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Delving into Peggy Lee's Steamy Mystique

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Delving into Peggy Lee's Steamy Mystique

Delving into Peggy Lee's Steamy Mystique

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(Soundbite of You Give Me Fever)

Ms. PEGGY LEE (Singer): (Singing) Never know how much I love you; never know how much I care. When you put your arms around me I get a fever that's so hard to bear. You give me fever...

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Peggy Lee was the essence of cool in the world of hot jazz, the small town blonde who could sing blues, bee-bop, swing and rock. She learned her craft singing in smoky clubs, and traveling on trains with big bands in the wee hours of the night. She seemed to sing in a whisper, the kind of voice you long to hear at close range in your ear.

(Soundbite of You Give Me Fever)

Ms. LEE: (Singing): I light up when you call my name and you know I'm going to treat you right. You give me fever...

SIMON: Peggy Lee was part of the same musical era as Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra; and in their own accounts, their equal.

Peter Richmond has written the first full biography of Miss Peggy Lee. It's called Fever. And Mr. Richmond, a frequent writer for GQ, joins us from our studios from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. PETER RICHMOND (Author, Fever): Well, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Were those her fingers snapping?

Mr. RICHMOND: They weren't actually on that record. The finger snaps belonged to the guitarist who showed up for the session that day, thinking he was going to play guitar...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHMOND: ...only to discover that Peggy decided that the song needed a bass, a drum, and Peggy's voice; and then said to him, But if you want to snap fingers, that's okay. And so the fingers snaps were actually, belonged to a musician who'd been minimalized out of the session because Peg decided this song doesn't need much. And she was right.

SIMON: Peggy Lee was born Norma Egstrom in Nortonville, North Dakota. Both the music of the rails, and the music she heard out of the radio captured her imagination.

Mr. RICHMOND: Equally so, it's a greatly evocative way to picture it. She's 12 years old. She's in a railroad depot. She is running it because her dad, as an alcoholic itinerant railroad worker, sometimes couldn't handle the work. So there'd she sit by the rails of the Midland Continental Railroad and look at the way they'd go to one city or the other, but lead her out of that town. And the boxcars would come by night after night.

And it's a time when popular music in America, mid-30s, is starting to blend jazz elements, blues elements. And she just loved that beat. And she followed it east to all the big cities: Fargo, then Minneapolis, and then Chicago, and ultimately New York with Benny.

SIMON: As you note, her father drank. She was beaten by her stepmother. You could even see that in her face once you knew that.

Mr. RICHMOND: Yes. She had a swing to her jaw. It went off kind off to the side in this very sensual manner. But it may, in fact, have been derived from the day that her stepmother did hit with a frying pan when she was young, a story that Peggy tells in her own book.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RICHMOND: Probably not apocryphal.

SIMON: I want to talk about this creative partnership she had with Benny Goodman.

(Soundbite I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good)

Ms. LEE: (Singing): He don't love me like I love him; nobody could. I got it bad and that ain't good.

SIMON: Peggy Lee followed by the clarinet of Benny Goodman. Now, you write when he saw her sing in 1941, he was the most famous band leader in the country, but in need of something new, some new charge of energy, because he -- there was some reason to think that his kind of music was in decline.

Mr. RICHMOND: At that point, in '41, Benny had had a tremendous success. Of course, in the late '30s, a Carnegie Hall concert that introduced swing to the swells of New York. He'd lost some good musicians and there was something that was kind of threatening swing. Band music was dividing into swing and sweet. And Benny was looking for the next great band. And Benny's fiancé walks across the street one night, gets a bite to eat, and sees Peggy Lee singing, and says, Benny, I think your next singer is across the street.

SIMON: She was 21 years old.

Mr. RICHMOND: Right.

SIMON: Out of the prairies. What did he see in her in Chicago that night to take such a chance on what amounted to the first singer he'd seen after Helen Forrest quit it?

Mr. RICHMOND: He was desperate. And he heard something that she had that none of her predecessors had had, and arguably nobody has had, which is her phrasing and her time. That song we just heard was a fabulous example, I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good. And to this day, musicians I talked to who'd played it with all of the greats will say that the thing that really distinguishes her from everyone else was that way of phrasing a word. So that you heard its emotion and you felt that it was directed to you.

SIMON: Why don't we listen to another clip, if we can? Why Don't You Do Right?

(Soundbite of Why Don't You Do Right?)

Ms. LEE: (Singing) You had plenty money in 1922. You let other women make a fool of you. Why don't you do right, like some other men do? Get out of here and get me some money too. You're sitting down wondering what it's all about. You ain't got no money, they will put you out. Why don't you do right, like some other men do? Get out of here and get me some money too.

Mr. RICHMOND: When that came out that was the breakout. That was the song. If you listen to it, when it first came out on the radio in 1943, nobody knew whether she was black or white. A lot of people assumed it was Billie Holiday.

SIMON: Hmm.

Mr. RICHMOND: And she'd been playing that song on her little windup record player from hotel room to hotel room with Benny. And it was a blues song done by Lil Green from Mississippi. And Benny said, You really love that song, don't you? And Peggy said, Yeah. And Benny said, Well, let's do it. And it was unlike anything Benny had ever done.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RICHMOND: And then in the late '40s, as she was peaking, she started shifting to even bluesier stuff. And then in '53, she did this album called Black Coffee, which the true scholars will say it's is probably one of the top five jazz vocal albums of all time. And it was really down there, and really slow and beautiful.

SIMON: How big was she?

Mr. RICHMOND: Between '44 and '61, she was as big as it got. She was as big as it got.

SIMON: Lieber and Stoller, the pre-eminent, I think we can say that.

Mr. RICHMOND: I think we can.

SIMON: Rock writers.

Mr. RICHMOND: Yeah.

SIMON: They brought a song to Peggy Lee.

Mr. RICHMOND: Yes.

SIMON: They wrote a song. They thought of her. I'm not quite sure. They went to see her at the Waldorf, if I can get you to tell us that story.

Mr. RICHMOND: Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller had been writing songs for decades. And Jerry Lieber had read this novella by Thomas Mann called Disillusionment, a very depressing short story. And he wrote some very strange lyrics. and Mike Stoller said, I got the music for that. They figured they'd really put together something phenomenal, but would anybody want to hear a song that was so depressing?

So they'd seen Peg. She'd done a couple of their songs. And Jerry was in a bar down on probably Third Avenue, and ran into a guy name Mundell Lowe who was playing in Peggy's band at the time. And Jerry said, Hey, can you give this to Miss Lee? And he said, Sure.

So Jerry was summoned. He went up, was ushered in to see Peggy. And she said, If you show this song to anyone else, I'll kill you. It's my song. It's my life. I've got to do this song. And they did.

(Soundbite of Is That All There Is)

Ms. LEE: (Spoken): I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire. I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. And I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, Is that all there is to a fire? Is that all there is?

(Singing): Is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball, if that's all there is.

SIMON: Do you hear some exhaustion, some resignation in her voice?

Mr. RICHMOND: Oh, definitely. Definitely. I mean, I don't think we're reading too much into the situation. Which is rock has descended and torn up all the old rules. Bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead are taking, you know, atonality to new places. And this is not to diss the '60s, tremendous music, but Peg could not adapt. She tried to cover Beatles songs. She tried to do rock, and it didn't work.

And now it's 1968 and Miss Peggy Lee is becoming irrelevant. And she's a 48-year-old woman and she doesn't know what to do next. And bingo! Lieber and Stoller give her this thing and she just pours her heart into it. And it won her her first Grammy. So, no, you're not mistaken to think that the resignation that she sings with in that song, she sings of, was a true reflection of her coming to a point where she sang, well, if that's all there is, it's been okay and let's keep having some fun.

SIMON: Mr. Richmond, thanks so much.

Mr. RICHMOND: Well, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Peter Richmond, his new book is Fever. What else? The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee.

(Soundbite of Black Coffee)

Ms. LEE: (Singing) I'm feeling mighty lonesome, haven't slept a wink. I walk the floor and watch the door, and in between I drink black coffee...

SIMON: Miss Peggy Lee singing Black Coffee. An atmospheric account of a 1961 show by Peggy Lee, along with three great Peggy Lee songs, can be found on our website, npr.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of Black Coffee)

Ms. LEE: (Singing) I'll never know a Sunday in this weekday room. I'm talking to the shadows one o'clock till four. And Lord, how slow the moments go when all I do is pour black...

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