You don’t go to just anyone to write a song for a Sterling Hayden stalwart, but then Peggy Lee has never been accused of being just anyone. She is – above and beyond being one of our supreme song stylists – a songwriter of some note, both sharp and flat, and she’s been doing that for most of her half-century in the business.
A singer who writes his own material is Standard Operational Procedure today, but Peggy Lee led that parade as far back as “Mañana.” As a woman, she’s the George Eliot of American pop music (only, unlike the authoress of Silas Marner, she made her way in this male-dominated world under her own name – and steam).
Tonight, when she bows at the Ballroom for a three-week return engagement, she’ll be leafing lightly through something called The Peggy Lee Songbook – which, not so incidentally, is the name of her new album Musicmasters releases a week from today. The show and the record (subtitled There’ll Be Another Spring) are brimming with primal Peggy Lee, songs she has written the words and/or music to away from the spotlight. “You’d think after a while I wouldn’t be excited about anything, but I am – I still am,” she declares with a slight lilt in her smoky voice. “The musicians have talked me into doing my own songs.”
Many of these are standards now, but she and her guitarist-musical director, John Chiodini, mixed in a few new numbers and updated others, like adding fresh lyrics to her signature “Fever.” She figures she has a couple hundred others where these came from. “We have Volume One out now, and John and I hope to do Volume Two – and Three.”
The Lady Lee hung around with some pretty classy composers in her time and has songs to prove it. Her longtime friendship with Victor Young yielded [the theme song from] About Mrs. Leslie, “Where Can I Go Without You?” and the aforementioned Sterling Hayden title-tune (“Johnny Guitar,” a.k.a. Joan Crawford Goes West).
Producer George Pal got her to write a particularly perky score for tom thumb and a song – “The Land of the Leal” – that was cut from his film, The Time Machine.
But her best-known, and best-loved, lyrics were the six songs she and Sonny Burke wrote for Walt Disney’s 1955 animated feature Lady and the Tramp. For that chore, she received $1,000 – plus another $3,500 for doing the voices for “two cats, one dog and one human being.” In November, 1988, when the film rang up $90 million in videocassette sales, Lee slapped at $25 million suit against the studio.
“It’s still pending,” she says. “In fact, I just received about 2 pounds of paper for me to read while I’m preparing for my Ballroom opening. They haven’t made any moves to offer a settlement so I’m perfectly willing – in fact, very happy – to go right on straight to trial. An artist lives by making money on his art. I don’t know why they don’t realize that. When you hear some of the executives there make $50 million a year – plus perks – you wonder what they’d miss by paying a few artists.”
The irony is Peggy Lee – for all of her high profile – has made more of a mark in movies as a lyricist than as a singer-actress. She has only starred in two films; one was an unfortunate remake of The Jazz Singer with Danny Thomas, the other was a showy supporting stint in Pete Kelly’s Blues. Her work in the latter was extraordinary. She played a saloon-singer moll who boozes too much, gets battered by her gangland boyfriend, goes crazy and, hardest of all, has to sing off-key. (One immortal line: “Well, there won’t be no patter of little feet in my house – unless I was to rent some mice.”) It was a role that came very close to winning Lee an Oscar. “Sometimes I think the reason I wasn’t given any other movie roles to play was because I played the alcoholic too well, and producers thought they couldn’t depend on me.”
Dependability turns out to be her middle name. Two months away from 70, after numerous illnesses and four failed marriages, she keeps right on singing. “It’s always been pointed out to me, ‘Look what you’ve been through.’ I’ve learned that each time I went through a difficult period, if I kept my wits about me and handled it properly, I’d come out the other end of it stronger. And that’s just the way it has been for me.
After all, “Mañana” is another day.