My Commentary essay for March, which has been posted a few days early, is about Peggy Lee. Here’s an excerpt.
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Few things in the world of popular art are more dismaying than the spectacle of a beloved performer who goes on too long. The singer Peggy Lee was such a performer, and her decline was all the more pitiable for being so protracted. She made her last noteworthy recordings in 1975, when she was just 55 years old, and her one remaining venture of any consequence, an autobiographical Broadway show called Peg, was a shambles that closed in 1983 after only five performances. By then she had long since become a drug-dazed caricature of her younger self, and when she finally stopped singing 12 agonizing years later, her remaining fans heaved a collective sigh of relief.
Lee lost her footing at the same moment other middle-aged pop singers such as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett were successfully reinventing themselves as nostalgia acts, turning their backs on a now-alien contemporary music scene and interpreting the songs of their youth with undiminished artistic integrity. Her personal problems kept her from doing as they did, and Capitol, the label for which she had made most of her best albums, let them go out of print in the ’70s. As a result, a generation of music lovers grew up knowing only the obese, grotesquely costumed woman parodied as “Miss Piggy” on The Muppet Show. Small wonder that she spent her later years begging friends to “please don’t let people forget me.”
None of the baby boomers who watched Lee serve up limply pandering cover versions of pop-rock songs on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s could have known that she was once an artist of the highest caliber, a peer of Sinatra who in certain ways surpassed him. A balladeer of hushed sensitivity, she was also at home in the hard-swinging world of jazz, and though her coolly glamorous, carefully sculpted public persona had much to do with her success, no one in or out of the music business ever doubted her profound musicality or perfect taste.
Why, then, did she lose her way? James Gavin has done much to answer that question in Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, a mostly sympathetic but nonetheless very frank biography whose subtitle is indicative of its tone and approach. Gavin’s book is more concerned with Lee’s private life and public image than her music, and the tale that he tells is a sad one, the story of an unhappy woman whose neurotic insecurities grew so extreme that they eventually made it impossible for her to fully exploit her unique talents….
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Read the whole thing here.
Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra sing a duet version of “Nice Work if You Can Get It” on The Frank Sinatra Show in 1957: