She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, on May 26, 1920, but since the summer of 1941 when she was signed to sing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the name’s been Peggy Lee.
Five years ago it was simply Peg on the marquee of her autobiographical one-woman Broadway show – a five-performance flop that still carries a sting – and tonight, when she opens for a two-week engagement at the Ballroom, it will be Peggy Lee doing what she does best, singing with what she calls “my wonderful jazz quartet.”
“I’ve got about 200 songs to do,” she said, aware that time will not allow such. “The program hinges on this: “I’m going to record an album and will do part of it before I’m in the Ballroom, and the rest after.
She is, in fact, to record two new albums, one for New York’s Hermitage label (a classical house about to launch a jazz arm) and the other for the Canadian-based Pro Arte label.
“From there I’ll choose. I want the program to be new, but it’s difficult for me to get away from the old ones.”
She cracked a smile. “I’ll do ‘Fever.’”
She appears at the Ballroom every 18 months, and said the basis for the new show is: “My jazz quartet, although we enjoy the old things, we peek into some new things. By new I mean old jazz. One thing I like is really old blues, kind of Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Lil Green.”
Lee’s distinctive style has remained the same for more than 40 years. According to jazz critic Whitney Balliett: “Peggy Lee sends her feelings down the quiet center of her notes. She is not a melody singer. She doesn’t carry a tune; she elegantly follows it.”
In person she fairly drips elegance, displaying a wry sense of humor to boot. This particular afternoon in her Central Park South suite, she is a vision in turquoise satin. She sits patiently, first ensuring others are comfortable, while her platinum blond hair is brushed for a photographer. Afterward the interview takes on the air of a leisurely tea.
“Before they tore the old Park Lane Hotel they did the nicest thing,” she said of an old New York haunt that stood two doors away. “They gave me about 15 doorknobs. They’re solid bronze. They all say ‘P L.’”
The initialed souvenirs now hang on her armoires and on the French windows in her bedroom in Bel Air. It is there that Lee, who continues to write songs, is finishing up her autobiography – later to be submitted to publishers.
Her home, she said, is “lovely and quiet, up on a hill. In the distance I can see the ocean. People who can see better than I can see the waves.”
Asked whether it would be painful to discuss her ‘83 Broadway debacle, she said: “It wouldn’t be painful at all. I know what was true about the show. If Paul [Horner, the composer] and I had done a lousy job, that would have been one thing. But we didn’t. It was disappointing because I didn’t understand how Broadway shows worked. I thought when we made a deal to play this show as long as it would play, that would be it.”
Lee had worked on the show for six years. After some devastating reviews, she was given one day’s notice on the show’s closing. “It was a terrible shock,” she said. “I admit, in some ways I can see the critics’ point, but I don’t know why they had to kill it. They didn’t say anything about the score. They did say I sang memorably. That was nice.
“But I don’t believe in being bitter. That’s not my style. I know who that hurts – the person being bitter. One thing was, I did not request I sing in that theater [the Lunt Fontanne]. In fact, I said I’d rather not. Turns out [producer Zev Bufman] had a three-year lease.
“When I saw Cicely Tyson [in The Corn Was Green] there, I couldn’t believe how dreary that theater could seem. I thought it was a question of lighting, we could fix it.”
She waved away the memory with her hand. “But as the old saying goes,” she said, “Don’t cry over spilled money.”
As a songwriter and voice of several characters (including a four-legged sexpot named Peg), Lee made a major contribution to Lady and the Tramp, the 1955 classic Disney animated feature which last Christmas became the top-selling videocassette of all time.
“Isn’t that great?” she said. Asked if she is reaping a portion of the video’s record-breaking, $175 million gross, she answered: “It’s a little joke I played on myself. I signed on as an artist for hire. But working for Disney was considered a coup.
Told that the woman who performed Snow White’s voice for Disney made a mere $9,000, Lee said: “I’m too embarrassed to say what I got, but I don’t think it was that much. Still, it’s a thrill today to watch something go like that, and that’s the way one likes to be paid.”
On the subject of contemporary singers, Lee applauds Whitney Houston. “She’s gorgeous. I only hope she sings more – how can I say this? – more songs of a standard nature. When songs are recorded today, they are not meant to be memorable. When I write, I try to establish something of substance, and not pick up on today’s phrases, because they will pick you up and leave you hanging there.”
As for other vocalists, Lee said: “I think Sade and Linda Ronstadt are wonderful. I get a kick out of Tina Turner, too.”
When it comes to her own voice, Lee said it took a year to find the right approach to one of her signature songs, Leiber and Stoller’s 1969 “Is That All There Is?”
“I had difficulty finding a positive way to sing that. I thought, well, I can think of it as one of life’s learning experiences, something like Peg, for instance. That was difficult emotionally, and when it is over, what can you do? You have to get up off the ground and start over again. But you have to learn something from it.”
She said she finally cracked the song by shifting the emphasis in the key line from “Is That All There Is?” to “Is That All There Is?”
“And to think of it, said Peggy Lee, “of course there’s more.”