May, 26, 1920– Norma Deloris Egstrom was born on this day & it is odd to consider how such a sultry sophisticated creature might spring from North Dakota. I mean North Dakota is cold & she is hot.
It now seems just too perfect to 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 & have a ball… if that’s all …there is”.
I decided to take the singer’s advice.
Lady & 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 & she had voiced several of the characters.
As a kid, I totally dug her albums: Black Coffee, Dream Street, & I Like Men!. But as became a callow youth I also became a fan of The Beatles, The Supremes, & The Kinks. I forgot about the parental unit’s album collection & favored my own. Then one afternoon in 1969, I heard Is That All There Is? on the radio & I was hypnotized. I bought the single & played it over & over, sometimes stealing little sips of my father’s whiskey from the forbidden liquor cabinet. I was back to listening to Peggy Lee.
Lee was a singer, a songwriter, an actress & an innovator. Her popular music is a map to the best of Jazz, Blues, Swing, Latin, & Rock. She recorded over 650 songs & released 60+ albums. Lee in known these days for her smooth, sultry 1958 cover of the R&B hit Fever. As the 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 # 11 on the pop charts, #2 on the jazz charts.
Lee was one of the few of the traditional pop singers to successfully embrace the songs of the kids: The Beatles, Randy Newman who served as arranger & conductor of Is That All There Is?, Carole King, & James Taylor. From 1957 until her last recording in 1993, Lee routinely released 2 albums a year including standards, her own compositions, & 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 a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work 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, & with extraordinarily expressive minimalism. She uses vibrato & volume sparingly. I can hear her influence in recordings of k.d. lang & Elvis Costello. Lee was not known to be spontaneous. She liked to rehearse, & every gesture, lip curl & lifted eyebrow was planned. She kept detailed notes of lighting, costume, cosmetics, & choreography.
Is she already a Gay Idol? If not, I hereby nominate Miss Peggy Lee. She left us in 2002. Is That All There Is?