I don’t like Hollywood biopics about music icons. I can almost predict the story arc, the struggle of the early years, the montage of increasingly better nightclubs, cars and homes, a painful descent into booze and drugs, the scene where the bottle shatters against the wall, the humbling climb back from the abyss back into the sunlight of an adoring public.
So you might understand my concern upon learning of a movie in the works about Peggy Lee, one of my music heroines. Even with a gifted writer like Nora Ephron on the project, and the talented Reese Witherspoon (apparently hand-picked by Ms. Lee’s family to play the part), will Hollywood see beyond the sultry icon? The memory of her warm, purring stage persona makes it easy to underestimate what a hardworking , canny businesswoman and musician she actually was. And of course, the chilling truth about Peggy’s childhood (raised by a physically abusive stepmother) and her unlucky marriages, will make such a strong onscreen story, one might never be allowed to celebrate Peggy’s delicious creativity and enduring passion for arranging and writing.
Last week I was immensely relieved and happy to hear Reese Witherspoon characterize Peggy Lee first as a songwriter, as she expressed her excitement about the project in a TV interview.
Many people aren’t aware of how prolific and dedicated a writer Peggy was. It was fairly unusual for a pop singer in the 40’s and 50’s to record and publish so many originals. Writing at first with her guitarist husband Dave Barbour, she later worked with collaborators as diverse as Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Marian McPartland and Michel Legrand. Peggy produced hit after hit for vinyl, television, Broadway, Hollywood, and even animated features.
And let’s not forget that when she added her two hip verses to Little Willie John’s “Fever” (“Romeo loved Juliet”…”Captain Smith and Pocahantas”), she helped transform the song into a classic.
Peggy liked to write with the rhythm of a lyric in mind, a cadence suggested by a phrase. As a vocalist, she knew just how to create a lyric married to melody that felt natural and easy, relaxed and true. Listen to her song “I Don’t Know Enough About You” for a terrific example of that silky, simple melodic line. And her dark, torchy “Don’t Smoke in Bed” doesn’t waste a single syllable or note in delivering its dramatic message. (I love K.D. Lang’s version of this song, if you’re curious to hear it).
I think my favorite Peggy Lee story (and I’ll be interested to see if this comes out in the movie) was when she took on ‘the Mouse’ and sued Walt Disney Studios.
Peggy was paid $1000 by Walt Disney to compose 6 songs (with collaborator Sonny Burke) for the animated feature Lady and the Tramp. At the bargain rate of $3500, she was the voice of four of the characters and sang in the film as well (Peggy played the role of ʻDarlingʼ, “Peg”, who sang “He’s a Tramp” and also the singing Siamese cats.) Disney had brokered hundreds of these unfair deals with artists, and successfully fought off many later royalty claims. Their unofficial tagline in the industry was “Don’t Mess with the Mouse.”
But when the film was released in video in the 1970ʼs, the estimated additional $90 million in sales to Disney was too much for the determined Ms. Lee to leave alone, and after a fifteen year court battle, she successfully sued them for a landmark $3.8 million in back royalties. That famous settlement liberated musicians and artists from Disney’s draconian policies.
She was seventy years old when the case finally settled, and certainly didn’t need the money. What made her persist with the suit all those years? Even after becoming a big star, Peggy always related to the ‘band’ – the musicians, composers, arrangers that she considered her fellows.
Incidentally, you won’t see Peggy’s name on the song credits for “Don’t Smoke in Bed”. She took her name off to benefit her co-writer, Willard Robison, who was struggling with ill-health and financial hardship.
I’m hoping the movie version of Peggy Lee captures the real, generous, driven, perfectionist, vibrant and creative woman that she truly was. Recognizing her as a songwriter seems like the right place to start.
Pamela Rose’s new book “Wild Women of Song: Great Gal Composers of the Jazz Era”, celebrating women songwriters, is available through Amazon and CDBaby.com. More about the Wild Women project can be found at www.wildwomenofsong.com