May, 26, 1920– Peggy Lee:
“I knew I couldn’t sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking: ‘softly with feeling.’ The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience- softly, with feeling.”
Norma Deloris Egstrom was born on this day. It is odd to consider how such a sultry sophisticated creature might spring forth from North Dakota. I mean North Dakota is cold and she was hot.
It now seems just too perfect that as a 15-year-old boy, I would be obsessed with a song filled with existentialist angst, a half spoken-half sung opus to disillusionment with life even when the events are exceptional. The singer playing on my parental units’ hi-fi suggested:
“Let’s break out the booze and have a ball… if that’s all …there is.”
I decided to take the singer’s advice.
Lady And The Tramp (1955) was one of my favorite childhood Disney films. I especially loved singing the songs from the movie into the bathroom mirror as a tot. My parents suggested that I might also enjoy the recordings of Miss Peggy Lee, who had written the songs for the Disney tale of canine romance and she had voiced several of the characters.
As a kid, I totally dug her albums: Black Coffee (1956), Dream Street (1957), and I Like Men! (1959). But, as I became a callow youth I also became a fan of The Beatles, The Supremes, and The Kinks. I forgot about the parental unit’s album collection as I favored my own. Then one afternoon in 1969, I heard Is That All There Is? on the radio and I was hypnotized. I bought the single and played it over and over, sometimes stealing little sips of my father’s whiskey from the forbidden liquor cabinet.
The enigmatic, existentially bleak Is That All There Is? was written by the great songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. For me, it’s about how everything ultimately is anticlimactic in life. There is a line of that song that devastates me: “And then one day he went away and I thought I’d die, but I didn’t.” I loved it as a young teenager, but it really is a perfect song for an old person questioning the meaning of life and wondering if a lot of it had been for naught. Lee’s recording magnifies the question. Lee was one of the ultimate truth-tellers.
Lee’s Diva behavior behind that cool jazz exterior places her as one of the true great Gay Icons, in the same league as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Liza Minnelli. Lee was one of the greatest interpreters of American popular music; a singer, a songwriter, an actor and an innovator. Her popular music is a map to the best of Jazz, Blues, Swing, Latin, and Rock. She recorded over 650 songs and released 60 albums. Lee is best known these days for her smooth, sultry 1958 cover of the hit Fever. As this current decade began, Lee was back on the Billboard Top 100 album chart for the first time since 1970 with the release of a Starbucks compilation Come Rain Or Come Shine. The album was number 11 on the pop charts and number two on the jazz charts in 2001.
Lee was one of the few of the traditional pop singers to successfully embrace the songs of the kids, with recordings of songs by: The Beatles, Randy Newman (who served as arranger and conductor of Is That All There Is?), Carole King, and James Taylor. From 1957 until her last recording in 1993, Lee routinely released two albums a year including standards, her own compositions, and material from new artists.
Lee was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for Is That All There Is? In 1995 she was given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Lee was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as an alcoholic jazz singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955).
Lee’s singing voice holds a natural conversational grace, with a smart nod to hipness, wit, nuanced sensuality, and she sings with extraordinarily expressive minimalism. She uses vibrato and volume sparingly. Lee was not known to be spontaneous. She liked to rehearse, and every gesture, lip curl and lifted eyebrow was planned. She kept detailed notes of lighting, costume, cosmetics, and choreography.
There is detached mystery and coolness to Lee’s recordings. Even with all of those kitschy wigs, over-the-top costumes and drag queen-ish makeup, there is still something so cool about her. She mythologized herself to an extravagant degree and she padded her life story, but I can’t think of an example of a record where she ever sang an untrue word or emotion. I don’t know of a more honest singer. A lonely woman with too much man trouble, she lived her love life on stage, singing it to strangers. I find that very touching.
Lee carried a great deal of pain. Anger was a major source of creative fuel for her. So were rejection and abandonment. Lee had a rough childhood, four miserable marriages, diabetes and a drinking problem. Her life was troubled, but Lee never comes across as a tragic figure to me. But, she does seem nutty. She once insisted to Truman Capote that in a past life she had been a prostitute in Jerusalem and that she remembered the crucifixion:
“I’ll never forget picking up the Jerusalem Times and seeing the headline ‘Jesus Christ Crucified.'”
Lee had a date with producer Quincy Jones, but as he kept her waiting she drank so much that when he arrived she was passed out and she was wearing black face! Once, when her limousine broke down in route to an awards ceremony, she rolled her way down Wilshire Boulevard in a wheelchair in full Peggy Lee drag: Cleopatra wig, huge dark sunglasses and a white gown trimmed with lots of white fur.
But, she was not too nutty; she famously sued Disney Studios for royalties from her contribution to Lady And The Tramp and won $2.3 million. Lord, I hope Disney doesn’t do a live-action remake of this one!
Again, that voice; it is extraordinary how much her singing manages to accomplish while seemingly doing so little. There is mystery in that voice, sly and inaccessible, yet natural and simple. Her minimalism is used to create big effects. Lee is the antithesis of today’s overwrought American Idol style of vocals.
I think we are ready for a quality biopic about Peggy Lee. In 2014, I heard some buzz that Nora Ephron’s screenplay was going to be filmed by Todd Haynes with Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, but it did that Hollywood thing where the project became a puff of smoke.
Lee continued to perform into the 1990s, sometimes from her wheelchair. She left this world in January 2002, taken by diabetes at 81-years-old. She was cremated and her ashes are buried at The Garden Of Serenity in Westwood Memorial Cemetery in LA. Her marker reads:
“Music is my life’s breath.”