In my tween and teen years (1962-72) a regular guest on TV talk shows and variety shows was Peggy Lee. For most of that decade she was not a particularly welcome presence from my perspective on the youthful side of the Generation Gap. Born in 1920, Peggy was several years older than either of my parents. Her sound was very much my parents’ music and therefore something toward which I felt obligated to be (at best) indifferent. It wasn’t rock and roll. I knew nothing of her early work with the big bands of the 40s and scarcely anything of her career’s high water in the 50s. Nor did I care to. The extraordinary deference with which she was introduced (always as Miss Peggy Lee) mystified me.
This changed in 1969 when Peggy recorded a haunting version of the Leiber and Stoller song Is That All There Is? She had called on a young Randy Newman, of all people, to rework the original arrangement to something more to her liking. It was to be her last hit single and her biggest since Fever in 1958. I was one of the many who loved the record, and I grudgingly allowed at the time that maybe I had been a little closed-minded about her other work though I wasn’t yet ready to go out of my way to listen to any of it. (I had no idea I already was familiar with some of it from the sound track of the 1955 Disney movie The Lady and the Tramp.)
It wasn’t until after college that I recognized – let myself recognize – just how good much of my parents’ popular music was. To be sure, I still enjoyed the usual Boomer fare of folk and rock from Dylan to Clapton, but against all expectations I also liked 40s big bands from Glenn Miller to Duke Ellington. Who’d have thought it? Not an earlier I. What caught my fancy in particular was the mix of big bands with female vocals such as Helen Forrest, Kitty Kallen, Ella Mae Morse, and Peggy Lee. Vocals had changed over the previous decade thanks to good microphones and sound systems. Through the 1920s and into the 30s, it was important to belt out a song (ala Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker) so someone beyond the first row could hear you. With electronic amplification, this ceased to be a factor. By 1940 much more subtlety and sophistication accordingly had entered popular recordings – more so than in most popular recordings of the 1950s.
Due to her straightforward early style, Peggy Lee is not at the top of my personal list of favorite 1940s-era songbirds though she did numerous iconic numbers with Benny Goodman including Do Right (the Jessica Rabbit version is probably better known today) and a politically incorrect version of Let’s Do It. But she was definitely on the list. For a window into that era I picked up the biography Is That All There Is?: the Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin. As celebrity biographies go, this one is pretty well researched and written; it even comes with copious footnotes and an index.
The story of Norma Egstrom (aka Peggy Lee), like most success stories, is a combination of hard work and serendipity. Jamestown, North Dakota, is not the most likely place to start a showbiz career, but she made use of what was available and then traveled to find opportunities. Her break came in 1941 when she landed a job singing at the Buttery lounge in the Ambassador West hotel in Chicago. One night Benny Goodman was at a table. Helen Forrest had just quit on him and he needed a female vocalist to fill in for her temporarily until he found a permanent replacement. Peggy’s temporary employment with Benny lasted until 1948.
The bio details her personal life, which was messy in the way we expect of celebrities: a string of marriages, affairs, and break-ups amid financial meltdowns and substance abuse. On top of all that were serious health problems including pneumonia that scarred her lungs. Yet, unlike most of her fellow 1940s songstresses, her career not just continued but flourished in the 1950s and included turns at acting, notably in Pete Kelley’s Blues (1955). She was always hands-on with musical arrangements. Peggy persisted when others didn’t. She sold out shows in Las Vegas in the 1970s, tried Broadway in the 80s, and sang from a wheelchair in the Waldorf’s Empire Room in the 90s – something unlikely to be emulated in the future by today’s pop divas. Peggy died in 2002.
Though I had bought the book mostly for insight into the big band years, the rest of it proved to be more instructive. Is that all there is? Yes. But maybe that’s enough.
Peggy Lee – Is That All There Is? (1969)