Around 1990, when I worked at a weekly newspaper, I liked to listen to a local oldies Am radio station while I designed the layouts. The station, which is now defunct, played American standards and jazz—think Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and Peggy Lee (above c. 1956). My dad would listen to a similar oldies station while driving his car, when I was a kid, so that music is very comforting to me.
One day, on a lark, I called the radio station when they announced a trivia question to win a pair of tickets to see Peggy Lee in concert. I don’t remember what the trivia question was, but I won those tickets!
I queried my friends to find someone to accompany me to the show—either they weren’t interested in seeing Peggy Lee, or had previous plans (the Folsom Fair was the same day as the concert). I ended up going to the show by myself, and had to take a bus for about 45 minutes, to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, out in the suburbs of San Francisco.
The bus was running late, and I was worried I would miss the beginning of the show—and there was no warm-up act. I walked into the theater, which was a tiered half-circle with maybe 1000 seats—and it was less than half full. I couldn't believe it—I thought it would be sold out. The audience was a mix: dressed-up older couples, some gay men, a handful of hipster kids, and a couple of drag queens. The band, about 10 or 12 guys, came out on stage and began warming-up. Then the lights dimmed and a male voice boomed over the sound system, “Ladies and gentlemen—Miss Peggy Lee.”
Above: Peggy Lee in her dressing room, before a show, c. 1990.
A spotlight appeared on the side of the stage...and Miss Lee was in a wheel chair, being pushed out to the center of the stage, by an assistant. It was rather surreal—and just a few yards away from where I was sitting. She was wearing a sparkly sequined outfit with her signature platinum wig, and a large sparkly rhinestone decoration (brooch?) on top of her hair...and a huge bunch of balloons fastened to the handles of her wheelchair. She was sparkling like firecracker, and brought the whole theater to life.
She took the microphone and looked out at all of the empty seats and said, “How about everyone squeeze in, and come closer.” So everyone crowded together down in the front section, and she began her first song. I literally had goose bumps hearing this legend perform! Like a good wine, her voice had aged, but was still wonderful—and thousands of times better than many young pop songbirds today.
Above: I'm a woman, with Johnny Cash.
She sang all of her hits and many cover songs: Fever, Manana, I’m a Woman, and my favorite—Is That All There Is? Between songs, she told stories and chatted with the audience, and even allowed the audience to ask questions.
Tony Bennett said, "Peggy Lee was the female Frank Sinatra...she was the epitome of popular jazz singing and a wonderful songwriter as well." Quoted from the Chicago Tribune, 1/23/02
What a performer! This lady with panache entertained us for almost 3 hours, and was so charming, funny and warm. At the time, she was involved in a lawsuit with Disney (they ripped her off for the songwriter royalties for the song, Lady and the Tramp), but still made funny references to the case, without naming names.
k.d. lang said, "She represents an era that is leaving us, one where vocals were king, and I honestly can't think of a better vocalist in that jazz-pop crooning style. What made her so good was that she interpreted and delivered songs with such a complex and dense range of emotions." Quoted from Time magazine, 1/27/02
Peggy Lee was a Gemini, born on May 26, 1920. This elegant and glamorous woman was a singer, songwriter, composer and actress. I can’t even begin to list all of the hits and professional accolades this girl from a small town in North Dakota achieved in her 60-year career.
To learn more about Miss Peggy Lee's amazing life and career, be sure to stop by the official Peggy Lee website, or read a book about this American icon. If you don’t have some Peggy Lee in your music collection, buy a cd today....make yourself a Casanova Cocktail and sit down and listen to it this weekend!
I feel very fortunate that I was able to see this icon perform live in my lifetime. She passed away in 2002. Mr. Peacock salutes this fellow Gemini—Miss Peggy Lee!