Monday, July 27, 2015


At the suggestion of my friend Sam, who is as mad for great singers as I am, I have been reading Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin. What a fascinating woman!  And her music, well, it is extraordinary! Thrilling! Mesmerizing!

I have been clueless.  A state I intend to dissolve song by song.

Gavin writes,“'Nobody could swing more than Peggy!  She would snap her fingers and it was already cooking,' said Hal Schaefer, a boy wonder of a pianist with saxophonist/band leader Benny Carter."  Peggy Lee’s feel for jazz and blues was innate.  Her intonation  spot on.  Her sense of time impeccable.  With a natural feeling for orchestration, she choreographed the musical punch and emotional drama of her songs and of her performances. As was noted by respected musicians of the time, the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan would go onstage and sing.  Peggy Lee would show up to a gig with a complete show, a series of mini-dramas, or comedies—she was a witty woman.  Miss Lee instructed each of her musicians that always their purpose was "'to enhance the story I am telling.'”  And that is how she defined herself artistically—“'I am a storyteller.'”  Duke Ellington added to that definition when he crowned her “'The Queen of Swing.'”


In 2014, author James Gavin published his detailed account of Peggy Lee’s life and musical career: How it began in small towns of North Dakota when she was a child who had lost her mother at four years old and would for the rest of her life look to find her, accounting for the deep sadness and emptiness that she carried and wove into her singing; that she constantly wrote poetry, a foreshadowing of the accomplished and prolific songwriter she would become; who her influences were, Whispering Jack Smith, Billie Holliday, Bing Crosby; who it was that set her on the road to stardom, Benny Goodman; what her musical choices were in terms of style, songs, venues, recordings, and musicians to back her up.


I am astonished at the wealth of superb musicians who worked with and for Peggy Lee, who was reputed to hire “'only the best.'”  Men who would go on to be monster artists in the world of jazz. Drummers Grady Tate and Shelley Manne, trumpet player (turned mega-producer) Quincy Jones, guitarists Laurindo Almeida and Mundell Lowe, bassist Joe Mondragon, harmonica man Toots Thielmanns, and trumpeter Pete Candoli to name only a few. Gavin relates that Lou Levy her longtime pianist and conductor, who also worked with Ella Fitzgerald, said, “'When Peggy was going to work in New York City, or Chicago, or Las Vegas, everybody wanted to go with her because she was so good.'” So, folks, I have hurled myself into iTunes and have been having a Peggy Lee Fest ever since, purchasing four of her albums and several single songs, becoming absolutely enraptured by Miss Peggy Lee!  Qualities that set her apart from other singers I have known and loved are these: Lee’s stillness, perfect pitch, and always, always is right there when she is to re-enter a song no matter how, how far behind the beat she sings.  How she moans a note, squeezes a phrase, breathifies the music without ever sacrificing the music—or the story.  Her quiet, low-key way of conveying deep, haunting emotions.  And her sense of drama and humor, showing up in unexpected and perfectly placed vocal punches.  Peggy Lee is stunning not only in her singing and storytelling. On stage she is glamour, style, and class personified, with economy of movement and gestures and a personal presence that is strong and in command, yet warm and accessible.   God bless You Tube videos.

The rub of all this is that I bought an album of Peggy Lee decades ago and didn’t play it much.  Gave it away in a clean out years ago.  What was I thinking?
In The 1970s I was deeply involved with the music of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, and Nancy Wilson.  I became good friends with Carmen and Sarah when I lived for a time at McRae’s house on Summit Ridge Drive in Beverly Hills, CA, and “Sassy” Sarah lived down the street.  Now, that was a very exciting period of legendary jazz singing coming my way. 

The rub of that is that Peggy Lee lived right down the hill and around the corner onto Tower Road, which lead into Tower Grove Drive, where La Lee resided in those days.

So close and yet so far.

Oh, well, as my dear friend and music mentor Faith Winthrop says, “Sue, you have Peggy NOW!”  After all my experiences with and thrills from some of the great singers who have gone on to jazz heaven, here is a sublime singer to discover and revel in.  Yes, Peggy Lee also is in jazz heaven.  But for me she is newly born.  Casting her spell.  Singing her ass off!

As far as the “Strange” part of Peggy Lee’s life referred to in the title of this biography, I find it no stranger than other gifted artists I have known well. Gavin states, '“For Artie Butler, pianist and musical conductor for everyone from Louis Armstrong to The Dixie Cups, Peggy Lee was his idol.'” In 1972 Butler was conducting an album of contemporary songs with the chanteuse, and upon finishing the project was even more enthralled with Miss Lee than at the beginning.  “'Whatever the craziness was, it manifested itself in the magnificence of her artistry.  We all know people who have the craziness but not the artistry.  With Peggy, they went hand in hand.'”

Amen.  Onward and Lee-ward!

Reference & Acknowledgement: James Gavin, Is That All There Is?