by Amy Lee
Peggy Lee came into the sitting room of her Waldorf Towers suite in flowered pajamas, her blond-blond hair parted in the middle and tied in two pigtails with fat white cotton cord. It was the same beautiful face belonging to the sophisticated singer of “Fever,” “Hallelujah, I Love Him So,” “Golden Earrings” and a thousand other songs cherished by TV watchers, record collectors, jazz buffs. The face that brings whistles and sighs, yet, here, so ice-cream-and-cake, so girl-you-knew-at-school.
She apologized for being late – the thousand things – gowns, phones, hair. “This is infinity,” she said, sitting down on a small sofa. It was past mid-afternoon. Lamps were on, creating the illusion of half-dark daytime in which performers go through their offstage routines. “I wonder sometimes how I can go out there and say ‘la.’”
Quite beyond ‘la,’ for her spring appearance in the Waldorf’s Empire Room Peggy Lee sang 32 numbers nightly, 16 in each hour-and-over show. With an 18-piece band behind her (“three guitars, not just for rhythm but playing lines and figurations”) she sang the Peggy Lee gamut: from numbers in her current Capitol album (A Natural Woman, ST-183) that have her singing urgent new-old messages in the urgent rock-folk-gospel style – and to which her subtly plaintive voice can so naturally adapt – to her first great hit as vocalist with the Benny Goodman band, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
“Everyone thinks I wrote that. I didn’t. Lil Green wrote it. She was a blues singer from the Bessie Smith days. I used to play her record over and over backstage at the Paramount. After a week, Benny finally noticed and made some profound remark like, ‘I guess you like that.’”
He could have said the same thing a few years earlier to teenage Peggy Lee, had he been in Balboa, California, to see her putting her hard-saved nickels in a jukebox to play her favorite Benny Goodman record, “Don’t Be That Way.”
“That was my one treat,” she said of the early California hard times.
Just out of high school, and with $18 and hope, Peggy Lee, nee Norma Deloris Egstrom, had left Jamestown, North Dakota, to get a singing job in Hollywood. The one she got was brief and led to no fame and no fortune. A non-singing job had brought her to Balboa and the jukebox. There she met two musicians and sang for them.
“They were impressed that I could sing Gershwin and Kern.” It was recognition but of no cash value.
Gershwin and Kern, along with her favorite singers Maxine Sullivan and Bing Crosby, she had heard on the radio back home. “I always had my ear on the radio.”
Listening and singing were as much a part of Peggy’s growing up as the chores she shared with her brothers and sisters, keeping house for their widowed father, a railroad agent. Her debut as a singer came at age four.
“I sang with several other children at a Lutheran church. Something about an olive branch. I was so nervous I clutched the skirt of the kid next to me and began rolling it up.” Her hands clutched and rolled up an imaginary skirt. “She was crying and trying to pull it down. I got panicky when it came to my turn to sing. I don’t remember whether I sang or not.”
“I had my first professional job at 14. I’d been singing in glee clubs, but this time I got paid, so I was a professional. And I sang with a territory band. Remember those? It was a great experience.”
She smiled. “Anyone who gets out of there should have a diploma.”
Miss Lee’s “diploma” came, after her teen-age return from Hollywood, via a singing spot on radio station WDAY, Fargo, which led to other radio dates and hotel appearances, and eventually to the Goodman band, the start of the fame and fortune still piling up. A two-year contract that will gross about $1 million brings her into the new International Hotel, Las Vegas, for several appearances, starting with a four-week engagement for the grand opening July 2.
The pigtailed blonde on the sofa, with her Scandinavian milk-and-fresh-bread look, said, “I feel sorry for kids today. They have all this tension. They don’t know how to do the most basic things, like giving a birthday party, or bobbing for apples. They don’t know how much fun these things are. I had a family that was – I guess – old-fashioned.
Peggy Lee’s North Dakota childhood taught her lessons of work and discipline that, applied to her many talents, have put her not only into the Hall of Fame of her home state but also into that music hall of fame with the Sinatras, the Crosbys, the Ellas, the Billie Holidays, and onto the all-time hit parade.
As lyricist and composer she has collaborated with Dave Barbour (“Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You”) Victor Young (“Where Can I Go without You?,” and themes from the films Johnny Guitar and About Mrs. Leslie), Sonny Burke (score of Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp), Quincy Jones (“Happy Feet” and “Stay with Me” in the Cary Grant film Walk, Don’t Run), Johnny Pisano from the Tijuana Brass (“So What’s New?”). She wrote the lyrics for the theme of The Russians Are Coming, and has recently received a bid to collaborate with songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen.
One of her tunes, “Lean on Me,” written with guitarist Mundell Lowe and pianist Mike Melvoin, shares the tracks – and contemporary beat and mood – of her new album with such fare as Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay,” and “Spinning Wheel,” associated with the Blood, Sweat and Tears group.
About music today she said: “After all the confusion, the hard rock, the attitude, I think it’s going to be better. Young musicians will do better things. They are already.” The measure of her judgment is her own perfectionist standards. In October, TV viewers will get some idea of those standards when Miss Lee’s demonstration of how she prepares for a performance is telecast over the National Educational Television network.
For refreshment she paints. For good purpose, also. “Paintings are so good for charity. They can be auctioned.” In May she contributed several paintings for a benefit for retarded children in Los Angeles. For the dedication of the Hollywood Museum in 1962 she contributed 10 works of art. She has been cited for cultural service by the Los Angeles City Council and the American Federation of Musicians.
“My things are impressionistic, I guess you’d say. New York is my favorite subject. Now I’m painting small things, flowers in bowls, happy things.”