Wherever Peggy Lee appears, she’s promoted as one of the living legends of show business. But Lee, who opens tonight at the Ballroom, doesn’t take such accolades very seriously.
How does it feel to be a legend? “I wonder if all that legend stuff didn’t begin with the Blackgama ‘What becomes a legend most?’ ad I did. Nowadays, people in the business two weeks are called a legend, so I don’t know what it means. On the one hand, it shows some respect. On the other, it shows you’re getting older! I can look at it both ways.”
Reaching legendary status wasn’t easy. Plagued by poor health since the early ‘60s, Lee has had the specter of forced retirement hanging over her head for almost 30 years. But she’s nothing if not resilient and determined. “I don’t know how to stop,” she says softly. “I have to be on a stretcher to stop.”
That’s a position she’s found herself in more than once. What gets her through? “I believe in a higher power. That’s the one I talk to – Big Daddy! When I had my second heart operation, I lay there for six weeks. That’s a long time to just think. I came out with a great serenity. I’d already been through the death experience in 1961. They gave me six months to live if I kept working. In 1985, they said I should retire.
“But I can’t stop. I mean, sit there and wait for what? My last breath? What do I have to lose? I went back to work, and my health improved. Then it got worse, then it improved again. But each time, I got stronger. And each time, I’ve gotten a nicer attitude about life.”
Lee’s musical taste runs from Mahler (her favorite) to rock (“But it has to be soft rock. So soft, it’s practically sand!”), and in her latest album, Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues, she delves into traditional Southern blues. That recording, and her recently released autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee, are graphic examples of her determination to keep going.
Where does she get that strength from? “I believe that whatever we believe in strongly enough, we can accomplish. It’s about the omniscience of God, the omnipresence, the omnipotence. If you tap into that, it doesn’t matter if it’s music or writing or whatever, it’s all here for us. No matter what we say, the universe says yes. If we say it’s a lousy day, the universe says yes. If we say it’s a very good day, the universe says yes. It’s always positive. And that positive energy is there for us to use.”