Janet Seidel’s portrait of Peggy Lee
Of Norwegian and Swedish heritage, Peggy Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1920. Starting out in high school glee club, the church choir and college bands, Norma headed to Hollywood after graduating from high school with just $18 in her pocket and a railroad pass borrowed from her father. She made little impression on the film capital and decided to try her luck closer to home where she found work as a singer on radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota where the manager, Ken Kennedy christened her Peggy Lee.
It was here that Peggy Lee’s career began and spanned six wonderful decades. She was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her 1969 hit ‘Is That All There Is?’ and in 1995 she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Throughout her career she collaborated with icons including Harold Arlen, Sonny Burke, Cy Coleman, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Jack Marshall and Johnny Mandel just to name a few.
Australian jazz singer Janet Seidel has been praised for her great affinity with Peggy Lee’s style and sound, but her affinity runs much deeper than a similarity in sound”
“I was a teenager studying for a classical music degree and I was playing dinner-dances and country venues in SA. The musicians included my brothers and a superb veteran drummer who played me a record of Peggy Lee singing ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘Fever’. I was captivated and loved all the songs on that ground breaking record. I was immediately entranced by her lovely, intimate and soft delivery and I later read part of the reason for her style. She was singing in a crowded cabaret venue and the audience was noisy. Instead of trying to compete with them, she lowered her volume and became more ‘confidential’ making the audience a little curious, reducing the chatter to hear her singing. I’ve played my fair share of noisy rooms, and it’s awful to think of it today: smoky crowded venues, but I’ve always favoured soft intimate delivery in my recordings and where possible in my performances.
There are many attractive elements to the persona of Peggy Lee. She came from a country background (like me) but her family life was tough and she suffered abuse as a child from an evil step mother. She transformed herself into ‘the Goddess of Cool’ and used her lovely Scandinavian looks and elegant style to project a stunning, sophisticated and glamorous image. However, more importantly was the essential ‘swing’ phrasing, clear diction and impeccable pitch which combined to make her a true interpreter of the Great American song book.
As well as the outstanding singing creds, she was unusual for her time because she was a great song writer. Singers in this idiom rarely wrote their own songs, but performed popular songs of the day. Consider big stars like Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald – vocalists were very rarely singer-songwriters, but Peggy broke the mould and wrote many memorable and enduring songs.
One of my favourites is ‘Is that all there is?’. She rang the song writers Lieber and Stoller when she first heard a ‘demo’ of the song and said to them “I want that song… and if you give it to anyone else… I have friends!” (meaning underworld figures, we think!). Her version of that song which she describes as an ‘essay in disillusionment’ with the arrangement by the great Randy Newman is a true delight. My favourite LP is ‘Things are Swingin’, along with the iconic ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘Beauty & the Beat’.”
Janet Seidel Trio is joined by veteran British drummer Cyril Bevan to perform songs from Janet’s album Don’t Smoke in Bed: Songs in the Key of Peggy Lee on Saturday 22 April, 3pm & 7pm in the Salon.