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Interview: James Gavin, Author of New Peggy Lee Bio

“Is That All There Is?” is a comprehensive portrait of a troubled, brilliant artist

Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee

Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee (Atria Books), by James Gavin, is one of the most critically acclaimed music biographies of 2014. The New York Times called the book “fascinating, suspenseful, careful, musically detailed and insightful, and sometimes all too painstakingly thorough,” while the Wall Street Journal deemed it “a probing, perceptive account.” Exhaustively researched and meticulously constructed, the bio paints Lee as a complex, contradictory creature whose inner turmoil often ran directly counter to the easygoing image she projected in her vocal style.

JazzTimes interviewed author Gavin via email.

Why Peggy Lee? What attracted you to her story?

I’m deeply attracted to tales of artists who led tumultuous lives, full of struggle and conflict that found their way into the art. But I didn’t know anything about Peggy Lee’s life when I fell in love with her singing at age 10. I responded to her because she touched my heart. I also sensed something psychologically off-kilter there that made me madly curious. Of course I heard the kittenish sexiness and the swing and the intimacy and the spicy humor and the wonderfully sweet, husky sound, but I also knew she had a deep relationship with sadness. As a melancholy kid, I heard Peggy and I felt she understood me.

What was the single most important factor in the transition of small-town North Dakota girl Norma Egstrom into the iconic Peggy Lee?

I’d say it was a gut determination to get the hell out of North Dakota, a place that held bitter memories for her, and to give vent, through singing, to a lot of strong feelings. In the 1920s and ’30s, when Peggy grew up, Dakota life was treacherously difficult. Nobody had any money, each day was a struggle for survival, the winters were brutal, and there was no point in complaining; everyone was in the same boat. People learned to keep a lid on their feelings. That didn’t mean a volcano wasn’t inside, waiting to erupt. There was certainly one lurking behind Peggy’s Mona Lisa-like mask. Then came the big moment in 1941 when Benny Goodman discovered her in a Chicago cocktail lounge and gave her the job that made her a star. Benny sensed something unusual about her. Sadistic though he was as a leader, he nurtured the Peggy Lee we know.

Although she lived in an entirely white part of the U.S., Lee was attracted to black music, particularly jazz, from her youth onward. Why do you think that was and how did that exposure to black music shape her own style?

In the mid-’30s, Peggy happened upon those early Count Basie live broadcasts from Kansas City, and she sensed something in Basie’s jazz and blues that really spoke to her. She identified with black struggle and pain, and also, I think, with the exhilarating joyfulness of swing, which lifts the spirit high above one’s troubles. She assimilated those sounds to such a towering degree that, later on, Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles all embraced her as one of their own.

Lee seems to have been born to sing and perform, and she was very ambitious. When do you think she really found herself as an artist?

In my opinion, Peggy’s breakthrough was Black Coffee, her Decca album of 1953, made with a wonderful quartet—Jimmy Rowles, Pete Candoli, Max Wayne on bass, Ed Shaughnessy on drums. It includes one of her definite ballad performances, “When the World Was Young,” whose English lyric, by Johnny Mercer, she introduced. Peggy was just turning 33, and almost all her greatness had flowered. The torch singing is on a par with Billie Holiday, whom Peggy worshipped. On a fast version of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” her jazz phrasing blows my mind. Her mystique was in full force; the ballads have a blurred, slightly boozy quality about them, full of secrets. If jazz is all about “rhythm and feeling,” as Annie Ross once said to me, then Black Coffee is one of the great jazz vocal albums.

How did the writing of this book compare to working on your previous book, Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne?

Lena’s story is a sweeping American panorama, tied in with decades of social movements and eras. That book required a strong grasp of historical context. Peggy’s is more about the musical and emotional journey of a singer. Lena was a great singer, but Peggy’s art has an almost incomparable subtlety. I took enormous pains in my effort to do it justice.

What were some of the challenges in researching her life, since she and most of the other important people in her life are gone?

In fact, I was astounded at the large number of key figures who were still around in 2009, when I began my book. North Dakota bred strong people, and I found at least 20 who had known her there—notably her best childhood friend from 1928 through 1934, Artis Conitz. As far as I know, all her Benny Goodman bandmates were gone. But I interviewed a wealth of people who had known her from her early Capitol Records days of the ’40s through her death in 2002. Peggy herself gave countless interviews. I have hundreds. The research was a lark. Figuring out her layered and tricky psychology was the real challenge.

Your subtitle is “The Strange Life of Peggy Lee.” What was strange about it?

From the time she was four and her beloved mother died, Peggy had her head in the clouds. She whipped up a Cinderella-like fantasy world in which she hid from reality, or tried to. If one is living successfully in a world of denial and delusion, one has theoretically found complete happiness. But Peggy couldn’t shake—didn’t want to shake—a spiraling sense of anger. It helped her survive. A lot of it was rooted in her relationship with Min, her stern battle-ax of a German stepmother, whom she hated. In later years, Peggy painted Min as a Dickensian ogre who had beaten and tortured her. I found strong reason to doubt the charges of physical abuse. Emotional abuse, belittlement—these did happen, and they probably hurt Peggy just as much. Stir all this together and you have a lifetime of highly bizarre behavior, some of it hilarious, some shockingly cruel.

The book paints her as a fairly difficult individual as she gets older. Why do you think she was that way even at the height of her success?

Insecurity. Fear. She was certainly demanding musically. Among all the so-called perfectionists in pop, Peggy Lee truly deserves that title, because her musical and expressive instincts were so spot-on, so nuanced. She had a vision. She heard it inside her head in great detail. She went to great lengths to carry it out. All of this, I think, has very neurotic roots that have to do with fear of failure and worry about how others are judging you. Aside from this, Peggy saw herself as a victim. She took very little responsibility for her ill behavior. Like most stars, she was an utter narcissist. But people tended to forgive—because she was Peggy. She had a vulnerable quality that inspired protectiveness. At her best, she was loads of fun, a fabulous joke-teller, and a fascinatingly compelling presence.

Which three of Lee’s albums would you recommend first for someone unfamiliar with her?

The aforementioned Black Coffee, for sure. The 1961 album Basin Street East Proudly Presents Miss Peggy Lee just sizzles. It’s a live recording made at her Manhattan headquarters of the time, and she sounds like the mistress of the New York night—so cool and commanding, yet so full of heat. And it would be hard not to succumb to Pretty Eyes, one of the ultimate bedroom albums—a pink cloud of romance, yet full of sly wit. The medium-tempo tracks, like “Too Close for Comfort,” swing like crazy. Billy May is the arranger.

What was her impact/influence on future generations of singers?

It’s all about cool, which is an eternally alluring quality. In Peggy’s case, it didn’t mean emotional temperature. As with Miles, Chet and Lauren Bacall, it was about editing, withholding, insinuating. It implies control. Mystery. It’s sexy, because it sets the imagination aflame. Dusty Springfield said that she knew she couldn’t sing like Peggy, but she wished she could. k.d. lang, Diana Krall, Helen Reddy, Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Petula Clark, Bette Midler, P.J. Harvey, even Iggy Pop—Peggy made an impact on all of them. A lot of people have covered “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?,” seldom effectively. Peggy can be imitated, but she can’t be captured.

Do you feel she gets a fair shake today? Is she as well regarded/remembered as she should be?

Oh, yes! From the start of my project, I’ve mentioned Peggy Lee to people of all ages. In virtually every instance, even with kids in their twenties, the response was the same: their eyes widened and they said, “Oh, I love Peggy Lee!” Often in her later life, Peggy told friends: “Please don’t let people forget me.” She got her wish.

Author bio

James Gavin is the author of Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2009), called “magnificent … gripping, marvelously written” by Liz Smith, and Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker (Knopf, 2002; new edition published by Chicago Review Press in 2011), called “a landmark in entertainment biography” in the Hollywood Reporter and “almost unbearably vivid” in the New York Times. Originally Published