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Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee Hardcover – March 21, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Miss Peggy Lee," as show marquees always billed her, is for Richmond a vocal genius on the level of Armstrong, Sinatra or Crosby, but one whose reputation has become overshadowed by time. The GQ reporter aims to restore Lee's luster by retelling the story of Norma Egstrom's (1920–2002) journey from listening to jazz on the radio in North Dakota to taking the stage alongside Benny Goodman's band as Peggy Lee, then moving on to even more astounding success in her solo career. Richmond is reverential toward Lee's interpretations of the "Great American Songbook" (though dismissive of attempts to incorporate contemporary tunes into her 1970s performances) and equally respectful toward her turbulent personal life. Although he acknowledges widespread testimony of her drinking, he defers to Lee's refusal to describe herself as an alcoholic. He is similarly circumspect in addressing her intimate relationships with stars like Sinatra and Quincy Jones. Although some readers will want more backstage details, Richmond would rather focus on the music, and it's in describing Lee's performances that his portrait most vibrantly comes to life: "When she sang 'Good mornin', sun—good mornin', sun!' her voice was so... happy, it was as if she was swinging open the... door and announcing the arrival of the postwar sunshine." Photos. (Apr. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The author's admiration for legendary singer Peggy Lee is unabashed, which is a good thing, because a tribute such as this comprehensive biography is definitely due her. Miss Lee, perhaps, has been too much forgotten, so Richmond reminds us who and what she was. He insists, in fact, that she is among the four great American jazz singers (the others are Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra). She was born in North Dakota, and her early years were not comforted by an easy family life. But early on, she demonstrated an interest in and a talent for singing. Her professional life began on local radio shows, then as a vocalist with bigger bands until she joined Benny Goodman's group, and her road to stardom was paved. Emphasis in this buoyantly written but never gossipy biography is on Lee's music (she also composed songs, an important component of her career) but not without secondary exploration of her personal life. Richmond provides a rich as well as responsible biography of an important pop figure. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
The book is comprehensive, incisive, and extremely well-written. The only thing it lacks are photographs, but those are are available everywhere on the internet.
This biography traces her life and her astonishing career,from abused young girl to budding enthusiastic singer, to successful entertainer and artist, to cultural icon and beyond. Particularly endearing are portraits of her fellow musicians.
Peggy Lee occupies a unique place in American popular music, and her work embraced nearly all styles of the last century. Even after her bright instrument went into decline, her artistry never faltered, and her peers recognized this.
If you admire this woman, you must read this book.
The author doesn't pretend to be a music critic, but his training as a sports writer is occasionally limiting. For example, concerning "The Shining Sea," a recording that some Lee fans (including this one) consider her own most luminescent moment, Richmond tells the story behind the song's composition and production but doesn't attempt to account for the sublimity of the performance itself or for the loss of that magic "cushion" of breathiness that eluded the singer when she reprised these songs on her last recordings. The musical coverage can be frustratingly uneven, making no mention of Peggy's own gem (covered by Nat Cole), "Where Can I Go Without You?" or her very last recording (better than "There'll Be Another Spring"). And what about her decision to keep singing "Manana" when PC policing was in full force?
Nevertheless, Richmond's study demonstrates that Peggy Lee was not only a strong-willed, alluring, needful and complex woman with an inimitable personal sound but a complete musician and composer, sensitive interpreter of lyrics, and immensely gifted vocalist, whether singing big band swing, torchy ballads, introspective lyrics, or bracing proclamations. But she was also, especially when it came to her art, a relentless if unforgiving perfectionist. In fact, her need to be in "control" may have been a double-edged sword, accounting for much of her achievement but also serving to limit it.
In jazz, the most noteworthy performances--those extemporaneous moments bearing what Whitney Balliett called "the sound of surprise"--have come from the performers whose talents frequently allowed them to throw caution to the winds and simply avail themselves of a serendipitous muse. Peggy's was a far more obedient, refined muse and, though distinctively original, rarely falling below or rising above expectations. (Her inspired session for Decca--"Black Coffee"--is certainly a felicitous exception. For Sinatra, Ella and Sarah, on the other hand, such "exceptions" were the rule.)
Richmond offers no small amount of armchair psychoanalyzing, and most of it's admittedly tantalizing, though the emphasis on her "hypochondria" seems overdone (doggone it, some people are just chronically ill). But the focus on her Norma Egstrom/Peggy Lee split is highly provocative. The evidence would suggest that--like Dietrich, Mae West, Monroe--she remained trapped in the Lee totem. A chilling anecdote by an admirer about her response to his "daring" to excuse himself from the presence of that royal persona as well as her own request to be maintained on life support attest to a quasi-megalomania about one identity and deep insecurity about the other. Perhaps understandably so--would the admirer have even been attracted to Norma Egstrom? Would we?
There's no denying that this is a fascinating read if not a page-turner. Most importantly, it will have you going back to Lee's old recordings and scouting out new ones, very likely making some discoveries not mentioned by the author. At that level, the book is five big stars.
One small gripe: Not enough info about all the great musicians who backed her, especially drummers (Stan Levy, Jack Sperling). On a lot of the recording sessions, all the musicians are named except the drummer.
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