by Alan Markfield
Peggy Lee calls it “my new start.” Critics are calling it a comeback.
Six months ago Peggy Lee was near death, battling an illness that for a time left her paralyzed. Today, she has not only fought off the disease that nearly killed her, but is also winning new fans on a world tour.
True, there’s a lot more of her inside those glamorous gowns these days, and the haunting voice may be a little shaky. But her smile delivers and unmistakable message: “It’s great to be being alive.
“When I say I love my fans, I mean it,” says Peggy. “They’ve been a marvellous inspiration to me.”
Peggy started her world tour in Chicago last month, and went on to Toronto. Last night she was soaking up the applause in Britain where, in the Fifties, she had a big success with the song “Fever.” The second of her two concerts at the London Palladium was, like the first on Tuesday, a near sellout.
It was certainly a happier London visit than her show in 1961. “I caught pneumonia,” she recalled. “The trip and the illness changed my life. I had difficulty breathing as a result, and always had to travel with an iron lung, which I used when resting between shows.”
“This is my first visit to London where I won’t be bringing those machines – I don’t need them anymore,” she said.
She won’t name the illness or its symptoms in case anyone thinks Peggy Lee, at an age when most women look forward to retirement, can’t stand the pace of a major tour. The only reminder she has of it comes late at night when she is tired. The left side of her face still goes numb.
Dressed in a flowing white lounging gown and surrounded by flowers from well-wishers, Peggy admitted she still finds it difficult to talk about the illness which almost killed her. “My fans didn’t know what was happening to me,” she said. “I kept it all secret.
“There was quite a bit of doubt about whether or not I would survive. But as you can see, I’m fine. I’d like to think of it as having had a little rest. I am so grateful to be feeling well and able to enjoy my work again.”
“It certainly makes for a new beginning – but don’t you dare call this a comeback.”
Peggy Lee has been around a long time. Exactly how long, she won’t say, other than just a coy, “who’s counting?”
Born in a small North Dakota farming town, she started singing “along the railway tracks” where her father worked. At 14 she was warbling professionally.
She soon caught the eye of bandleader Benny Goodman, who gave her a job, and the ear of a public which continues to display its loyalty. In all, she had recorded 631 songs and 59 albums.
Her version of “Is That All There Is?” won her awards from all over the world, and she still includes the song in her nightclub act. Peggy also starred in several hit musicals of the era.
With all this and her four husbands behind her, what more does she want from life? “I’m working on a musical about my career,” says Peggy. Feverishly, of course.