In a word, she is indomitable.
Undeterred by diabetes, by a heart condition that require bypass surgery a couple years ago, by a fall from a Las Vegas stage in 1987 that left her with several broken bones, singer-songwriter Peggy Lee presses on.
Perhaps the same spirit that enabled to her survive the premature death of her mother, the subsequent beatings from her stepmother and a volatile ride along the top of the pop charts starting in the ‘40s has enabled Lee to accomplish something few artists of her vintage have done.
At 73, an age when many folks are enjoying the diversions of retirement, Lee has released one of the most taxing and notable works of her long career, Love Held Lightly: Rare Songs by Harold Arlen (Angel), features Lee in world premiere recordings of music by one of the most profound of American songwriters. Though several of the album’s cuts are indeed “rare,” as in “not often performed,” others are still more exclusive, never having seen the light of day.
Unearthed by scholar-author Edward Jablonski, a close associate of Arlen’s until the composer’s death in 1986, the songs had been discovered in various forgotten crates in Arlen’s California and New York homes. Though some of the pieces are stronger than others, they all clearly come from the hand that penned “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Blues in the Night” and “Over the Rainbow,” among other Arlen standards. In other words, the songs are steeped in blues melody, gently swaying rhythms and other elements of American jazz.
The best of the tunes, such as “Come On, Midnight,” a blues lament, and “Got to Get You Off My Weary Mind,” a kind of musical cousin to “Come Rain or Come Shine,” seem likely to live on in subsequent performances. Surely such singers as Michael Feinstein, Steve Ross, Bobby Short, Tony Bennett and others will welcome a shot at “new” Arlen works.
It is Lee, however, who offers the critical first readings of this trove.
The unusual project began when New York record producers Bill Rudman, Ken Bloom and Keith Ingham visited Lee carrying a stack of rediscovered Arlen material. Once they played the pieces for Lee, “the fervency of her response made it clear we’d come to the right place,” write the producers in the album’s liner notes.
“Actually,” said Lee, “I approached this music with the same kind of process I always use – as if I were given a role to play in a movie. When you’re doing a movie, you analyze the character, and it’s the same thing in thinking about a song.”
Thus Lee found the essence of several Arlen jewels. The sense of mystery she brings to “Can You Explain?” (lyrics by Arlen and Truman Capote), the smoldering intensity she lends “Got to Get You Off My Weary Mind” (lyrics by Mercer) eloquently suit the scores at hand. That Lee herself revised the exquisite, bittersweet lyric to “Happy with the Blues,” which she had written with Arlen years earlier, reveals just how much she understands about the art of songwriting.”
The album’s tour-de-force, however, has to be “I Had a Love Once,” with a lyric by Arlen. Written for the composer’s wife, Anya, who died in 1970, the piece amounts to a terse, anguished cry of grief.
“I consider all the songs wonderful, but I agree that ‘I Had a Love Once’ is especially powerful,” says Lee.
“When I sing that line, ‘I had a love once’… well, I think I know what Harold means, because I had a love once, too. More than once.”
Indeed, Lee has experience enough of life’s ups and downs to understand quite a bit about most of the songs she sings. In fact, from earliest childhood, when her mother died, she has been expressing her thoughts in song.
“I don’t even remember a time when I was not singing,” says Lee, who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. “It was immediate.
“I remember writing a lyric to the song ‘Melody of Love’ when my mother died, when I was four. It wasn’t a brilliant lyric, but I think it was interesting that a child would write one.
“I would walk around the house singing, ‘Mom’s gone to dreamland on the train.’”
In the ensuing years, Lee would acquire plenty of experience to put into song, for her stepmother “hit me over the head with a cast-iron skillet [and] beat me with a heavy leather razor strap with a metal end,” Lee wrote in her memoirs, Miss Peggy Lee (Donald I. Fine). The whippings, wrote Lee, “made a scar on one side of my face that even now tries to show up in a photograph.”
By age 14, though, the intrepid singer had taught herself enough about music to go pro, working at a Fargo, North Dakota radio station with a group called Four Jacks and a Queen. When the station manager suggested that the Queen rechristen herself Peggy Lee, her career had begun in earnest.
It wasn’t until 1941 at the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago, however, that a star was born. On the advice of his wife, Swing King Benny Goodman dropped in to hear Lee.
“I couldn’t believe he was sitting there listening to me,” she recalls. “See, I was a big fan of his. I always would spend my extra change on the jukebox listening to him.
“So here was Benny Goodman in the room. And Benny had a funny way of chewing on his tongue and staring at you at the same time. So when you were performing, you couldn’t really think that he loved it.
“Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize that I was actually auditioning, that Benny was looking for a replacement for [singer] Helen Forrest, who had left the band.
“When I was told that Benny was offering me the job, I thought it was some kind of joke.”
Lee soon discovered just how serious the situation was. All of 21 years old, she suddenly found herself facing Goodman’s screaming fans, most of whom wanted to hear someone else.
“Oh, yes, they wanted Helen Forrest, and they would say so,” recalls Lee. “They’d call out ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ [the band’s famous instrumental number], and they didn’t mean me.
“But it still was like a beautiful dream. I would sit there on the bandstand, night after night, just reveling in the music. I could hear the arrangements over and over and never get tired of them.
“I even learned the instrumental parts. [Pianist] Mel Powell and I used to sit on the bus, and one of us would sing the brass parts, and one of us would sing the reeds.”
No doubt that intimate knowledge of the repertoire helped, for Lee’s two years with the band yielded several major hits, including “Blues in the Night,” “The Way You Look Tonight” and the biggest one of all, “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” still a classic recording.
Though there’s no explaining why some singles become hits and others don’t, Lee’s uniquely intimating style must have had something to do with it. Where other singers scatted brilliantly (Ella Fitzgerald), phrased plaintively (Billie Holiday), or caressed a melody sweetly (Rosemary Clooney), Lee brought a soft-spoken sensuality to song that was uncommon in the heyday of the roaring big bands.
“[Songwriter] Alec Wilder used to make a strange analogy about my voice,” recalls Lee. “He said I had a voice like a streetwalker you’d walk past, but if you ever stopped, you’d never leave.
“Now, I don’t exactly think of myself as a streetwalker, but I think I know what he means – the sensuousness.”
Such was the demand for Lee’s sound, in fact, that she could not quit the business when she wanted to. By 1943, she had met the love of her life, Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour, “and I fully intended to keep house and have a baby,” she says. “But the record producers would keep asking me to come down and cut a couple of sides.
“Then I started writing lyrics and dummy melodies while I was cleaning house. When Dave would come home, I’d sing them to him, he’d put them down on paper, and they just became hit after hit,” adds Lee, referring to “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “Mañana,” among others.
Though Barbour’s alcoholism precipitated the demise of their marriage, by the ‘50s Lee was taking flight anew with such new, vibrant recordings as “Lover,” “Fever” and “Black Coffee.” Her harrowing turn as a blues singer who succumbs to booze in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues won her an Academy Award nomination; her songwriting gifts produced vignettes written with Quincy Jones (“New York City Blues”), Cy Coleman (“Then Was Then”) and Duke Ellington (“I’m Gonna Go Fishin’”).
Not even the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, which ended many careers, could quite derail Lee’s, “because I had a couple tunes that went right across the board,” she says. “Things like ‘Fever’ and ‘Is That All There Is?’ kept me going.”
Alas, even Lee’s headiest successes were counterbalanced by tragedy. Though Barbour “had overcome [his alcoholism], and we were even talking about getting married,” she says, “four days later he died [in 1964]. It was such a blow.”
Yet Lee persevered, eventually summoning the gumption to take a corporate giant, the Walt Disney Company, to court. Lee had provided the voices for four characters in the 1955 animated film Lady and the Tramp, but she hadn’t received a cent from the videocassette version.
Last October, a California court upheld a 1988 decision, awarding Lee $3.2 million.
“I just thought that if there’s any justice in the world, it’s worth fighting for,” says Lee who, to this day, clearly does not shrink from a fight. “It was a long road, and it was very hard on me.
“But I have a lot of faith in a higher power, and that gives you a lot of courage.
“Or at least it has kept me going.”