Some of her other movie themes were written with Victor Young and Dave Grusin.

The year ahead will also find Lee back in the recording studios. She has talked to two major companies, but chances are that she will sign with a new organization more specifically aimed at the classic pop market, with which she has always been identified.

“The company is Applause Records, and if I go with them, I’m planning to have Artie Butler as my producer. I’m collecting songs right now; I have some wonderful things by a writer who’s new to me, Bill Gable. He writes lyrics and music, and I love his work.”

Unlike some of the classic pop singers, whose in person salability has suffered because they no longer have a recording contract, Peggy Lee has kept the same high public profile as ever during a few years of reduced album activity. Since her long association with Capitol Records ended (“Is That All There Is?” won her a Grammy in 1969), she has made albums for Atlantic and other labels, without being bound to a long-term contract.

One album was recorded in London, which has become almost a second home, the scene of one spectacular success after another. Her travels continue to win her new audiences. Australia was one of her most recent conquests. Japan was also special – “I’d love to go back there any time.”

“Where in the world have you never been that you’d still like to go?”

“Paris. Strangely enough I wrote a song for the play about Paris, but it was inspired by a painting I have. I’ve never really been in France at all. I mean, unless you count standing around in the Orly airport, waiting to leave for some other country.”

“What other regrets? Anything in life that you might do differently if you had the chance at a rerun?”

“I don’t know that I honestly regret anything. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I think, given the same set of circumstances, I’d make the very same mistakes again.”