San Diego Union-Tribune, January 25, 2002
Peggy Lee is gone now, dead at 81, and I am thinking of how hauntingly exquisite her singing was, how achingly personal. She had a midnight intimacy when she sang and she created an unfathomable mystery that would cut deep into the human experience.
My thoughts return to the Jack Webb movie “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” and how she turned the melancholy “He Needs Me” into a memorable ode to a life gone around a wrong corner. What a performance this was as she portrayed a singer who is bedeviled by the bottle, and it won Peggy Lee an Academy Award nomination.
It is good to remember Peggy singing “Where or When,” the Rodgers-and-Hart classic, with the Benny Goodman band. A wistful wedding of music and words, it is a song of regret and irony, and in her interpretation she would evoke late nights in candle-lit places where the bartender remembers what should be poured when you say, “The usual, please.”
Others may sing this tune, for it has a special appeal to singers, but it will always belong to her. Peggy Lee owned it. This was the first Peggy Lee recording I ever heard, long ago, and it remains pristine in the memory. “Where or When” is, coincidentally, the favorite song of Joseph A. Wambaugh, a hard-boiled sentimentalist who has experienced life’s raw edges. Wambaugh is, of course, the former Los Angeles cop and the author of books that are best sellers that also win plaudits from the critics, which is the best of parlays. From out of the golden ’30s it came, this song, and Joe hears it when it is sung by Peggy Lee and he finds himself inevitably touched. The song is autumn set to music.
Joe delights in telling about an incident that involved the singer. “When I went into the Marines in 1954,” Joe says, “we were all put up at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Los Angeles before being shipped down to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. A poster in the lobby said that Peggy Lee was appearing somewhere in town. They were having an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the hotel, and I see this older guy staring at the picture of Peggy Lee. He says to me, ‘Don’t you love her?’ I nodded. Then this man, this A.A. member, committed to never drinking another drop, said to me, ‘I love her more than booze.’ How do you ever forget a line like that?”
‘Close to perfection’
When Ted Williams was going for his noted .406 batting average in 1941, someone was heard to say, “Ted is hitting over his head.” Whereupon a Boston sportswriter said by way of rebuttal, “Yeah, and over everybody else’s, too.” It was like that, I have always believed, with Peggy Lee. Any list of great popular singers would be woefully incomplete without the former Norma Delores Egstrom who came out of Jamestown in a farming community in North Dakota. She sang at a radio station in Fargo whose manager renamed her Peggy Lee.
Her skill must have been apparent from the outset. She was keenly aware of articulation. Her phrasing was immaculate. She had warmth and sophistication and she epitomized a true jazz feeling. She was an artist. And her singing was always a crackling lesson for the neophytes.
The songs that brought her commercial success were many and varied, such as “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” But you must hear Peggy, backed by the Benny Goodman band, sing such standards as “My Old Flame” and “That’s the Way It Goes” and her lightly rhythmic (with a delightful Mel Powell piano solo) version of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Leonard Feather, a most astute critic, once summed up the artistry of Peggy Lee with these words: “About as close to perfection as any singer who ever lovingly fashioned a performance for an audience.”
Skitch Henderson, now conducting the New York Pops orchestra, was born in England but spent some of his growing-up in North Dakota. He remembers Peggy from the days when they would talk about the future at the coffee shop of the Powers Hotel in Fargo. “Norma Egstrom was a fine singer,” Skitch says, “but she got even better when she became known as Peggy Lee.”
I met her just once, in an interview. Over the years I have interviewed a number of celebrities. But this was Peggy Lee. I’ll tell you the truth in three words: I was awed.