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Miss Peggy Lee

We Have An Obligation to Recall Some Only At Their Best

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, January 23, 2002.

Back in the early Cambrian, when I was a youth, I recall watching my parents stare with wide-eyed adoration as a fat, slurring woman yodelled on television and concluding they were tasteless idiots. Actually, I'd concluded that long before, but here was proof positive. Not only was this cave troll ugly, she couldn't sing, and what she was singing was decidedly uncool. Of course, my parents and all ancient ambulatory cadavers as old as thirty-five liked that garbage, with big bands. Not a lead guitar in sight. When the woman singer died a few years later, my parents were saddened, and worse, said so in front of me. Embarrassing.

I still don't like Judy Garland, but I've seen her in movies since then, and listened to her sing in her prime, and can well imagine that she was the youth icon for my folks that the Kingston Trio and Beatles are to me. I've seen her last television performances on documentaries, and she did indeed look and sound terrible. But I surely know that the early templates of youth are hard to dislodge. I never fall out of love, damn it, and when I see friends of over a quarter century they are still the hot babes of 1968 to 78, whatever the truth is. Like the actors and singers who provided our sound track, they are still young and beautiful because so am I. Deal with it. To those who never shared those years with us, it's hard to implant the suggestion that what is now fat and wide was once svelte and stupid and able to function with no sleep. Because I was.

I delve again into this maudlin series of recollections because Peggy Lee just died. To see this over made up, obese woman, crippled with diabetes and god knows what else warble into a microphone as the years wound down was a cruel remembrance. Peggy Lee, who wrote and sang "Fever" among many other great songs, was a babe of the first water in her youth. She was as good a jazz singer, I think, as Billie Holliday, but is never given that accolade because she was blonde, beautiful, generally sober, and, of course, white. Like Holliday, she didn't have much of a voice. She was a stylist. Like Holliday, minimalism never had it so good. She did more with less than anyone.

Lee was a good enough actress to receive Oscar nominations her first time out. And she wrote clever songs in many different genres. All of Lady and the Tramp, an otherwise forgettable cartoon offering from Disney, rides on her songs and tunes in collaborations. They are not to be mistaken for the crap attending the Little Mermaid and Lion King. Substantive songs that stand alone in many different contexts, including a rewrite of Silent Night that I still find, well, beautiful and fun for children to sing in a round. More important, perhaps, she later exposed the fact that Disney financially screwed their talent when she filed suit for royalties. And she won.

When Peggy Lee, a woman with a past, present, and future, surveyed an audience - even a television audience - you believed. She had that commanding earth mother presence and raw sensuality that fixates young people, or at least young men, or at least me. "Fever" is probably as hot a set of lyrics as any put to paper without reference to genitalia, and Lee sings it with this repressed, clipped style. Like a seething minister's wife eying a neighborhood farm boy in the pew before her. In the 1950's, that song got and held attention. Still does. I guess I only ask that, if possible, you recall a mental image of Peggy Lee in the fullness of her youth and beauty. It makes much more sense when you share the image the public once had of her, and she had of herself. It removes the cognitive dissonance achieved when croaking old people sing implausibly about sex and love.

There were other really good female singers and actresses who never got the critical credit they deserved because they were sexy and beautiful during years when that, somewhat implausibly, scared men. Julie London comes to mind. Brigitte Bardot. Lena Horne. Famous, yes, but not given the credit for talent they deserved. And when people go to research them, they stumble on the later photographs and performances. It should be a law that people can only be remembered at their performance top and epitome of beauty.

Bardot, for example, currently has a wonderful old face that looks like a Mars Surveyor photograph. She has become a crabby old woman concerned with animal rights. Bless her heart. But that should not be how she is recalled by those too young to have seen her when she made Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and Claudia Cardinale look like the ugly side of the family. It is the difference between embarrassment on television for Judy Garland and Meet Me in St. Louis only fifteen years previous. There are talents that deserve to be recalled only at their best, because they always tried to do that for us, whatever their abilities at the time. Garland always tried, and although she never did it for me, I respect her. I want to recall her at her best. As I will with Peggy Lee.