By Brian Arsenault
Elton John had Marilyn Monroe but I had Peggy Lee. Miss Peggy Lee, pardon. No, I didn’t write a song for her but she did a song for me. Not really for me but maybe . . .
I was 11 or 12 when I first heard “Fever” in 1959 and it gave me a whole new, shall I say, feeling about girls. I was beginning to notice they were different in more things than hair and giggles but “Fever” was a revelation, even if I wasn’t quite sure yet what was being revealed.
As Don Heckman has written, she had so many strengths as a singer: deep sensuality, phrasing at a level only achieved by a handful of greats like Francis Albert and Mr. Bennett, and also like them, the ability to find the emotional center of the song.
An example of another artist finding the emotional center of a song: I was only recently reminded that Sinatra didn’t sing “Luck Be a Lady” in the film version of Guys and Dolls even though he was in it. (So was Brando, sheesh) Yet the song became a signature for Frank who showed it wasn’t really about shooting craps but seeking love. He found the center.
Peggy made “Fever” her own even though a guy named Little Willie John had an r&b hit with it that even crossed over to the pop charts. Still it’s like it was written for her. The song’s been recorded by who knows how many since Peggy, by performers as varied as Madonna and Beyonce, even Elvis. But does anyone doubt its Peg’s song.
Backed by just drum and bass, she just kills it with that deep voice you might have wished your girlfried had, with her funny fake Shakesperean take on the Romeo and Juliet verse, with a restrained eroticism that is almost palpable.
Miss Peggy Lee was singing professionally as an early teen. She fled a wicked stepmother and started by singing on a radio station literally for food. By 17 she was established as a radio singer. By 20 she was fronting the Benny Goodman band. At 21, she wrote “What More Can a Woman Do?” recorded by Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
If I put exclamation points at the end of each sentence in the previous paragraph it would not have been misplaced punctuation. And I almost never use exclamation points. She was just getting started, one of the few survivors of the big band era whose career flourished into the 1950s and 60s and beyond.
Her early 60s appearance at the Basin Street East, mercifully preserved on a great album, just dazzles with its array of songs: “Day In -Day Out,” “The Second Time Around,” “Moments Like This,” “Them There Eyes,” and of course “Fever.” Hear her versions on the album and you don’t need any others. Consider also the limitations of live recordings, any recordings, in 1961 compared to today’s digital, if rather frozen, age.
If you can get a vinyl copy you will know why. On the cover, Peggy smiles to the side, the dress low on her shoulders, an earring dangles. Simply dazzling. And then you listen and dazzling isn’t enough to say.
As an aside, I also love the message on the back of the album below the liner notes:
“This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on Monophonic and Stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. (Italics mine).” Damn right.
Her gifts were enormous. She was a songwriter for the Disney animated film Lady and the Tramp, a cartoon feature done with a loveliness unknown today. She also did four of the voices, from the lovely Lady to those nasty Siamese cats. I have never been able to warm up to a Siamese since and I kinda like cats.
Peggy also wrote songs with luminaries like Duke Ellington. She wrote TV scripts. She hosted variety shows. She acted in movies. She wrote poetry.
Her last big hit was in 1970 with “Is That All There Is?” Could there possibly be another hit song ever with lyrics taken from a Thomas Mann story? The band on the song was conducted by Randy Newman. Anyone else’s singing career span from Goodman to Newman?
She was in great demand right into the 1980s when failing health finally took its toll. She’d had a near fatal fall in Vegas some years before and came near death again with heart disease and surgery.
Yet she carried on into the 90s when she even performed a few times in a wheelchair. Now that could break your heart, eh?
Miss Peggy Lee died in 2002 having risen above enormous life challenges and changes in popular music tastes over so many decades. But if she’d only ever done “Fever” she’d be great to me.