Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee
By James Garvin
Atria Books, 2014, 601 pages including notes, photos, discography, and index
Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee
By Peter Richmond
Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 449 pages including notes, index, and photos
Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography
By Peggy Lee
Donald I. Fine, 1989, 280 pages including index, photos, and discography
“Peggy had that nasty, laid-back, demented, sultry, incredibly funky sound that Lady Day [Billie Holiday] had. But it was Lady with another Lady on top of it.”
—Drummer Grady Tate, who played in Lee’s band for several years
It is a truism, as painful as it is complex, as bitter as it is logical, that American popular music has always been divided by race, a reflection of the division that has, to slightly paraphrase Gene McDaniels’s lyric, “torn up the goddam nation.” That is to say, there is something called black music, performed by black musicians who, obviously, do it best, most authentically, and then there is, well, everything else in popular music which could be called the province of whites, although it was never officially called “white music.” (Something like this has happened to the black scholar in the academic world where, as African American historian John Hope Franklin put it, “whites conceded that Negroes had peculiar talents that fitted them to study themselves and their problems.” Thus, blacks do Black Studies and white do mostly everything else in the academic world.)
In this way, 20th century popular music became an intricate maze of racialized camps or genres and interracial bridges. (There are of course bridges between genres or camps, such as the blending of country and rock, or of jazz and atonal, or art music or of gospel and rhythm and blues, but I am not principally concerned with this.)
The bridges or “crossover” artists most commonly discussed in American popular music are, first, black musicians who have managed to capture a sizable white audience. These have ranged, historically, from Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong to Stevie Wonder, Gil-Scott Heron, Beyoncé, and Lauryn Hill. The trick for the black artist to crossover is to still sound “black,” but also appeal to whites. There have been a few black artists who sounded, well, “less” black who have done this, such as Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, Diana Ross, Maxine Sullivan, and Ella Fitzgerald. (Crossover virtuoso guitarist Jimi Hendrix certainly sounded black as a vocalist but his music, on the whole, sounded too white or simply too undanceable for most black audiences of the late 1960s. It must be remembered that the Fisk Jubilee Singers had no success on their initial fundraising tour in 1971 until they started singing spirituals, black music, in effect. Whites were not interested in hearing them sing the white popular music of the day.) But by and large black artists who sound too “white” face certain challenges about authenticity, as musicologist Patrick Burke so effectively relates in his story about black singer Maxine Sullivan’s jazz performance of the traditional folk song Loch Lomond with the Claude Thornhill band in 1937.  Generally, black performers who sound “too white” almost never please black audiences and only rarely please white ones. I suppose one way to see this, from both the white and black perspective, is: Why have blacks sounded like whites? Are there not enough white performers who sound white? Would not most African Americans feel too prideful to imitate the way whites sounded? And was there not even more than pride at stake? Was not black people’s survival as a distinct group at stake, as well as the need to reflect their unique reality in their artistic expression?
The second type of crossover artist is the white performer who sounds black. This has a longer, more profoundly uneasy, nakedly hegemonic, and strange history in the United States starting with minstrelsy in the 19th century where whites, donning black face makeup, actually pretended to be blacks. (The White Negro existed long before Norman Mailer’s controversial 1957 essay of the same name.) With changing racial sensibilities in the 20th century, the matter became less crude, if not less perplexing. Historically, performers ranging from Louis Prima and Mose Allison to Elvis Presley and Eminem fall into this category, to name only a few. But the depth of “cultural appropriation,” as it is called by leftist academics these days, is so wide and deep in the United States, with so many and varied adaptations of black music, that this form of “bridging” in American music is not so much a subject or a practice as it is a formal and enduring economic, social, and creative, even symbiotic, relationship, an essential rite of “passing.” It is as if blacks serve as a muse and as source material for whites in certain aspects of American popular music. In the 20th century, for a white to sound black was to be hip, to show a moral rejection of white bourgeois aesthetic and social standards, to identify with the marginalized outsider. This form of crossing-over was, in its way, a kind of problematical homage. One of white, blonde, North Dakota-born Peggy Lee’s greatest claims to the attention of the American public was that she was a woman singer who sounded black.
As she wrote in her autobiography, “One night at the New Yorker, I was singing ‘That Did It, Marie’ when Count Basie danced by the stage. He winked up at me and said, ‘Are you sure you don’t have a little spade in you, Peggy?’”
As biographer James Gavin relates, Lee told writer Shaun Considine in 1974, “I’m not really a white singer. I sing black. I always have.”
When asked who her favorite and most influential singers were, Lee responded, “You have to pick Maxine Sullivan for her simplicity; Billie Holiday for her emotional appeal; and Ella Fitzgerald for her ‘great heart.’’’ All three singers are black.
When discussing in her autobiography one of the big loves of her life, “Roger” (actor Robert Preston, who was married when he and Lee were lovers), she quotes him as saying, “‘We had your V-discs overseas, and I thought you were black.’”
Biographer Peter Richmond quotes Lee’s drummer Grady Tate (who joined Lee’s band in the mid-1960s): “One night [pianist] Lou Levy was just playing some changes and things, and I heard this voice, and the song that she was singing, whatever it was, she sounded more like Billie Holiday than Billie ever sounded. She could do Holiday and you’d go, ‘What? Oh man.’ And when you looked at her you saw Billie—really, she became Billie.”
“Doing” Billie Holiday was not just meant as some sort of lame white-girl imitation of the great black jazz singer, it was an expression of how accomplished Lee was as a jazz singer and how much she respected Holiday. As Lee tells a story in her autobiography:
“One night I saw Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald in the audience and just decided to do an impression of Billie Holiday for them. Phoebe Jacobs [a friend of Lee’s] remembers it this way: ‘[Peggy Lee] was singing “God Bless the Child”, which Billie wrote. Ralph Watkins, one of the owners of [Basin Street East], had often booked Billie herself to sing at his previous club, Kelly’s Stable. When Ralph heard Peg singing that night, he turned white as a sheet, it was so much like Billie, but of course Billie was already dead. Later Nat King Cole came into my office and cried, saying, “That was Billie.”’
As Holiday and Lee were nearly exact contemporaries (Holiday was born in 1915, Lee in 1920), becoming professional singers in the 1930s, with both being major figures in jazz by the 1940s (Holiday more so than Lee at that time), it would not have been unusual for their paths to cross. Jazz was a world that generated interracial interactions. Gavin writes of the relationship between the two women:
“Lee never got to know her idol well, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. After Holiday’s show, Lee would ask the jazz star to sit at her table or appear at her dressing-room door. Holiday stayed aloof. Although Lee’s close friend, jazz critic Leonard Feather, quoted Holiday as saying she had ‘always loved Peggy,’ the former proved less charitable on other occasions. In her 1956 memoir, Lady Sings The Blues, Holiday told of reluctantly accepting Lee’s invitation to a party she was throwing at Bop City, the San Francisco jazz club. There, Lee presented her with an adoring lyric about the gardenia Holiday wore in her hair. The book left little doubt that Holiday thought the song was awful.”
“Bassist John Levy, who played with Holiday, recalled her disdain for the young white songstress. ‘When Peggy Lee came around,’ he said, ‘Billie Holiday would say, “Look, bitch, why don’t you find some other way to sing?” … Peggy Lee wouldn’t take offense. She’d say to Billie, “It’s because I love you. I love everything you do.”’”
Richmond notes, though, that in her correspondence with writer Alexander Theroux, she speaks of her dislike of Billie Holiday, presumably, as a person, not as a singer. So, this hero-worshipping of Holiday was not as simple as it seemed.
In 2000, jazz critic Stanley Crouch published a novel, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome, about an acclaimed white woman singer from South Dakota (Lee was born and grew up in North Dakota) who wants to marry a black saxophonist. She is described as “a blonde with a black ass,” a combination made much of in the novel. There is little doubt that Crouch’s character, Carla, is drawn from Peggy Lee and there is also little doubt that her synthesis of black and white, as symbolized by her body, is meant to be an idealized sexuality, artistically accomplished and culturally heroic.
Peggy Lee was a great deal more than her imitations of Billie Holiday. She was one of the great American musicians of her era.
- “Oh, shit—I’ve killed myself”
“If they’re waiting for me to die … good luck!”
—Peggy Lee, age 72, in performance at the New York Hilton’s Club 53, in 1992
Norma Deloris Egstrom was born in Jamestown, North Dakota; her father, Marvin, was an alcoholic railroad stationmaster and her stepmother, Min, was a monster. (In Lee’s eyes, her biological mother, her father’s first wife, was something of a saint.) According to Lee’s autobiography, Min hated her because Lee was her father’s favorite. She abused Lee physically and orally. How much Lee exaggerated this is unclear. Richmond is kinder about the liberties Lee may have taken about her childhood than Gavin, who thinks that a good deal of it is “delusional.” To be sure, Lee had thoroughly rehearsed her life, by the time she writes her autobiography (which is not ghostwritten), in countless interviews. She had, over the years, so fashioned her Cinderella story, that it is hard to tell how much is true and how much is a sort of composite truth fabricated by both Lee and the writers who wrote about her. But it would be unwise to dismiss Lee’s self-mythologizing as completely or even mostly untrue. Inaccurate, yes. Untrue, no.
Lee was one of seven children. She was not the only Egstrom daughter who sang, but she loved it more than the others. Her singing as a child was not especially noteworthy to anyone. But she was determined to become a singer, to leave the small town life of North Dakota. She had her fancies, her dreams, but like T. E. Lawrence, she dreamed hers in the light of day. With luck, pluck, and a sort of passive-aggressive determination, she realized her dream. Radio exposed her to black music in her early teens, and in this way she learned the music that she wanted to sing: big-band swing. She wanted to be a “canary,” a girl singer with a jazz band.
… it is hard to tell how much is true and how much is a sort of composite truth fabricated by both Lee and the writers who crafted her story over the years. But it would be unwise to dismiss Lee’s self-mythologizing as completely or even mostly untrue. Inaccurate, yes. Untrue, no.
She wound up in Fargo doing a radio program, and it is in Fargo that she is renamed or renames herself, depending on the story, Peggy Lee. (She was told she had no future as Norma Egstrom.) Fargo eventually got her to Chicago, where one night in 1941, brilliant but oafish and self-absorbed clarinetist Benny Goodman, leader of one of the most popular swing bands in America, sat in a room called the Buttery listening to Lee sing. He was looking to replace his singer, Helen Forrest, who was moving on to clarinetist Artie Shaw’s band. Forrest had had enough of Goodman, who never liked singers and really did not want them in the band. Goodman, although not terribly impressed, hired Lee. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lee had no formal training in music. She never learned to read music. But she had perfect pitch and an uncanny sense of rhythm. Lee could hear the nuances, effects, and subtleties in music as well as, and sometimes better, than trained musicians. She also worked relentlessly at her craft. (During her years as a solo act, she controlled her bands with near dictatorial power and incredible musical knowledge. The musicians who worked for her enjoyed the experience, even if they did not always enjoy her, and they paid her the highest compliment they could: They called her “a musician” and not “a singer.”) It might be said that Goodman’s popularity made Lee but Lee also helped to make Goodman, as the memorable and important vocal performances of his band was with her as lead singer. Lee broke into popular music when swing, probably the most technically demanding popular music America ever made, was king. It was hard to sing against the often complex arrangements of a big jazz band, particularly with Goodman, who preferred instrumentals.
Lee never had a big voice. She was never a belter like, say, Judy Garland, Sophie Tucker, Bessie Smith or, later, Barbra Streisand. Among the male singers who influenced her were Bing Crosby (whom she adored) and Louis Armstrong. During her stay with Goodman, she recorded some of Goodman’s vocal masterpieces including “Blues in the Night,” “Where or When,” and particularly, “Why Don’t You Do Right,” originally recorded by a black blues singers named Lil Green. It was this cover, which Goodman was reluctant to do and to which he finally succumbed because of Lee’s persistence, that made the world think she was black. More precisely, it was this recording that made audiences think, not that Lee was an imitation of a black singer, but she was a white singer who could sing black material with compelling artistry and deep understanding, that she could sing this sort of thing authentically without being a cheap copy. Her version of “Why Don’t You Right,” which was a huge hit for Goodman, captured both a girlish innocence as well as womanly sexual experience. It was when Lee reached this level in her work that she became the queen of white female swing singers and was considered the equal of many black female singers.
Lee, accused by some of being a hypochondriac, had fragile health all her life, despite the fact that she lived to be more than 80. (She truly exemplified the old saw: If I had known I was going to live so long, I would have taken better care of myself.) She was a contradictory blend of sturdy and frail. She was always fainting on stage, which, in some ways, added to her myth and to the mystique of her singing. She was a chain smoker, and eventually became an alcoholic thanks to her first husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, himself an alcoholic. (Her alcoholism grew so severe that she gave a horrible, embarrassing concert at the Nixon White House on February 24, 1970, for visiting French president Georges Pompidou that should have wrecked her career. She was so drunk she could not remember the words to her songs. Amazingly, this nightmare did not derail Lee in the 1970s.) In later life, she suffered from a bad heart, scarred lungs, a bad back, weight problems, and an addiction to all sorts of prescription pills she took as if candy. What she was physically, and how she changed physically over her 50-plus year career, her battle with her physical presence—the overly made-up face that so attracted female impersonators, the blonde wigs, the sometimes tasteless gowns—all of this is as much a part of her powerful presence in American music as her voice. Most people of my generation know her through her many appearances on television variety programs and what she looked like was inseparable, even more so than for a male performer, for obvious cultural reasons, from how she sounded. (Her appearance and manner in later life would be parodied by Frank Oz’s creation of Miss Piggy Lee—the singer always wanted to be introduced and addressed as Miss Peggy Lee—who became simply Miss Piggy when Lee threatened to sue. ) The fainting and sicknesses started even before Goodman. The star temperament was firmly in place by the early 1950s.
To understand the importance of Lee, it might do well to place her within the context of other major white women singers considered her rivals and peers: Dinah Shore, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Julie London, and Patti Page, all of whom were big in the 1950s. During the last hurrah of the Great American songbook, before second-rate sugary pop and jazz, and before the onslaught of rock and roll, Lee hit her stride after leaving Goodman in 1944 with a series of hit singles and impressive albums including the politically incorrect “Manana” (with her gringo Mexican accent), “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” “Lover,” and “Just One of Those Things.” Her 1953 album Black Coffee took on the stature, in jazz vocals circles, akin to that Miles Davis’s 1959 record, Kind of Blue, a one-of-a-kind recording. Her songs (co-written with Sonny Burke) for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) were imaginative and revealed another side of her that distinguished her from her peers: she had abilities as a songwriter and lyricist they lacked. There is no question that as a stylist Lee would emerge as superior to these other women, and as a far more influential singer. Lee did something that the rest could not do nearly as well: she could sing popular music that struck a chord with the record-buying public while also being considered first-rate music by prickly professional musicians. Lee was more innovative than any of them. She combined art and commerce in her music, which made her something special.
Her 1953 album Black Coffee took on the stature, in jazz vocals circles, akin to that Miles Davis’s 1959 record, Kind of Blue, a one-of-a-kind recording. Her songs (co-written with Sonny Burke) for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) were imaginative and revealed another side of her that distinguished her from her peers: she had abilities as a songwriter, a lyricist, that they lacked.
Lee was too self-conscious, too unable to come out of herself, to be a successful actress. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a deranged jazz singer in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). It was a remarkable performance. She had appeared earlier as the co-star to Danny Thomas in Michael Curtiz’s remake of The Jazz Singer (1952). But despite the nomination, Lee did not make any more dramatic films. Her limitations as an actress were too obvious. She could only play someone like herself; indeed, she could only play herself. She was no Doris Day, in this regard, or even Julie London, who had a solid career on dramatic television series from the 1950s through the ’70s. But she was a better actress than Patti Page, who appeared in Elmer Gantry (1960), among other films, and than Billie Holiday who appeared as a maid in New Orleans (1947).
In considering the arc of her career, and particularly the difficulties of broadening her audience in the late 1960s and beyond, she might be usefully compared to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who suffered from the same problem, and tried aggressively to overcome it as Lee did. Davis, by the late 1960s, found there were fewer places to play jazz and that the audience was growing older, as young people flocked to rock. Davis managed this mid-life artistic, professional (and personal) crisis by changing the way he dressed, adopting the hip, new clothing styles of the late 1960s that disdained the Brooks Brothers establishment look that Davis had previously cultivated. He adopted rock influences openly in his music. As a result of this, he was able to market his music by playing in rock venues and thus gave himself a new lease on life as a relevant artist, even though he lost a good many older fans.
Lee adjusted her music, adding tunes by more contemporary songwriters like Paul Simon and Randy Newman. She was still doing her signature tunes like the crackling sexual “Fever,” one of her biggest hits, and Leiber and Stoller’s “I’m a Woman” (their answer to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”). She also did her big hits from the Goodman era but wanted desperately to attract younger listeners. She could not do what Davis did in changing her clothes. (As a middle-aged woman she would have looked ridiculous dressing like a teenybopper. Some of her critics thought she looked ridiculous enough in her gowns.) She could not play in rock venues not only because of her look and her music, despite the updates, but because her band in the 1960s was simply too big and her show too complicated; the lighting alone for her stage act was as complex as that of a Broadway show. She was, unlike Davis, stuck with her old audience, which did not care for any modernizing, while being unable to reach young people who thought she was their mothers’ idol. In part, this happened to her because she was a singer, not an instrumentalist like Davis. In part, it happened because she was a woman and he was a man and our society will accept a middle-aged man faking youth more readily than a middle-aged woman because we are less judgmental about a middle-aged man’s looks. But Lee was undaunted, despite her mountain of insecurities and sheer craziness. She continued to be engaging, at times challenging, and made remarkably sophisticated music well into the 1980s. She refused utterly to be an oldies act.
Both Gavin’s and Richmond’s biographies are important works about a stunning, stubborn, flawed, neurotic, self-destructive yet resilient, 20th century artist and both, although they tell the same story (and many of the same stories), should be read as complementary texts. (Lee died of a heart attack in 2002.) I do not agree with Gavin’s tendency to paint a Norma Desmond-esque picture of Lee, as she grew older. What is remarkable about Lee is how much, despite her enormous fear that she indeed was becoming a bonkers, zoned out, bed-bound egomaniac, she fought against being the fade-out on Sunset Boulevard.
The failed marriages (there were four and three were particularly irrational), the facelifts, her failure at being a mother (she spent her life being the breadwinner, as she angrily tells her daughter), her fight to retain her commercial viability in the sleazy world of commercial popular music, all of this took a toll. But it is a mistake to see her, as she neared her end, as the mad hag in the bedroom, covered with blankets, with a mind beclouded by fantasies. She may not have succeeded as well as she would have liked against that end, but there was something both heroic and inspiring in her struggle, in her persistent belief in her artistry, which won her the worship of every serious woman singer who came after, from Petula Clark and Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to Bette Midler and Jane Monheit and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She never thought in any Norma Desmond-like way that popular music had gotten too small for her. Rather she became frustrated that the world came to see less and less the multitude of popular music that she contained, and that she was striving to get even more of. No song captured her existential fright and fight better than her last hit single, Stroller and Lieber’s ironic homage to the futility of life, “Is That All There Is?”
Frank Sinatra, her good friend, and occasional lover, conducted the music for one of her best mid-1950s albums, The Man I Love. He knew she was a great singer and perhaps a genius too. And she was certainly, as she acknowledged about herself, nobody’s coward. She never let her lapses, her embarrassments, her excesses, her sheer foolishness stand in the way of her determination to be a great musician above all else. That deserves unconditional admiration.