Just before the curtain went up at The Boston Court Theater in Pasadena, Stacy Sullivan got word that Holly Foster Wells, Vice President of Peggy lee Associates, LLC and Miss Lee’s granddaughter, would be in the audience for her Peggy Lee tribute It’s A Good Day. A particularly intriguing review had popped up on Holly’s Google alert for all things Peggy Lee and she’d booked tickets. “I was terrified and honored.” At the end of the performance, Holly thanked Stacy with tears in her eyes.
Stacy started doing family concerts when she was five. By the time she stepped back to be an almost full time mother—“I missed my son’s first day at pre-school”—the lyric coloratura had professional experience in operetta, stage musicals, film, and television. Sister KT saw to it Stacy kept her hand in with a few cabaret shows a year. She also made five CDs featuring gospel, country, pop, classical “then I saw Shirley Horn” and jazz.
“When I was pregnant with my daughter, I did a show with Paul Horner who co-wrote with Peggy Lee and co-wrote the musical Peg. I fell in love with her as a songwriter. ‘Angels on Your Pillow,’ with which I ended that show, became one of my favorite songs.”
“Angels on Your Pillow” is what my grandmother would say to my mom at bedtime. It’s what my mom said to us kids at bedtime and also what I say to my kids at bedtime. It is such a meaningful phrase to our family, we had it engraved on my grandmother’s memorial marker.” Holly Foster Wells
Fifteen years later, Sydney Meyer, performer and booking agent for Don’t Tell Mama, encountered Stacy at a benefit and told her: “There’s something about you—I don’t know what it is, but you should do Peggy Lee.” As Meyer had been an ardent fan of the icon, Stacy took note. It was one of those moments.
She started researching Lee and discovered curious connections: “I found out she was the seventh of eight children, like me.” Stacy was raised in rural Oklahoma, Lee in rural North Dakota. “She loved messing with arrangements so people would hear it in a new way which is something I’ve always loved to do.” A less likely crossover is Stacy’s affiliation with The Church of Religious Science, “Many paths, one God,” a philosophy she came across by accident having abandoned her Southern Baptist upbringing when she felt they had turned their focus “from love to exclusion.”
“For five years, I read everything I could get my hands on, but actually didn’t listen to her sing that much. I’m a good mimic. I didn’t want to pick up things she was doing. The show is neither an imitation of, nor about her. It’s my story through her music. Songs are really monologues. I’m an actress. I studied Peggy Lee through her lyrics.” The show premiered at New York’s Metropolitan Room in November 2011, then was excerpted at the venerable Midtown Jazz at Midday.
“I had no idea I would meet the family or that they would be so supportive.” After the Pasadena show, Stacy and Holly made a lunch date. She was invited, on Lee’s birthday, to sing at the grand opening of a new museum in Wimbledon, North Dakota which will provide a permanent memorial exhibition to the artist’s life. The museum is housed in an old Midland Continental Railroad Depot, the now defunct company for whom Lee’s father was a station agent and was actually Lee’s home throughout high school. Additionally, there would be concerts in Fargo and Jamestown, where Lee was born.
Audiences were packed but it was the smaller, outside show at the museum which was truly meaningful to Stacy. She met everyone in the family except Lee’s daughter Nikki, who was unfortunately ill and couldn’t attend. At this event, Stacy had the privilege of singing “The Folks Back Home” which was given to her by Holly and Paul Horner, and later to be the first to record it on her CD: I think of the folks back home/Each time I go there, they’re so nice to me. They never change a bit, they’re still the folks back home.
At 17, Lee fled her oblivious, beloved, alcoholic father and a cruel stepmother who beat her daily. “Peggy didn’t go back until her father died, but everyone in North Dakota was so proud of her. They’d stop her after shows. She wrote them this love song in thanks and they’d never heard it. I got to sing it to them and for them…talk about wonderful people, so solid!” Holly Foster Wells tells me it was during these years her grandmother began to sing professionally. People in the tiny community would give her rides and see to it she had proper gowns for shows in Fargo and Valley City. “Stacy’s concerts ended up being such an important part of the celebration. You can feel her generous heart from the stage.”
It was in North Dakota Stacy changed the ending of her show from “Angels On Your Pillow” to an unusual rendition of “It’s a Good Day.” It’s a good day for paying your bills/It’s a good day for curing your ills/So take a deep breath and throw away the pills/It’s a good day from morning till night. “We don’t end it happy, but hopeful.” The artist seems to implicitly understand the dichotomy in many Peggy Lee lyrics: ‘When I’m really sad, I write happy songs,’ Lee told her granddaughter. “She struggled with demons her whole life. Even though I have a sunny disposition, everybody has times of darkness. Performing this material has allowed me to go deeper. It’s also a license to share my own experiences. They’re my stories too.”
Norma Deloris Egstrom (Peggy Lee) created a life that included six decades as a singer, actress, and songwriter with worldwide fame. “The magnitude of what she did, leaving with no money and ending up in the company of legends! Her career had reached its pinnacle at my age and because of her my own career is getting a new start. And I thank her every day—I’ll get emotional.” Stacy tears up. “It’s almost like she’s giving me a chance at my dream. I’ve been doing this for so long. You either are a performer or you’re not.”
I asked Holly why she particularly connected with this performer, this show out of the dozens and dozens she sees. Having traveled with Lee every year from the time Holly was six, she’d seen her grandmother perform on countless occasions and knew her intimately. “I was really stunned. Stacy’s nothing like my grandmother, she doesn’t try to be like her, but she has a way of getting into a song that casts a spell. My father said it’s almost like it’s the spirit of Peggy Lee reminding us.”
The CD is comprised of songs written or popularized by Peggy Lee. Each has been newly arranged by Stacy Sullivan and pianist Jon Weber with input from bassist Steve Doyle. (The inimitable Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar is the fourth musician.) “Why record them again the way she did them?”
Painting a proud, strong, playful, sexy, damaged soul, much of the CD is upbeat and up tempo. Familiar and eclectic choices are deftly sequenced. Arrangements are unexpected, enriching rather than merely implying Stacy’s emotional take, and in service to the lyric. Time signatures are reconfigured. The vocalist pauses at unusually effective moments leaving her audience to continue dreaming in the breath of silence. Songs with which she genuinely identifies feel truly honest. This is a ballsy, potent work; an original. Musicianship, especially that of the ubiquitous Jon Weber, is superb.
“I Love the Way You’re Breaking My Heart” and “The Folks Back Home” (nostalgia singed with bitterness) drift down like feathers. “You Was Right Baby” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You” verge on easy bebop. “Cheek to Cheek” (with a nod to “Fever,” which is rightfully not included) while faithful, catches one off guard with innuendo. “That Old Black Magic” smolders as it swings ending with an echoed warning. “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me” (Hi ho, who cares?) and “Where Did They Go” both often mournful, here become reflective and without self pity. “Johnny Guitar” is simply gorgeous sung over—wait for it—Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in F Sharp Minor! “Angels On My Pillow” is like listening to a shaken snow globe. And there’s more.
Were Miss Lee ensconced on a bar stool, legs crossed, chiffon skirt cascading, she’d undoubtedly raise an appreciative glass to the shimmering Stacy Sullivan.
1. CD cover line drawing: Robert Richards; photo of Stacy: B-House Photography
2. Peggy Lee
3. Left: Jon Weber and Stacy Sullivan at the museum event; Right: Jon Weber, Stacy Sullivan and Steve Doyle in town
4. Stacy with Peggy’s family, photo by Jaiyen Digital Media, Left to right: Carol and David Foster (Peggy’s grandson and his wife), Stacy Sullivan, Holly Foster Wells (Peggy’s grand-daughter and President of Peggy Lee Associates, LLC), Michael Foster (Peggy’s grandson), Jon Weber, Teagan Foster (Michael’s son and Peggy’s great-grandson), and Carter and Keaton Wells (Holly’s sons and Peggy’s great-grandsons).
5. Jon Weber & Stacy Sullivan- photo by Steve Mathews
Stacy’s CD can be purchased on Amazon.
“She left so much that’s great. I want to put a spotlight on all that greatness.”
All quotes are Stacy Sullivan
It’s A Good Day
The Metropolitan Room
October 17, 18, November 10, December 8, 2012 at 11:30 p.m.
Monday January 28 and Saturday February 23, 2013 7 p.m.
Read Alix’s review of Stacy’s Midtown Jazz at Midday concert