How does a singing legend stay a legend for almost 50 years? Is it luck, chance… the blind draw of fate?
Is that all there is?
“Musicians keep a song fresh. You never stop listening to them and hearing what they’re doing…
“I’ve been working a lot with Brazilian musicians lately. I was the first one to do that – with American songs using a Latin beat…
“The feeling is like riding a horse in the Kentucky derby – the trot, canter and gallop. I tried to explain that for Time magazine once, and I thought they were going to come and take me away.”
The speaker is Peggy Lee, whose 47-year career in show business owes very little to luck, chance and fate, blind or otherwise.
“I had complete control over my career. It was essential to me that I always knew what I was doing.”
So much for the idea that some Svengali invented the Peggy Lee persona: a voluptuous blond in a tight spotlight, not so much singing a song as coaxing it to life with a breathy, rhythmic delivery and pinpoint phrasing. It set her apart in an era that was full of “girl singers” fronted by the big bands of Miller, Goodman, and the Dorseys.
And it serves her well today, with an unbroken career, about 60 albums, 631 recorded songs. And an award résumé about as thick as a Spiegel’s catalog.
Lee is bringing her class act to San Francisco’s Memorial Theater through January 17. She’s been looking forward to it.
“I’m seeing a lot of young people (at concerts) these days. I think they respond to the music. I mean, you’re seeing something that could be on Broadway – that kind of quality.
“And I toss a little bit of humor. I like to get an audience to feel that I’m entertaining them in my living room.”
The set calls for 25-26 numbers, standards and her own favorites. She’s been rehearsing with a five-man group that includes Brazilian drummer Joe Heridia.
The show also features a dramatic tribute to Billie Holiday, which has Lee delivering a medley of tunes in Lady Day’s style – including “God Bless the Child.”
And that’s fitting. There is a something, just outside the spotlights, that unites a Peggy Lee and a Billie Holiday. The singing can give it away – that little tinge of pain that colors a blues note and curves it into just the right mood.
Miss Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her mother died when she was four, and she was raised by a severe stepmother. Her first marriage – to guitarist Dave Barbour – ended in divorce, as did three other unions.
A gentle wall goes up to questions about her private life. This is, after all, an interview about her local show. And then again, Miss Lee has her own story to tell, in an autobiography she’s been working on.
“I just mailed off the first 11 chapters on Friday,” she said. “I haven’t been doing very much besides writing for the past six months.”
Nevertheless, that essential darkness and light of life is the essence of the blues. But it wasn’t in a song that Lee captured it most memorably. It was as the alcoholic, mentally unstable singer Rose Hopkins in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues. Her performance in that 1955 film earned her an Oscar nomination.
It was to be one of her few film roles, however.
“My agents decided they could make more money with me as a singer,” she said, laughing. Then she added: “No, seriously…For some reason, they always thought of me as a singer. I didn’t get another offer.
“Singing is very similar to acting. You underscore as you go – with music.
“I always sang,” she said. “I knew when I was 14 that I was going to sing. If you have that kind of belief in your mind, it does happen.”
Lee was hired by Benny Goodman in 1941, to take over for Helen Forrest. Her first hit with the group was in 1942, with “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” a song she discovered.
“(The band) had been working with Helen, and the songs weren’t really in my key,” she said. “In those days, the band set the tempo, you came in with your little chorus and then you went away and sat down again.”
In the postwar years, Lee was more or less a free agent, and with collaborators like Barbour, Cy Coleman, Duke Ellington and Victor Young, she began carving out hits of her own by collaborating on compositions like “Mañana,” “Johnny Guitar,” “It’s a Good Day” and “Where Can I Go Without You?”
The current re-release of Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp can only add to luster to Lee’s reputation. Not only did she sing and dub the voices for four characters in the film, she and Sonny Burke composed the nine songs in the soundtrack, including the theme “Bella Notte.”
“It was the best experience in my life,” Lee said of the project. “Walt (Disney) was very open to ideas. When I suggested the extra soliloquy to open (the song) ‘What Is a Baby,’ he went with it.
“And I take full credit for saving Old Trusty’s life,” she recalled with a giggle. In the film, the aging bloodhound is seemingly killed by a careening coach, only to reappear in a later sequence with a small injury. That was her suggestion, she said: in the original cut, the old dog really did die.
Lee will include “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” in her San Francisco appearance.
And, of course, she’ll sing “Is That All There Is?,” the Leiber-Stoller hit she released to some controversy in 1969. Some fans thought the lyrics of the song were cynical and negative.
“It took me a year to work that out before I recorded it,” Lee said. “The lyrics were based on Thomas Mann’s essay on disillusionment. It’s about the experience you go through in life that’s necessary for growth. In some way it has paralleled my life.
“The attitude has a lot to do with how we survive,” she said. “If you can love work enough to take the dues you have to pay, it’s worth it. If not, there must be something else you can do to make you happier.”
Lee said she took her cue from some of the best.
“Count Basie, Maxine Sullivan, they were some of my influences… with Basie, every note counted, nothing was there that wasn’t essential.”
For the future, Lee is casting about for material for a possible album. She appeared in a series of concerts in New York last summer – for the first time since a coronary in October 1985. Everything seems fine, now.
“I love new music … but not synthesizers. My ears say ‘no.’ I experimented with (synthesizers) when they first came out about 15 years ago.
“No matter how much they can duplicate sound – it’s not quite it,” she said. “I’m always for progress – but I’m more for human beings.”
And the human touch hasn’t failed her yet.