[I wrote this book review for the essential Beige website earlier this summer. I’m posting it here too for posterity. I know from when I used to write for alternative arts and culture Nude magazine, online articles can sometimes vanish over time]
Author James Gavin has previously written absorbing biographies of twentieth century jazz luminaries like Chet Baker and Lena Horne. In his latest effort he focuses on definitive sultry blonde torch singer Peggy Lee (1920 – 2002).
As with his earlier subjects Gavin writes with precision and eloquence about their artistry and the qualities that made them unique. For Lee, it was her trademark alluring cool restraint and ultra-minimalism. Vocally she conveyed maximum emotional (and erotic) impact with little more than a smoky, languid murmur (“a tough purr,” Gavin calls it “... that kicked open the bedroom door”). Without ever resorting to wailing, belting or breaking a sweat, Lee – arguably the great white jazz seductress of the last century - could be alternately soulful, sensual, bluesy, melancholy or swinging. Her primary vocal influences were the intimate, effortless conversational styling of Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday. (According to Gavin, the latter actively resented the younger white upstart scoring hits from her songbook and getting rich in the process. “She stole every goddamn thing I sing,” Holiday reportedly grumbled). Presentation-wise, Lee emulated her idol Marlene Dietrich (flattering and dramatic onstage lighting, glittering sequinned gowns).
Reading Gavin’s insightful analysis, you find yourself yearning to re-visit Lee’s definitive musical statements like the finger-snapping “Fever”, the swirling Latin exotica of “Lover”(which Lee attacked “like a panther in heat”), “Johnny Guitar”, “I’m a Woman” (“a feminist anthem with a stripper beat”), “Black Coffee” and the supremely world-weary “Is That All There Is?”
But let’s face it, Beige readers like a bit of sensationalism and Gavin doesn’t disappoint: the gossip here is juicy. Gavin is exceptionally good on the neuroses, addictions and personal demons that drove the anguished musicians he writes about. His descriptions of the ageing and increasingly dysfunctional and self-destructive Lee’s twilight years ensconced in the darkened bedroom of her Hollywood mansion are almost eerie, verging on Sunset Boulevard or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? territory.
Lee’s serene and glamorous show business mask concealed a troubled, anxious and insecure woman. Onstage and on record her trademark persona was misty, mellow and slightly boozy. In fact Lee typically took to the concert stage benumbed and floating on a cloud of intoxicants. As Gavin reveals, this glazed-over, dreamy and detached demeanour was at least partly a side effect of the industrial quantities of cognac and later the tranquilisers Lee used to calm her nerves. (Valium. Seconal. Quaaludes – Lee popped ‘em all, Valley of the Dolls-style). “The queen of self-medication”, one of Lee’s retinue calls her. (Like all self-respecting divas, Lee went everywhere surrounded by an entourage. When crossed she could be vicious towards her employees).
In terms of myriad spectacular health crises (both real and psychosomatic) Lee’s only rival was Elizabeth Taylor. She loved to regale journalists with a litany of her illnesses and operations. (In the index at the end of Is That All There Is?, there is a separate lengthy sub-section devoted to “medical issues of PL”). Also like Taylor, Lee struggled with her weight. She had always lived with a commitment to old-school Hollywood glamour. As she aged and grew increasingly corpulent, that sensibility eventually tipped-over into unintended high camp. Multiple cosmetic surgery procedures left Lee’s face weirdly taut and expressionless. In fact, she underwent so many facelifts her hairline deeply receded (her hair had already thinned due to years of bleaching); Lee compensated with towering ringlet-festooned bouffant wigs that looked spun from meringue.
From the sixties onwards Lee gradually resembled a blowsy brothel madam or a drag queen imitating Mae West. It’s this fleshy and mature baroque Peggy Lee of the immobile face and forgiving diaphanous caftans that nightclub female impersonators like Jim Bailey and Craig Russell embraced – and reportedly was the inspiration for Miss Piggy of The Muppets, whose original full name was “Miss Piggy Lee” until Lee understandably objected.
And yet in Gavin’s compassionate account Lee ultimately emerges as a durable and tenacious survivor – albeit a wobbly, deeply-flawed and fallible one. Lee may have frequently been a temperamental pain in the ass, but no one disputed her talent. No matter how tormented her life offstage, Lee never lost the ability to mesmerise an audience. Perennially unlucky in love, she channelled her romantic disappointment into her music. A restless and uncompromising control freak, she fought her record labels for creative autonomy and challenged the Disney empire when she felt short-changed over royalties for the songs she composed for the 1955 Lady and The Tramp soundtrack. Long before the era of the singer-songwriter made it commonplace Lee frequently wrote her own lyrics. More than most of her pre-rock contemporaries, she strove to challenge herself and remain modern and relevant into the turbulent youth-dominated music scene of the sixties and seventies by covering contemporary pop hits - even though she received scant acclaim for it at the time and it alienated her conservative older fans. In the tradition of Edith Piaf, her passionate drive to sing saw Lee determinedly continuing to perform well into old age long after she was physically ailing and confined to a wheelchair. In her youth Lee endured hostile audiences, demanding bandleaders and the kind of tough, grit-building setbacks and indignities it’s difficult to imagine today’s performers tolerating. All examples of the iron will that propelled the former Norma Deloris Egstrom, a round-faced and nondescript farm girl from hardscrabble Depression-era rural North Dakota into the upper echelons of the music industry.
Reese Witherspoon is reportedly in negotiation with Lee’s family to make a Peggy Lee biopic. Certainly Lee’s life and career warrant the kind of deluxe film treatment already afforded Johnny Cash, Ray Charles and Piaf. It will be interesting to see if the filmmakers do justice to the complex and volatile Peggy Lee.
Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin [£19.99 hardback available now. Simon & Schuster UK]
Bonus material: Gavin makes a persuasive argument that Peggy Lee’s great unsung masterpiece is Mirrors, her 1975 album of art-y, twisted dark neo-cabaret songs. It absolutely bombed on initial release both critically and commercially, but has since been reappraised as a "lost" cult album. Certainly the mysterious “The Case of M J” – which sounds like an off-kilter nursery rhyme or lullaby – must be the eeriest and most disturbed / disturbing thing Lee ever recorded. In her most benumbed and deadpan voice, Lee seems to be describing the psyche of a mental patient or childhood abuse victim. It’s genuinely spine-tingling and David Lynch-ian. Once heard, never forgotten. “How old were you when your father went away? How old were you when your father went away ... ?”