Presented by The Mabel Mercer Foundation. Available to Stream.
Peggy Lee, born Norma Deloris Egstrom, rose out of an abusive childhood the seventh of eight children in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her adored father was an alcoholic, her mom died when the girl was four. Mr. Egstrom remarried a woman who then cruelly abused Norma. In quick succession, the house burned down, they moved in with her stepmother’s parents, her father was fired. Regular beatings continued. Norma took any job she could to get out of the house. She also sang in the church chorus, high school glee club, and with a local dance band.
At 16, she could be heard over KOVC Radio and had her own 15 minute show under the name Peggy Lee. An attempt to break into the business in Los Angeles was sidelined by necessity for a tonsillectomy. A year later, the vocalist was spotted performing in Palm Springs by Frank Bering, the owner of the Ambassador East and West in Chicago. It’s said Lee developed her trademark purr there in an effort to garner attention from the noisy crowd. Benny Goodman then hired her away from the Ambassador. Lee made her first recording, “Elmer’s Tune,” in 1941 and was on her way.
Host Natalie Douglas opens tonight’s festivities with “He’s a Tramp” (Peggy Lee/Sonny Burke). We’re to hear songs either written/co-written by Lee or recorded and popularized by her. The first arrives with light teasing. Jon Weber-piano. Mary Foster Conklin follows with “Some Cats Know” (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller). “Like making rain/Either you got it or you ain’t…” Nose crinkled, torso rolling with the beat, Conklin’s voice pours out like molasses. The terrific arrangement features John Di Martino, piano, and, notably, Sara Caswell, violin. Definitely cool.
Lee had #1 hits in 1941, 1943 and appeared in the films Stage Door Canteen and The Powers Girl. When she married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman’s band, he was fired for fraternization. She quit intending to become a full time wife and mother (at age 23), but offers kept coming in. Barbour encouraged Lee to continue her career. The couple also wrote together. Early recordings for Capitol Records included their “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day.” Hits began to rack up. Aside from a brief detour at Decca, Lee spent three decades with Capitol.
Billy Stritch offers an insouciant, swinging “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” We don’t hear enough of his casual excellence alone at a piano. “Them There Eyes” (Mace Pinkard/Doris Tauber/William Tracey) and Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II’s “The Folks Who Live on the Hill”, apparently Lee’s favorite song, arrives by way of Aisha de Haas. The first is coquettish with round-edged scat; the second slow and savored as if imagining. Lovely diminuendo and a back end hum enhance mood. Jon Weber piano. Danny Bacher’s “It’s A Good Day” (Peggy Lee/Dave Barbour) exudes happiness. The artist wears its start/stop rhythm as if bespoke. Soprano sax is cool. On piano, Jon Weber takes off as if playing a different program.
Nicolas King, the only performer who showed respect for neither the material nor the event by dressing down in an MGM T-shirt performed “Things Are Swingin’”(Peggy Lee/Jack Marshall) and “There’ll Be Another Spring” (Peggy Lee/ Hubie Wheeler). The visual disconnect of polished swing and a serious ballad emanating from an artist who seemed to take both for granted made appreciation impossible. Mike Renzi, also Peggy Lee’s Musical Director for six years, came through with ruminative, finely gauged piano.
Peggy Lee recorded the iconic “Fever,” originally by Little Willie John, in a new version by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport in 1958. She starred opposite Danny Thomas in a remake of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, garnered an Academy Award nomination for her role as an alcoholic vocalist in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues, provided speaking and singing voices for several characters in the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp and wrote its songs.
Celia Berk and Sean Harkness (guitar) deliver a tantalizing “The Shining Sea” written by Lee and Johnny Mandel as part of the score of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Berk is plaintive and convincing, phrasing emotionally deft. Guitar is pristine.
Eric Comstock (Piano/Vocal) and Sean Smith (Bass) give us an exuberant, polished “Jump For Joy” (Duke Ellington/ Sid Kuller/Paul Francis Webster). The two are then joined by Barbara Fasano with “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” (Eric Maschwicz/Jack Strachey). Head back, eyes closed, she unfurls long sinuous notes in slow motion. Oh, how Comstock looks at his wife!
In brief conversation with Holly Foster Wells, President of Peggy Lee Associates and Lee’s granddaughter, Natalie Douglas acknowledges a great many celebratory events that were put on hold over this last year, including Stacy Sullivan’s much anticipated Carnegie Hall Concert under the aegis of The Mabel Mercer Foundation.
Wells tells us there’s a lot going on. A biopic is in the works directed by Todd Haynes, starring Michelle Williams. Her grandmother’s autobiography will be re-released to include new material and a coffee table book is to feature candid and family as well as professional photographs. “She said, ‘music is my life’s breath,’” Wells notes. Peggy Lee’s legacy is not only one of vocal and songwriting excellence, but also includes fighting for equal treatment and remuneration as a woman, leaving a template for others to follow.
The songs “Sugar” (Maceo Pinkard/Edna Alexander/Sidney D. Mitchell) and “Where Can I Go Without You?” (Peggy Lee/Victor Young) are performed by Catherine Russell with authentic phrasing and palpable spirit. The first is bright and saucy, the second an embattled declaration. Gabrielle Stravelli’s “Too Late Now” (Alan Jay Lerner/Burton Lane) emerges muted melancholy. Tiptoeing bass, Pat O’Leary, and gently stroked piano, Michael Kanan, support the tuneful sigh. Stacy Sullivan, whose own two Peggy Lee shows captivate, sings “In the Days of Our Love” wrapped in feeling (Peggy Lee/Marian McPartland). Her sad, smoky voice is like cashmere. Jon Weber, Piano. Steve Doyle, Bass.
This is the second time I’ve seen Julia Parasram and my opinion remains unchanged. The young woman has a pretty voice, but not a clue as to lyric meaning. Her rendition of “I Love the Way You’re Breakin’ My Heart” (Milton Drake/ Louis Alter) is expressionless. Jon Weber, piano. The terrific Sidney Myer seems unusually reserved with Milton Ager/ Jack Yellen’s “Louisville Lou (That Vampin’ Lady).” Only a story about briefly meeting Lee lands like the artist we know and love. (Tracy Stark-Piano, Tom Hubbard-Bass, David Stillman-Drums). Amra Faye Wright performs a brooding “Is That All There Is?” (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller).
Peggy Lee had four husbands, one child and a legendary, seven decade career that featured recording, authoring 200 songs, and performing at clubs, in concert, on radio, in film, and on television. Coined “the female Frank Sinatra” by Tony Bennett (she was flattered), Lee was embraced by both jazz and pop icons as one of their own.
Natalie Douglas closes with Lee’s signature “Fever” (Peggy Lee/Eddie Cooley/John Davenport) It’s an uncharacteristically low key performance for Douglas, quietly sizzling. Jon Weber, piano.
The Mabel Mercer Foundation presents
A Centennial Celebration of Miss Peggy Lee
Host- Natalie Douglas
Directed and Edited by Chinua Thomas
HEADS UP: The Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention will run October 25-27, 2021, with two nights streamed and the third live at Rose Hall.