Prologue: White Night
The Half Note was dark, Coltrane uncharacteristically silent. Birdland was battened down. Buddy Rich and his boys had taken a one-night holiday. Lonely chords serenaded the empty rink at Rockefeller Center, not a single skater to hear them. On this February evening in 1961, the blizzard of the century had all but locked the great city down. The silence of a foot and a half of newly fallen snow had blanketed the island from river to river. An edict from Mayor Robert Wagner had swept all but essential vehicles from the streets. Bars, restaurants, shops—everything was shuttered; most of the town's famously bright lights were extinguished. Hardly a sound could be heard in the muffled night, save the winter wind whipping from alley to alley.
Hardly a soul could be glimpsed on Manhattan Island, except for the intrepid pedestrians gathering in the immediate vicinity of East Forty-eighth Street and Lexington Avenue, where the most elegant of parades was making its way through the blowing flakes and the gathering drifts. Laughing couples seductively attired in minks and tuxedos, giddy revelers swathed in mufflers and mittens, all hurried through the glow of streetlights, braving the wind, lured by an unseen gravitational pull toward what was, on this singular evening, the city's undisputed nexus. The long, rarely silent, and usually smoky room was known as the nightclub of nightclubs, and despite the climate's extreme hostility, people packed the space—wall to wall, table to table, knee to knee, stranger to stranger—as if all the energy of old New York, banished from the streets, had been channeled and gathered into this single place, for one single night, one single show.
They had come to catch her fever. They had come to bask in her cool. They had come to Basin Street East to hear the Queen. That's what Ellington had ordained her: "If I'm the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen." The New Yorker, describing this particular engagement in typically omniscient style, had settled simply for calling her "practically the hub of the universe," drawing no argument from the cognoscenti. At any rate, the semantics were irrelevant. No one in Basin Street needed convincing. The only phrases that mattered on this night were melodic—jazzed, bluesy, heartbroken, hopeful—and all absolutely American. And the woman who could sing them all, from the classic phrasings of the standard popular songbook to adventurous melodies out on the rhythmic fringe, and everything in between—was about to seize the small, empty stage and claim the whole magical New York night as her very own.
There was never a question that the show would go on. Even with the weather wreaking havoc, nothing could have waylaid the faithful. With delivery trucks banned from the streets, the club's publicist had enlisted local schoolkids to scour nearby grocery stores for all the provisions they could load onto their sleds. For this evening's show, the guests would feed on impromptu cuisine and fuel themselves on a more limited range than usual of their favorite cocktails—as if to prove the Richard Rodgers dictum that our need for melody is as strong as our need for sustenance. The club held 340 people, legally. On this occasion, it would accommodate nearly twice as many. As the listeners shook off the snow and settled into the cramped confines, the low murmur of anticipation became a rising undercurrent. On this night, instead of the usual three shows, she'd be doing just one. This crowd would be hearing everything the woman had to offer.
They were here because no one would dare miss any occasion to see the undisputed female champion of pop-jazz at the top of her game, in a city and time where beat and Beat were almost interchangeable. Down on Washington Square a handwritten sign stuck to a snow-covered fence read: "Be Abstract." But unlike Kerouac, Pollock, Ferlinghetti, and all of their friends in the avant-garde, Peggy Lee, on February 4, 1961, was not out on the fringe looking in, railing at the soullessness of it all. After years of feeling herself the outsider, she had reached the top of her game and was finally enshrined inside the big room of fame where the lights burned late and her ballads and jazz and rhythm and blues spanning every emotion reached every kind of listener, from martinied-up suburban types to the visiting jazzmen and players who had come to pay homage, to tap the tiny tables as her informal accompaniment, nodding Yes. Yes.
The roster of faces in the crowd during her four-week stint at Basin Street that winter would say all that had to be said about her peers' regard for her status in the pop pantheon. Making the pilgrimage to East Forty-eighth Street were Ray Charles and Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. (Garland once called Peggy her favorite girl singer.) Then there were Cary Grant, Jimmy Durante, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Crawford, Art Carney, Louis Armstrong, and a young arranger named Quincy Jones. (Tony Bennett called late one night after a gig in Detroit, hoping for a seat at the 2:30 a.m. show.) None would have thought of missing out on this engagement, not at this time, in this era when popular jazz singing was not only a craft but an art of the highest order, a universal language that touched the hopes and longings of a generation of American dreamers.
The crowd wasn't privy to her preshow rituals: first, the physical transformation from woman to Stage Presence. (One night in the elevator up to the hotel room where the singer would make up, do her hair, and don the gown, a stranger asked, "Are you Peggy Lee?" Her answer: "Not yet, I'm not.") Then came the hugging and kissing of the musicians, for good luck. Then the healthy slug of cognac, from a large glass, followed by a drink of cool water—not just for the rush of energy, but for the added release the alcohol brought, the little bit of extra freedom. For every show had to be special—they expected no less of her, and she demanded no less of herself. An element of unpredictability could only add to the mystery. She wanted to seduce them all. She wanted them to hear each word, and feel every emotion that lay behind it. She wanted perfection. She needed perfection.
Then, as the band set up out front, she said a quiet, intimate prayer behind the curtain. Now the musicians launched into the brassy intro: a medley comprising a few measures each of Peggy's standards, a signature string of great sounds—a snatch of a chorus from one of her original hits with Benny Goodman, a melody line from one of her own compositions from the forties, a measure of a memorable bridge from the glorious early fifties, a lilt from some recent swingy triumph.
Then came the voice offstage: "Ladies and gentlemen, Basin Street East takes great pleasure in welcoming . . . Miss Peggy Lee." Behind the curtain, she'd let out a scream—just loud enough to start her own engine—and stamp her foot, once. Then she'd yank open the curtain and step into the light.
And there she was: an hourglassed platinum doll, forty years old, shrouded in a metaphoric glow, an aura she had earned, step by step, from her first, unlikely low-down blues hit for Goodman in 1942 to the hypnotic finger-snapping "Fever" a few years back—and a whole lot of everything in between: an Oscar nomination; a turn doing the voices for a couple of Siamese cats in a Disney animated feature; the mambo-and-sex-soaked "Lover," which made it to the top three on the charts. Not to mention Black Coffee, the jazz-vocal album that had raised the pop-jazz bar to unheard-of heights.
But just as obvious as her celebrity on this night was her sensuality, a confection of cosmetics, jewelry, and hairstyle, of glance and wink and half smile, that spoke as much of illusion as it did of authentic female. Her appearance told more than a few half-truths. She was the image of glamour and independence, but there was something artificial about the strength she displayed beneath the lights, for with three failed marriages and another broken Hollywood romance already behind her, the music increasingly defined her whole world. Her artistry had risen from a childhood without real family, and by now her audience and her public had become a very large part of what sustained her. Her nightclub theatricality was as spectacular as her art, but the elaborate gowns and masquerade could not conceal the vulnerability beneath. At this crossroads of her life she found her love in those who crowded the clubs from coast to coast.
The applause had not yet died when she plunged into her opener, "Day In, Day Out," a rollicking jazz-infused arrangement of a Bloom-Mercer standard she'd recorded just that week, and immediately she had the place hooked. Her notes rushed and leaped, insistent, playing with the beat, moving behind it, shadowing it, toying with it. The horns swung a high-speed brassy subtext. The pace was breakneck; in their adrenaline rush to get the thing going, the band and the singer nearly outran themselves right out of the gate. The opening number was finished in a minute and forty-five seconds.
"Thank you—thank you very much," she said—just breathily enough. A knowing smile passed across her lips and her eyes darted off to the side. It was the coy, flirtatious expression that would ride her features all evening long, suggesting that something was being mysteriously withheld. She always kept some secrets behind the curtain, even when she insisted otherwise; even when she was exchanging giggles and laughing at double entendres and she and the crowd were meeting halfway, in perfect harmony; even when she confided about the cold she felt coming on: "See? I tell you everything." It was a ruse, though; she never confided more than just enough.
The rest of this show fell into place exactly as she had choreographed it, song by song, so that the moods balanced perfectly between highs and lows, and every rhythm, every genre, had its say. "Call Me Darling" brought scattered laughter at the mention in the lyrics of the word "affair." "The Most Beautiful Man in the World" evoked a late-night-to-dawn jam, and she stretched the beat to mirror the flights of the band's solos. This much was constant: No matter what the rhythm of the song, her body moved as if being guided, as if the notes were caressing her. But there was no mistaking who was running the show. Beneath all the artifice, beneath the glamorous mocha gown and the lacquered nails and the sequins that caught the glint of the lights, she was in complete control—of every note, of every pause. Her pianist and conductor Joe Harnell responded to a single lifted finger, to a single lifted eyebrow. Her bassist Max Bennett, entrusted with the beat, was on high alert to her every physical nuance. The multiple lighting cues in every song came neither a second too early nor a second too late.
When she wove her way through the melancholy languor of Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "The Second Time Around"—one of the most lush and heartfelt of all her ballads, it sounded like a Shakespearean soliloquy—she was completely in the moment, measure by measure, tone by tone, syllable by syllable. So utterly given over to the song was she that to disturb the spell would have been to risk a fissure in the universe. By now, anyone who had begun the evening sitting back had unconsciously shimmied forward, hypnotized. Her midsong pauses and silences brought an answering silence out in the room: not a knife scraped a plate, not a cigarette was stubbed out, not a chair was dragged, not even an inch. It would have been like coughing in church.
Her rendition of "Fever" was liquid, all slow drips of honey; she brought the audience to her, entwined and entrapped it, note by note, with the gestures of a single hand, a single snap of the fingers against Bennett's thumping stand-up bass. Then she turned the room loose again with brassy, polytonal high jazz: Ellington's "I'm Gonna Go Fishin' " with the lyrics she'd written at Ellington's request. The music mounted and mounted, key change by key change, the horns going octave, the arrangement turning almost anarchic. But she would never lose sight of the melody. She never did.
Her tribute-medley of songs recorded by Ray Charles—a man for whom she held extraordinary admiration—offered a taste of everything, from the slow, sultry, dazzlingly cool "Just for a Thrill" to the galloping "I Got a Man" to a raucous, hip version of Sy Oliver's "Yes Indeed!" On this last one, with a wide smile on her face, she seemed to offer an affirmation of just about everything that this night, this world, this life could possibly have to offer.
It was over as quickly as it began. The show spanned less than an hour and a half. The final ovation lasted for several minutes, and at last her audience reluctantly trudged out to the sidewalks, where they were met by horse-drawn sleds summoned by the club, the perfect finish to an evening of New York romance in an era that still believed in the possibility of enchantment.
And she? Her night was hardly done. The music was over, leaving a space she would rush to fill. The late, late hours were those she would always call her own, and she would surround herself with company. She could never bear to be alone. And so, again, picture another curious parade on another Basin Street evening, after one particular late show. Picture another odd assembly of souls, this time not out on the sidewalks but in a hallway of the luxurious Waldorf Towers apartments, outside her very own door. The elevator bell pinged, the doors slid open. Out spilled the singer and some of her friends: Cary Grant, Sammy Davis, Jr., Art Carney. But before she turned the key in the door, she indulged a sudden whim. She ordered them all to the floor. "Lie on your backs," she told them. "Now put your head on the stomach of the person lying next to you." And they did.
"Now say 'Ha.' "
"Ha," said one. "Ha, ha," said the next. And within seconds they'd convulsed in laughter. No doubt, had the elevator opened again, the sight would have been hard for a stranger to explain, this cluster of celebrities playing a Cheeveresque suburban-living-room party game—unless our observer understood that on this night, the woman in the beaded dress, after a lifetime of using her pain to create her art, was finally in command of her own universe, as well as ours.
During the two decades when popular music spoke a universal language, Peggy Lee's star blazed brightly. She sang the Great American Songbook, flavored by jazz and blues and swing and pop and bop and Latin and soul. The music and the culture would soon change, and when the lights finally dimmed, she would be increasingly lost in the darkness. But in a time when art still shaped our popular media, from writing to film to music, she reigned supreme. It was not a time, as now, when "popular" and "disposable" were interchangeable terms. It was a brief, never-to-be-revisited era when popular novels were also literary and enduring, when popular movies were crafted and inspired and lasting. When music had meaning and resonance. The cultural chaos and cacophony that have ensued have done much to obscure the soft brilliance of this particular past. But artistically, it was a golden age in America, and Peggy Lee was in its pantheon—not only as a singer but as a lyricist, and not only a lyricist but a lyricist whose poetry spoke worlds. A Peggy Lee lyric told a story, felt a feeling. She was one of the first important female singer-songwriters, and several of her hits were her own compositions. Few other songstresses of the time could make such a claim.
At the time of her Basin Street triumph, she'd had five recent albums in the top twenty, an annual salary ten times Mickey Mantle's, album sales of many millions. She was a given. She was an icon. She was a cultural emblem in a culture that had not yet radically changed. She wasn't one of our girls, like Rosemary Clooney or Dinah Shore or Patti Page or Doris Day; there was more richness to her, more complexity, more undercurrents that couldn't quite be controlled. Ella, of course, was widely held to rule the pop-jazz roost, but she was never quite able to bring a true broken-heart ballad to the depths of the soul that Peggy could. She wasn't Billie, or Sarah, or Anita—all of them brilliant in some ways, but limited in others. She had some of all of them in her, but she was a great deal more. She was singular. No one occupied Peggy Lee's place, because only one woman could: platinum-pretty, but beholden to no one. Perky and bouncy, but genuinely soulful and world-weary, and resigned.
Musically? She was possessed of nothing less than extraordinary intonation and perfect time—so much so that many of her musicians and collaborators regularly use the word "genius" to describe her innate musical skills. Her personality? Forever in discord. Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, a child of the Depression Great Plains, shy and insecure, she had gradually blossomed—on the surface—into another lady entirely. But the glittering, seductive façade only hid, never erased, the girl beneath, and it was the interplay of the two that produced the woman's art.
"She had an image to uphold," the producer of one of her final albums says. "The dichotomy, I think, was between that girl in North Dakota who she never stopped being, and Miss Peggy Lee, whom she invented and became. Once I asked her if Norma Deloris Egstrom was still there in her. She said yes. I think that was the whole thing about Peggy Lee. The dichotomy between the two."
Peggy Lee was not in a class by herself. There were three others who shared her particular greatness. Armstrong, Crosby, Sinatra, Lee—these are the faces on the Mount Rushmore of American pop, the greatest generation of American music, singing at the height of an era when the American Songbook was the expression of the national heart and soul.
Others sang the songs, of course—countless others, and often brilliantly—but these were the four who perfected an art form now lost to mainstream history—now filed, in a fringe wing of our cultural archives, under "popular jazz singing," which was one of American music's truest contributions. If jazz was our nation's invention, our absolutely original music, it was popular jazz singing whose lyrics and melodic sentiments reached us all and embodied America's dreams of romance, dreams we can no longer even imagine. Peggy and the three men who were truly her peers were the voices of our lost American innocence, of sweetness and gentleness, of longing and melancholy, but always of the rightness of things. They were the artists entrusted with expressing the yearnings and desires of an entire culture. No less than that generation of distinctly American writers, they were given a mandate to tell a nation's tale.
History has told us all we need to know about the three men, and more. Their legends live on not only because they lived in a time when men ran the legend-making machinery, but because each had extraordinary talents layered with an unforgettable image. Louis Armstrong brought jazz to the pop mainstream in a tempered manner and entertaining guise that, at the time, we could understand and easily accept from a black man. Bing Crosby brought the gift of a vocal instrument without equal, along with a paternal demeanor, to a country that once admired him more than any other man alive. And Sinatra brought a taste of solo swagger to his swing; as a man, his attitude could be countenanced and embraced and revered in the spirit of the Great American Individualist Pioneer.
History has told us very little of the woman. The musicians know of her stature, of course. But when the music changed and rock altered the landscape, her art had difficulty adapting in the popular eye. Neither could her image adapt. And nor could she. When our dreams died—our hopes for a house on the hill, our certainty that our train would always arrive to carry us forward to the next place, the place where we'd find what we were searching for—her dreams died, too. She grew old, and not always gracefully. For too many years, we forgot her and overlooked what she had achieved as an artist.
Now it is time to remember, and celebrate, and enjoy anew, one of the greatest female singers of that American century, and the music that animated an entire land. It is time to come to know, for the first time, Miss Peggy Lee.
Copyright © 2006 by Peter Richmond
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.