Few things in the world of popular art are more dismaying than the spectacle of a beloved performer who goes on too long. The singer Peggy Lee was such a performer, and her decline was all the more pitiable for being so protracted. She made her last noteworthy recordings in 1975, when she was just 55 years old, and her one remaining venture of any consequence, an autobiographical Broadway show called Peg, was a shambles that closed in 1983 after only five performances. By then she had long since become a drug-dazed caricature of her younger self, and when she finally stopped singing 12 agonizing years later, her remaining fans heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Lee lost her footing at the same moment other middle-aged pop singers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were successfully reinventing themselves as nostalgia acts, turning their backs on a now-alien contemporary music scene and interpreting the songs of their youth with undiminished artistic integrity. Her personal problems kept her from doing as they did, and Capitol, the label for which she had made most of her best albums, let them go out of print in the ’70s. As a result, a generation of music lovers grew up knowing only the obese, grotesquely costumed woman parodied as “Miss Piggy” on The Muppet Show. Small wonder that she spent her later years begging friends to “please don’t let people forget me.”
None of the baby boomers who watched Lee serve up limply pandering cover versions of pop-rock songs on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s could have known that she was once an artist of the highest caliber, a peer of Sinatra who in certain ways surpassed him. A balladeer of hushed sensitivity, she was also at home in the hard-swinging world of jazz, and though her coolly glamorous, carefully sculpted public persona had much to do with her success, no one in or out of the music business ever doubted her profound musicality or perfect taste.
Why, then, did she lose her way? James Gavin has done much to answer that question in Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, a mostly sympathetic but nonetheless very frank biography whose subtitle is indicative of its tone and approach.1 Gavin’s book is more concerned with Lee’s private life and public image than her music, and the tale that he tells is a sad one, the story of an unhappy woman whose neurotic insecurities grew so extreme that they eventually made it impossible for her to fully exploit her unique talents.
The problem with Is That All There Is? is that it is, shall we say, fair but unbalanced. While Gavin correctly believes Lee to have been a major artist, he discusses her psychological peculiarities in such excruciating detail that her artistry—which is, after all, the point of a musical biography—sometimes receives short shrift. As a result, the casual reader might well put down Gavin’s book wondering why he had bothered to write it. To appreciate her place in the history of American popular music, one must take a closer look at her work.
It is not hard to trace the roots of Lee’s emotional disorder. Born in 1920 in a tiny, isolated North Dakota town, she was raised by an alcoholic father and his cold, uncaring second wife, her mother having died when she was four. She spent the rest of her life searching for romantic partners who would give her the emotional reassurance that she failed to receive in childhood, and she had an infallible knack for picking the wrong ones.
Unable to find fulfillment in love, Lee sought it from audiences by starting to sing on a local radio station in 1936. Having recently seen a Bing Crosby movie, she understood that Crosby had turned popular singing into an intimate, microphone-enabled art. (Singing, she later said, was “almost like giving someone a kiss.”) While she became in adulthood a compulsive fabulist whose “memories,” as Gavin documents, can never be taken at face value, her description of the first time that she sang for a noisy crowd is still illuminating:
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.”
She was equally receptive to Crosby’s jazzy side, for she had heard Count Basie’s band on the radio around the same time and learned from the relaxed swing of its soloists, Lester Young in particular. Therein lay the twin roots of her style: She was a soft-spoken balladeer who could also sing the blues and understood the rhythmic language of jazz.
Like many of her contemporaries, Lee put in a stint with a dance band, becoming Benny Goodman’s female vocalist in 1941. Most of the recordings she made with him were pale and tentative, but her unexpectedly earthy 1942 cover version of “Why Don’t You Do Right,” a blues by Lil Green, showed that she had the potential to become something more than another big-band “canary.”
From then on, Lee’s career would closely track that of Sinatra, her longtime friend, sometime lover, and (on one notable occasion) orchestral conductor. Both started out as dance-band singers, then embarked on solo careers at the height of the big-band era, when they were still in their twenties. Both were consummate stage performers who became successful almost immediately but needed another decade or so to grow into their mature styles. Both recorded for Capitol, Johnny Mercer’s label, and went out of their way to work with the best arrangers of the day, including Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, and Nelson Riddle. Both were lyric-conscious singers who were at their best in golden-age standards, though they also kept the pot boiling by recording radio-friendly dross.2
Their similarities of approach are evident throughout The Man I Love (1957), an album of ballads conducted by Sinatra and arranged by Riddle. But while The Man I Love is one of Lee’s outstanding achievements, it is not altogether typical of her style, for she was performing in a setting identical to that favored by Sinatra (right down to the buzzy muted-trumpet obbligati of Harry Edison, whose playing can also be heard on countless Sinatra recordings of the period). Lovely though the album is, it only shows part of what she could do.
One important difference between the two singers was that Lee worked on a much smaller scale. While she was capable of singing with terrific bite and authority, she more often chose not to raise her alto-flute voice above a medium-soft purr, which explains her preference for working in medium-sized supper clubs rather than concert halls. Nor was she an extrovert on stage: Surviving clips of her TV appearances show that she usually remained all but motionless while singing, keeping her facial expressions under the same tight rein that she wielded over every other aspect of her performances. Yet the paradoxical impression that she made on her listeners was always one of effortless ease.
While Sinatra was at his best when singing about the dark and desperate side of love, Lee preferred warm, optimistic ballads, and though her versions of such musical-comedy songs as Cy Coleman’s “Big Spender” and “I’ve Got Your Number” were always vividly characterized, she was not a “confessional” singer in Sinatra’s sense. Understatement and delicacy were her watchwords.
Above all, Lee was a true jazz singer who was completely at ease with blues-based material, so much so that she actually scored a hit with her 1959 version of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah, I Love Her So.” To be sure, she stuck close to the melodies of the songs that she sang, but she phrased them with uncanny rhythmic freedom, floating gracefully atop the beat. Her sense of time was so sure that she could swing at extremely slow tempos without losing control, and unlike Sinatra, who appeared with large orchestras whenever possible, she also fronted small combos anchored by modern jazz pianists such as Lou Levy, Jimmy Rowles, and George Shearing, with whose quintet she recorded one of her finest albums, Beauty and the Beat! (1959).
A buxom beauty whose Hitchcock-blonde stage presence hinted at hidden longings, Lee scored her biggest hit in 1958 with “Fever,” a sexually suggestive minor-key rhythm-and-blues tune first recorded two years earlier by Little Willie John. In keeping with her minimalist approach, she sang it accompanied only by bass, drums (played by Shelly Manne, one of the most imaginative jazz drummers of the ’50s), and snapping fingers, augmenting the lyrics with witty stanzas of her own: “Chicks were born to give you fever/Be it Fahrenheit or centigrade.” “Fever” illustrates a remark that Lee made in 1974: “I’m not really a white singer. I sing black. I always have.” Count Basie, one of her fans, agreed. “Are you sure there’s not some spade in you?” he joked.
But once she shook off the youthful influence of Billie Holiday, whose singing she had emulated off and on during the ’40s, there was nothing derivative about Lee, and the version of Jerome Kern’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” included on The Man I Love is no less representative of her subtle art. Aptly supported by Sinatra’s sensitive conducting and Nelson Riddle’s Coplandesque orchestral arrangement, she sings a single chorus of the song in a slow, gently flowing tempo, infusing Oscar Hammerstein’s tender lyric (“Someday we’ll build a home on a hilltop high,/You and I”) with an unselfconscious yearning that is as characteristic as the sensuality of “Fever.”
Lee sustained her popularity into the ’60s, releasing an album or two each year and appearing frequently on TV variety shows. But a crisis was just around the corner—the crisis of rock, whose advent would disrupt the careers of every pop singer of her generation. To make matters worse, she was still recording for Capitol, which signed the Beatles in 1963 and thereafter embraced the new music wholeheartedly.
Lee responded by changing her repertoire, at first tentatively, then radically. “I want to move along, to go wherever music is going,” she said, and in 1969 she released A Natural Woman, which contained Muzak-bland cover versions of Carole King’s title song, Blood, Sweat & Tears’s “Spinning Wheel,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay.” These performances were ignored by teenagers who understandably preferred the real thing. She managed to eke out one last success that year by recording a cabaret song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller called “Is That All There Is?” whose jarring nihilism (“Let’s break out the booze and have a ball/If that’s all there is”) appealed to Vietnam-era listeners. But there would be no more hits for Lee, and Capitol dropped her from its roster in 1972.
By that time, her elaborately theatrical stage appearances had come to be widely seen as calculating and over-controlled, and she also found it impossible to accept that she was no longer young. Gavin’s brutal description of a 1969 TV performance of “Spinning Wheel” is, alas, no exaggeration:
Lee had squeezed her girth into a fussy, old-fashioned yellow beaded dress. Dangling earrings swung beneath a campily ornate headful of blond sausage curls, so coated in hairspray that they didn’t move.
Much like Judy Garland in her later years, Lee grew by turns imperious and malignantly needy. She became dependent on tranquilizers, and when the supper-club circuit dried up, she found it impossible to do as Sinatra did and perform in stadiums before hordes of aging fans. From time to time she recorded for smaller labels, but except for Mirrors, a 1975 collection of songs by Leiber and Stoller, none of these albums was in any way memorable. Creatively speaking, she had reached the end of the line.
“I often wonder whether my work will live on,” she told a reporter that year. “Movies seem to live on, and movie stars…I’m not sure the same thing happens to records or to singers.” In 1975, and for long afterward, it seemed unlikely that Lee would live on. But in 1998, four years before her death, Capitol released Miss Peggy Lee, a four-disc box-set anthology that served as a priceless reminder of what she had sounded like in her prime. In due course her original albums were transferred to CD, and as memories of her last public performances faded, it became easier for younger listeners to discover and appreciate her work.
It is unlikely that Peggy Lee will now metamorphose into a Sinatra-style pop-culture icon. Her popularity in the ’50s was in part an artifact of her sexy image, and tastes have changed too much since then for her ever again to be seen in quite the same way. But with her recordings available once more, it is surpassingly clear that she was one of the greatest popular singers of the 20th century, Sinatra’s female counterpart and an artist as individual as he was. Duke Ellington’s oft-quoted words of praise for her were squarely on the mark: “If I’m the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen.”
1 608 pages, Atria
2 Unusually for a full-time singer, Lee was herself a highly accomplished lyricist, collaborating on even terms with such noted songwriters and jazz musicians as Harold Arlen, Cy Coleman, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mandel, and Marian McPartland. She was also, like Sinatra, a natural actor, though she was given only one significant opportunity to exploit her talent, a part in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1954), for which she received an Oscar nomination.