Adoring tribute to the pop diva who sang it `softly with feeling'

Review Biography


Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee

Peter Richmond

Henry Holt / 449 pages / $30

Defining moments are hard to identify in a musical career as long and storied as Peggy Lee's, but hers may have come in 1939 while fronting a band called the Guadalajara Trio in Palm Springs. In the audience were Jack Benny and his entourage, whose lively chatter tempted Lee to sing louder and louder in order to be heard.

But her voice frayed, losing its essential core. It was then that she discovered, in her words, "the power of softness."

"The more noise they made, the more softly I sang," Lee says in Peter Richmond's engrossing but sometimes fawning biography, Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee.

"When they discovered they couldn't hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, `Softly, with feeling.' The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience - softly, with feeling."

Lee's signature softness, and her tendency to sing behind the beat and at a tempo that was beyond relaxed, imbued practically everything she sang. These traits lent a unique quality to the big-band hits she recorded during her 20-month stint with Benny Goodman in the 1930s, as well as small-band swing tunes, torch songs and the semiautobiographical compositions that made her one of the most personal artists ever to grace jazz and pop.

Much of this, perhaps, derived from a childhood in Depression-era North Dakota, where her alcoholic father worked as a railroad station engineer and she imagined following the tracks wherever they went. Escape seemed appealing to a shy girl who fell under the yoke of a heartless stepmother - "obese and strong as a horse," in Lee's words - who beat and belittled her.

Lee's voice became her ticket out. By her teens, she landed a gig with a Fargo radio station singing with local groups like the Georgie Porgie Breakfast Food Boys. She also filed musical scores, a task that helped her become, as Richmond writes, "an amateur scholar of the Great American Songbook."

Some of Richmond's best prose comes in his lyrical descriptions of Lee's early career, which she spent crisscrossing the Midwest to cities that must have seemed like cultural oases.

"The Minneapolis that greeted Peggy Lee was a city of worldliness and style," Richmond writes. "The fragrance that rode the north wind down Nicollet Avenue was redolent not of cattle, but of the exhaust of taxis and the electric ozone scent of the streetcars that delivered dancers to the doors of the Marigold Ballroom, where jitterbuggers did their best to bring credence to the Ballroom's famous sign: `Never Grow Old Dancing at the Marigold.'"

Richmond tells a fascinating tale of the singer's rise to stardom, which culminated with monster hits in the 1950s including "Fever" and "Is that All There Is?" and interior albums such as Black Coffee that lay somewhere between jazz and pop.

Though endowed with a sharp intelligence, she drifted into hypochondria and a perverse love of medical procedures, and developed a penchant for garish houses and on-stage theatrics like singing to a male dummy.

She also developed a curious pattern of passing out on stage and in rehearsal, prompting an exasperated Count Basie to turn down the chance to split $500,000 with her for a 10-theater tour in the 1970s.

Lee was married three times, initially to guitarist Dave Barbour, who was the love of her life but also a difficult alcoholic. The two had a daughter, Nicki, whom Lee raised solo after her divorce and often took on tour.

"They'd create their own world - pillows, ashtrays, pictures," Richmond writes of their time in hotel rooms. "If there wasn't a kitchen, and there usually wasn't, they'd turn bathrooms into kitchens and take along electric frying pans and hot plates so they could cook regular meals."

Lee, who sang until she was 75 and died at 81 in January 2002, became one of the most highly paid artists in pop music. In her last few decades as a performer, she sang some odd novelty songs but often returned to her jazz roots and took on ambitious projects, such as an album of previously unreleased songs by Harold Arlen.

Undermining the book is Richmond's at-times unchecked admiration of an artist he believes shared a pantheon with Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and none other.

He takes passing swipes at Ella Fitzgerald, who he says "was never sure what it was she was singing," and Lena Horne, whom he calls a "wondrous talent" who nonetheless projected "unapproachable soul." And he pays backhand tribute to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O'Day, whom he calls "brilliant" but "limited" in ways Lee was not.

These are arguable points but, unexplained, they come across as overzealous attempts to hoist Lee above stars with signature sounds all their own. Miss Peggy Lee may or may not suit one's taste, but her legacy is secure, no matter the greatness of others.

Jonathan Bor covers medicine for The Sun and writes about books related to music.

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