by Bob Thomas
The indomitable Peggy Lee, recovered from double-bypass heart surgery, is back on the road again, posing her still unanswered inquiries, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “Is That All There Is?”
Nothing, it seems, can stop the songstress, not diabetes, glandular deficiencies, double pneumonia, nor a near-fatal fall in which “my ribs were torn from the spine.” Her closest brush with fate came in October, 1985 when she underwent the heart surgery in New Orleans, followed by complications.
“I just came back from a 10-week tour,” she said in an interview at her Bel Air home. “I’ve also been appearing with symphony orchestras, and it’s a real thrill to have all those musicians behind you. I also have a great jazz quintet, so you can see I have the best of both worlds.”
A whole new generation of filmgoers has also been hearing Peggy in the Walt Disney classic, Lady and the Tramp, which has been earning big bucks ($23 million) in a re-release this winter. She not only wrote the songs with Sonny Burke; she also plays the voice of the canine tart Peg who sings “He’s a Tramp.”
“The character was originally called Mamie,” Miss Lee recalled. “But Walt Disney didn’t want to insult our First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower.”
The singer recalled that her assignment on Lady and the Tramp came by a happy accident.
“I had left Capitol for five years because they wouldn’t record my version of “Lover,” she said. “They already had a huge hit of “Lover” by Les Paul. Mine was such a different version that I didn’t think it competed.
“Sonny Burke and other Decca executives were at the Copa [New York’s top nightclub] when I was singing “Lover” and the audience was going crazy. I knew from the beginning that it was going to do something. My contract was up and I went to Decca. They said they would record “Lover” right away.
“Then Sonny was asked to do the score for Lady and he asked me to do it with him. See what I mean about accidents? Maybe they’re not.”
What does she remember about working with Walt Disney?
“Everything good. It was the first time I realized that enthusiasm is a great, great part of genius. He had enthusiasm for every part of his work. He would pose for the animators to show them different characters. He was into every corner of his work.”
Besides her tours, Peggy has been working on her autobiography. It should be quite a saga, covering her North Dakota childhood, the band-singing days with Benny Goodman, the hit records, the movie roles, the endless tours, with plenty of heartbreak along the way.
The tour of late 1985 could have been her last.
“I’d been having problems with my heart,” recalled Miss Lee, who had undergone four angioplasties [balloon surgery]. “Each time I would get up and go out on the road again. I was so proud of myself for doing that.
“Then I was down in New Orleans, and as Redd Foxx would say, ‘Here comes the big one!’ It was quite a shocking experience to find myself in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I thought I was on my way to the White House [to appear at a dinner].
“It was too serious to come home. They had to operate quickly. I am terribly grateful to be alive. They had to reopen the chest after one surgery because of complications because of two infections. I will be forever grateful to all the people who prayed for me and sent me cards and called. I was unconscious part of the time, but I know that all of it helped me get well.”