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29 march 2006

Peter Richmond's new biography of Peggy Lee, Fever, is a briskly-written, entertaining look at one of the sadder and hollower lives in American show business. Richmond's book is often at odds with itself. It is chipper, adulatory, relentlessly upbeat; at the same time, it is quite open about the self-inflicted misery that characterized the singer's life.

I saw Peggy Lee only once, in the late 1980s at the Ballroom in Manhattan. The music was tremendous (I remember Lee swinging, unannounced, into the Donaldson/Kahn song "Love Me Or Leave Me," to my complete delight). The nightclub experience as a whole was, as I'd expected, weird and wonderful. Peggy Lee live, by her late 60s, was like a sequence of mirrors reflecting someone who might or might not have been there. She was impersonating Miss Peggy Lee impersonating Miss Peggy Lee, which to begin with was a style, though highly distinctive, that was built on carefully studied, arch impersonations and parodies of other singers and styles. She was a little Billie Holiday and a little Maxine Sullivan and a little Lee Wiley, and to make matters more complicated, she had been in her day a much bigger star than any of them, with a far more indelible stage image.

At several points in Fever, Richmond asserts that Peggy Lee was direct and personal in her music and in performance. But the reader also keeps getting the feeling that she was anything but. Great lyric stylists may seem to utter a song directly into a listener's soul, but you also have to remember that they're doing two shows a night for the next three weeks.

Marlene Dietrich puts it best in a comment she made to songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, interviewed by Richmond for Fever. The composers were looking for someone to record their unusual song "Is That All There Is?" They played it for Dietrich, who was appreciative but didn't want the song. Why not? Dietrich replied:

Have you ever seen me perform in person? . . . Because if you had seen me in person you'd know that that song is who I am. Not what I do. (303)

No matter who Peggy Lee was, "Is That All There Is?" is what she did. Her greatest recording hit, the song became her signature, and became for her fans something they demanded to hear and demanded that she distance herself from at the same time. (At the Ballroom in 1988, she interrupted the first verse with little campy asides about how the firemen were not particularly interested in firefighting, but were probably off drinking beer somewhere. Richmond quotes other examples of self-guying in Lee's nightclub renditions of the song. They always seemed fresh, when set against the tune everyone had heard a million times, but in reality even the camping of the song must have become hackneyed for her. Iconic status is a risky business.)

Richmond, in fact, gets through 411 pages on the life of Peggy Lee without (to my recollection) using the term "camp," which strains credulity. She was one of the inventors of the mode, if not of the term. Everything about Miss Peggy Lee was in quotation marks. And everything about her was fabulous, including the fact that she was so deeply conscious of her own camp.

Richmond's biography, however, is deeply earnest. Much of the earnestness is merited. Lee's life seems to have been a odd mélange of casualness and deep commitment. She drank heavily – which explains, perhaps, why she was casual about serious things (like her last three marriages) and committed to seemingly minor things (like stray details in her rehearsals and shows). Probably beaten by her stepmother, Lee (born Norma Egstrom in North Dakota) had a rough childhood, but no rougher than many others on the Depression-era prairie. She would later work a maudlin self-pity about that childhood, crusted in acid at times, into the texture of "Is That All There Is?" and many another bleak ballad.

The resulting body of work is among the most enjoyable in American popular music. I have to demur, though, when Richmond says that Lee belongs on a "Rushmore" of jazz/pop singing along with three others (Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby). I am an utterly devoted Peggy Lee fan, but to be honest, her work seems to complement greater talents. Richmond is smitten with Lee's songwriting, which is very creditable and often memorable but hardly a major achievement. (I sense that she always wanted to be a star, not a songwriter.) One associates Peggy Lee with a (healthy) handful of intriguing pop songs that never quite worked for other people: "Mañana," "Golden Earrings," "Fever," "I'm a Woman." She made great parodies of hits; her "Mack the Knife" is a classic, done in a standoffish, growly whisper that perfectly deflates more hyper versions. She also made definitive recordings of a narrow range of carefully-selected standards: "Lover," "Black Coffee," "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," and "There's a Small Hotel."

But seriously, if there's going to be a jazz/pop Rushmore, Miss Peggy has to get in the girls' line behind Holiday, Wiley, Sullivan, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and June Christy. And Ella's at the head of the class. If Peggy Lee could match Ella Fitzgerald for stage presence, you have to remember that Lee had only a fraction of Ella's range (in many senses of the word).

Peggy Lee was above all a brilliant nightclub performer. I don't think I'll ever see anything to compare to her. Part of the value of Peter Richmond's biography is to try to convey the special genius of live performance. It's an art that will never die and will by definition never be preserved in recordings. Reading about it is the next best thing to having been there.

Richmond, Peter. Fever: The life and music of Miss Peggy Lee. New York: Henry Holt, 2006.