by Christina Kirk
She is a one-woman production – singer, actress, temptress, musical director, impresario and star. She is Miss Peggy Lee, and she is currently using all the skills of a show business lifetime to mesmerize audiences in the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria.
The effect is cool and controlled, with just a touch of fever in the seductive voice and the undulating hips. She comes out to an up-tempo “Strike Up the Band,” a whirl of white chiffon and flashing diamonds. The platinum blonde hair is pulled back in an elaborate chignon from the broad, unlined face. The blue eyes behind dark lashes sweep the room, looking for a response. The bright smile says, “Enjoy.”
This is the culmination of weeks, days and hours of preparation and the sum total of more than three decades of survival in the fickle, constantly changing world of popular music.
There has been a Peggy Lee since the mid-1930s when a teenaged North Dakota farm girl named Norma Deloris Egstrom was taken by an early fan, a young baseball player, to see Ken Kennedy at radio station WDAY in Fargo, and Kennedy liked her voice but nixed her name. He renamed her Peggy Lee and put her on the air immediately.
The money wasn’t enough to live on and the opportunities on the prairie were limited, so Peggy took her waitress tips and headed for Hollywood. There she waited on a few more tables until she landed a job singing in a Hollywood Boulevard night spot. She was heard by one of the owners of a Chicago hotel chain, who took her back to the Midwest to sing in one of his nightclubs.
It was there that Benny Goodman heard her sing and hired her to sing with his band. Peggy, who had never had a singing lesson outside of choir practice and the high school glee club, decided then that she should take a few. Goodman noticed the difference right away and told her to stop it. It was good advice. Her untrained voice on the now-classic Goodman recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” sold millions and launched Peggy’s solo career as a radio, television, nightclub and recording star.
About ten years ago, her billing was changed to Miss Peggy Lee. “It looks better on the marquee,” she explained, “and it sounds better phonetically when someone announces it for a show.”
It also seems to signify that she has paid her dues and earned the privileges of a Superstar. There is no denying that she enjoys the trappings of stardom – the entourage of hairdresser, secretary, agent and errand boy; the luxurious tower suite; the handsome, attentive escorts. But it is also true that she works hard for them. At a band rehearsal, she was there all afternoon to work with the musicians. Most singers let their conductors do the first run through, but Peggy Lee is more than a singer. She is a composer and lyricist who has written about 100 songs, among them “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” And she is an exacting master who hand-picks her own 24-piece band.
“You might say this is an all-star orchestra,” she said, during a rehearsal break. “I have four or five musicians who travel with me. Lou Levy is my pianist and conductor. Bucky Pizzarelli is my guitarist, Dick Borden is my drummer and John Whitfield is on bass. My arranger, Artie Butler, is conducting this rehearsal as a favor to me. He married two weeks ago and this is supposed to be his honeymoon. The rest of the band I pick from the best of the local musicians. I have one girl in the brass section so I have to introduce them as ‘lady and gentlemen.’”
(Later she sent one of her men over to spell out the musicians’ names. It’s that kind of follow-through that wins her the respect of other professionals.)
“I carry a lot of my own equipment with me,” she continued.
” Thirty-two trunks of it,” her handsome errand boy interjected.
“Well, that includes my wardrobe,” said Peggy. “Then there are the amplifiers and an Echoplex [an electronic gadget that produces musical echoes] and even a set of wind chimes. I have amplifiers on the violins and the flutes, too. Hugo Granata, who is a former musician, is my sound and lighting man, and he travels with me.”
Sitting at a small table in front of the band with a mike and the score before her, she looked relaxed and comfortable. A floor-length knit jumper failed to disguise her full figure, but the gown she wears while performing is constructed to show off the deep cleavage and minimize the hips. Weight has always been a problem, but she has other physical complaints that bother her more.
Twelve years ago, a bout with double pneumonia damaged her lungs so severely that she was forced to add “Charlie,” a deep-breathing machine, to her traveling routine. “I’ve really improved greatly,” she said. “And I believe it has actually helped my voice because it is essentially a breathing exercise.”
The voice – cool and clear – comes in like another instrument as the band runs through her elaborate, driving arrangements. The blonde head bobs and the foot taps until her ear hears a discordant sound. She stops singing and the band slides to a halt. “Look,” she says, pleasantly, “can we possibly do it this way on that chorus?” She sings her suggestion, the band tries it and she approves. “Okay, just give a little more bite to it.” They swing though a varied group of songs, new ones like “A Song for You” and “Oh, Babe, What Would You Say?” and updated oldies like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful.” There are a group of her all-time greatest hits, “Fever,” “Mañana,” “Is That All There Is?” “As long as they keep asking for them, I’m happy to do them,” she said.
She is also doing James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” and was proud that he was at her opening with his bride, singer-songwriter Carly Simon, to join in the standing ovation. She likes a young audience as well as her old faithfuls.
“I think Carly’s ‘You’re so Vain’ is so funny I would love to do it,” she said. “But it just wouldn’t be right for me. It’s like with the nostalgic thing. Bette Midler can do the Andrew Sisters’ ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ but if I tried it, it wouldn’t be the same, because I was there.”
But Peggy Lee does do Billie Holiday’s music, and a lot of people thinks she sings it better than anyone else alive today. “I used to sing a whole medley of Billie’s songs, but it became so sad that I stopped. Now, of course, there is a Billie Holiday revival.”
She does Billie’s “God Bless the Child” in her new act, and it brings applause on individual Billie-like phrases. “I used to sing that song when Billie first wrote it,” Peggy recalled. “I never copied her, but I always admired her.”
People wonder how a white girl from North Dakota can sing the blues. Peggy says, “If you have the feeling you can sing it.” She has it and she responds to it in other singers. Her favorites of the moment? “Roberta Flack and, of course, Ella.”
Her capacity for work, plus her natural talents have led Peggy into other fields. She won the Film Critics Award and an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of an alcoholic in the movie Pete Kelly’s Blues, and she would like to do more acting.
“But nobody is asking me,” she admitted with a rueful smile. “Someday my prince will come.”
While she is waiting she is going into film production with her own company. The first project is the life story of the composer Claude Debussy, based on the novel Claire de Lune by Pierre LaMure.
She has painted a portrait of one of Debussy’s great loves in a French impressionist style and it has been commissioned by the Franklin Mint.
It is just one of the self-taught artist’s exhibited works. “I’m too busy to study,” she said. “I paint in my bathroom because it has the best light and I can leave everything set up there and go in and paint at 4 in the morning if I feel like it.”
Home, when she has time from touring, is California. Married and divorced four times, Peggy’s family now centers on her only child, a daughter, Nicki, and her two grandchildren. They call her “Momma” because she doesn’t feel like a grandmother.
And she doesn’t look it either when she is signing off with a timeless “I’ll Be Seeing You” for a firmly applauding New York audience.