Tuesday, July 04, 2006

She Can Make A Dress Out Of A Feedbag and She Can Make A Man Out Of You


My Friend, Ken Bloom, is a writer and a cd producer/distributor. He recently put out a NEW Peggy Lee cd! What's that, you say? She is not currently living, how did he put out a new cd? It was recorded in 1989 and there is a long story about its long gestation (liner notes rule) but the bottom line, for me, is that Peggy Lee LOVE HELD LIGHTLY is in my home cd player and has had repeated listenings since Ken gave me a copy. I don't think he knew (or, for that matter, KNOWS) how much I love this woman. My beloved dad introduced me to Peggy Lee when I was eleven years old. A youngster with a growing interest in music, I spent hours flipping through his music collection, wondering what and who and how good and he found me on the living room floor, holding IS THAT ALL THERE IS? He said something that drew my attention to it and I listened and I have been hooked, ever since.

In the back of my mind, I remembered writing something about Miss Peggy Lee when she was recalled, years ago. I went to my livejournal archive and, there it was. I have decided, in honour of Harbinger Records new musical release, I should reproduce it, here, as a tribute to an American artist, not only of vocal gifts but of songwriting ones. I have the autobiography MISS PEGGY LEE but I think the new release FEVER has a place in my future. Meantime, here are my thoughts on Miss Peggy Lee.

"I Remember...when I was a little girl our house caught on fire. I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out onto the pavement. And I stood there, shivering in my pajamas, and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself 'Is that all there is to a fire?"

I must have been no more than eleven years old the first time that I heard those words. My father had come into the living room to find the white shag carpet littered with his record albums and me in front of the hi-fi, listening, intently to the music. Interested in show business, I spent most of my free time seeking out something, anything, that would teach me more about the profession in which I intended to make my career. Hours at the library or bookstore, memorizing the faces and names of movie stars; letters to celebrities asking for autographs; afternoon trips to the movies and Rona Barret's GOSSIP and HOLLYWOOD magazines were the mainstay of my fantasy life. I had been listening to the music of this world since, at the age of seven or eight, I bought the soundtrack to the movie HELLO DOLLY!--my first, ever, record. So, on this day, my dad found me pouring through his albums looking for songs from the movies. I had already been through the MIDNIGHT COWBOY soundtrack, Nancy Wilson's HOLLYWOOD MY WAY and Carmen McRae's ALFIE. I was scanning the song lists from records by the Jackie Gleason Orchestra and Frank Sinatra when my dad walked in, surveyed the scene, listened to my musical choice and said, "Ah. The first lady of song."

I think that children, today, grow up quicker than they did when I was a wee bairn, or perhaps I was slower than the others in my school because my level of naivete was, embarrassingly, high. I had not, yet, quite figured out the difference between an actor and a movie star and, not even, the distintion between actor and character. Somewhere within me there lay the knowledge of the factual but at first blush I was not able to see outside of my fantasy life. Being an ardent fan, at that time, of the work of Barbra Streisand, I had seen the FUNNY GIRL movies and taken it to heart when Fanny Brice said that she was the greatest star. My response, therefore, to my father's remark was, "Nuh-uh, Fanny Brice is the first lady of song."

"No. Fanny Brice is not still living."

Thrown into a, momentary, tailspin because of the mental image of Barbra Streisand/Fanny Brice being dead, I focused, intently, on finding the truth within me and recognized that one woman was living while the other was, in fact, dead. I looked up at my father and said, "Oh, ok." I took my father at his word and from that moment forth I considered the first lady of song to be Peggy Lee.

"Is that all there is?Is that all there is?If that's all there is, my friendThen let's keep dancingLet's break out the booze and have a ballIf that's allThere is...And when I was twelve years old my daddy took me to the circus--the greatest show on earth. There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears and a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads. And as I sat there, watching, I had the feeling that something was missing. I don't know what but when it was all over I said to myself 'Is that all there is to the circus?"

Strangely, I had picked up the Peggy Lee album and turned it on because the song list had included Me and My Shadow--a song that I knew because it was featured in one of the FUNNY GIRL movies. This song was playing when my dad came in the room and, to this day, it remains my favourite recording of that song. However, something must have sparked in my dad; some kind of paternal pride that his son was interested in the same music that he liked, because he came and sat down with me and talked to me about this music and this lady. He told me that she was an artist of great respect, one whom all, singers and civilians alike, admired. As he spoke about Peggy Lee, he moved the needle on the stereo from the track which I wanted to hear, to the one that he wanted me to hear.

"I remember when I was a little girl our house caught on fire...."

Only one other time in my life have I had such an instantaneous love of a singer's work. It was the first time that I heard Nancy LaMott and she was singing My Foolish Heart.

As with the belief that Fanny Brice was the greatest star and the discovery that, while she was a great star, there were other greats, as well--particularly in the eyes of others who had differing opinions--I had to learn that, while my dad and I thought Peggy Lee was the first lady of song, there were other artists to consider. I met people who argued with me that Ella Fitzgerald was the only one worth considering. Others, still, thrust before me the recordings of Sarah Vaughn and Rosemary Clooney. Of course, I was already hooked on Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae. I began to seek out knowledge of these songbirds and their work. I bought and listened to, devoured really, their records until I knew more about the great singers of eras gone by than some of the grown ups with whom I prefered to spend my time.

In spite of my growing passion for all of these women, these divas, I maintained that Peggy Lee was, in fact, the first lady of song. I learned that she was not only a great singer but an important songwriter. She wrote songs with Duke Ellington, Johnny Mandel and Quincy Jones. She penned the songs I don't Know Enough About You, Johnny Guitar, Manana and Oh my God! the Siamese Cat Song and He's a Tramp. I learned so much about the world of music when I read about her. Her name was, regularly, attached to the names of other prominent musical artists. She even appeared in a movie or two, getting an Oscar nomination. She was a pioneer in her industry. Isn't that what we all wish we were?

"Is that all there is?Is that all there is?If that's all there is, my friendThen let's keep dancingLet's break out the booze and have a ballIf that's allThere is...And then I fell in love with the most wonderful one in the world. We'd take long walks down by the river or just sit for hours gazing in each other's eyes. We were so very much in love. And then one day he went away and I thought I'd die but I didn't. And when I didn't I said to myself 'Is that all there is to love?' "

As I grew into a man and began to understand about singing and how much work it is, when I began to learn what it is to style a song and to make it entirely your own, my respect for this woman grew, if that is possible. I am not a singer. That is to say I do not sing in public. The reason for this is the abject humiliation to which I was subject as a child and a young man, when I did sing in front of other people. Most notably, my aunt Rhonda said terrible things to me about my singing at an age that is impressionable to anyone; and a college professor named Ed DeLatte was hateful in his teasing of me in front of my musical theater class. For these reasons and a few others, I do not sing in public. However, in the privacy of my home, I sing out loud, as loudly as I can, and often. I, frequently, do this in front of other people--people whose opinions I trust and respect. According to Marci Reid, Brady Schwind, Tony Cointreau and Faye Lane I am a singer. According to Pat Dwyer, I am not only a good singer, I am a song stylist. If the things that these people say to me are true, it is because of Peggy Lee. While my unseen and unheard musical abilities have been affected by other performers, the lessons that I learned from listening to Peggy Lee are unfathomable.

My favourite story about Peggy Lee is one that I heard her tell on television. She told of her first time in front of an audience; how nervous and scared she was and how loud and inattentive they were. She was on the stage with the band and the nightclub in which she was singing was packed with peole talking and drinking and laughing and no one was listening to her sing. Part of the way through the song, she thought to herself "If they don't want to hear me sing, then I will sing for myself." She closed her eyes and felt the song within her and sang, oh so sofly, just for herself; for her own pleasure she sang that song. Slowly, the audience became aware of the sultry whisper of a supreme songstress and the talk subsided as they were all drawn in.

I was drawn in.

I sing in my home just for me and I sing the songs I sing in whatever way I like. It is because of Peggy Lee that I have whatever understanding I may have of songs and how they are made. Often times, I would like to go to singers who scream and wail and attempt to show off with vocal pyrotechnics, hand them a Peggy Lee cd and say "Here. Learn something."

One of my proudest moments of my life is that my beloved friend Nancy LaMott once appeared on a bill with Peggy Lee. Naturally, this would have been just a few years ago. So when Nancy did the gig, she was singing with the woman who had come to be known as MISS Peggy Lee. A more appropriate moniker is rarely created. I wish that everyone could have a Peggy Lee cd and really GET it. Once, I made a video for a young friend, aged twenty two, of some of my favourites. On the tape I included a late in life concert called THE QUINTESSENTIAL PEGGY LEE. On the label, among the listings of what was on the tape, I wrote Miss Peggy Lee. When he called to thank me, Cory said' "you know what I like on the tape? I like....." and he named two or three things and then he said, "OH! and I REALLY like Miss Peggy Lee." I felt, at that moment, that I had done right by the lady. For I had educated one person and that is a start."Is that all there is?Is that all there is?If that's all there is, my friendThen let's keep dancingLet's break out the booze and have a ballIf that's allI know what you must be saying to yourself. If that's the way she feels about it, why doesn't she just end it all? Oh no. Not me. I'm not ready for that final disappointment. Cause I know, just as well as I'm standing here talking to you, that when that final moment comes when I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself....."

When I listen to this last bit of the song, I am, particularly , moved. You see, I had more than one suicide attempt in my young life and I have been in accidents and one shooting. I have been close to leaving this place on more than one occasion and I am still here. Some days of the week I wish that I still had the constitution to take my life but know that I cannot. When I consider all of these facts, I know, where I live, that I want to be here and that when they take me from this earth it will be kicking and screaming. I know, in that place where you know things, that I too will be saying"Is that all there is?Is that all there is?If that's all there is, my friendThen let's keep dancingLet's break out the booze and have a ballIf that's allThere is."

PEGGY LEE
1921-2002

Written 01-22-2002

please note: i did not take the photo(s) shown in this piece.

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