A Tribute to Peggy Lee
Live Music - Minnesota Orchestra Magazine - June, 1999
Deborah Caulfield Rybak, June, '99
In early June, singing legend Peggy Lee, famous for such songs as "Fever" and the Grammy-winning "Is That All There Is?," will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. A prolific songwriter and mesmerizing vocalist, Lee has dazzled audiences for decades with her Nordic-ice-queen-cool vibrancy and magically distinctive style.
The timing couldn't be better for popular Twin Cities jazz chanteuse Connie Evingson, who brings her acclaimed Peggy Lee tribute, Fever, to Orchestra Hall for a one-night performanceon June 23. The show, which weaves Lee's music together with biographical details from her fifty-year singing career, played to sold-out houses during its initial run as part of the Illusion Theater's "Fresh Ink" series last summer and saw a revival at the Illusion this spring. The timing is especially poignant, given that Lee, seventy-eight, suffered a stroke last November and will probably never perform again.
However, as the popular member of the jazz ensemble Moore by Four explains over pasta at Linden Hill's Zumbro Cafe, her interest in Lee predates both those news events by about seven years, when, within a two-week period, three people told her that her singing reminded them of Peggy Lee. Evingson, who was unfamiliar with Lee's work, was intrigued.
Small-Town Girls In Show Biz
As she began listening to Lee's recordings, Evingson indeed found similarities. Lee andEvingson share small-town Midwestern roots: Lee was born in Jamestown, North Dakota; Evingson in Hibbing. And although Lee's appearance in later years became almost clownish, with her heavily mascaraed eyelids, Dutch-cut wig, and rhinestone glasses, there is a certain resemblance between Evingson and the Lee of the 1940s, with their exotic eyes, flashing smiles, and cool self-assured demeanors.
But the parallels end there. Norma Dolores Egstrom, as Lee was named at birth, endured a troubled childhood and abusive stepmother before shooting to stardom in the 1940s, singing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She went on to write more than five hundred songs and made some six hundred recordings through the decades, producing dozens of hits. Her distinctive singing style and limitless repertoire (which ranged from ballads to blues and Latin tunes) made her a legend among legends such as Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, and Louis Armstrong, to mention but a few. Duke Ellington once said of her, "If I am the King, man, then Peggy Lee is the Queen." Benny Goodman observed, "There's no one else like her, and I presume there never will be."
The more Evingson listened, the more she found herself "falling in love" with Lee's music. "She'scomplicated," Evingson says. "There's a light and a dark to her and she expresses that musically very well. I think she's artistically accessible."
During a visit to New York in 1994, Evingson researched Lee further at the performing arts library at Lincoln Center and watched clips of Lee performing at the Museum of Television and Radio History. She put together a rough outline of what a tribute to Lee might look like.
The Illusion Theater was interested and hired Evingson to develop the idea into a full-fledged show. Working with Illusion artistic associate and playwright Kim Hines, Evingson crafted a show that blended Lee's songs with biographical details from Lee's life.
" I'm not sure whether or not the songs came first or the biographical points," Evingson says. "But I knew I wanted to talk about her beginnings and her song writing - her triumph over adversity." (Lee's stellar career was punctuated with several troubled marriages and a plague of ailments, including diabetes and heart problems.) "Plus, I wanted to include something about her Disney lawsuit," she adds.
Lee wrote and performed music and voices for the 1955 Disney classic Lady and the Tramp, for which she was paid $3,500. After Disney refused to share some of the $35 million it later earned from video sales, Lee took matters into her own hands and - in a bold move - sued the company. Although a jury awarded her $3.8 million in 1991, the case remains tied up in appeals court.
Fame, Faith, and Fever
Fever, which brims with biographical nuggets about Lee's life, debuted to critical acclaim in July of 1998. The show soon was brought to the attention of Reid McLean, director of presentations for the Minnesota Orchestra, by several Orchestra staff members who'd seen the performance. Although it's unusual for the Orchestra to pick up an existing show, McLean acknowledges Fever fits perfectly into the Cabaret Pops series, which spotlights different types of pop music from the 1930s to the present. "The concept of focusing a show around Peggy Lee is a real natural for us," McLean says.
Evingson describes the Orchestra Hall show as more of a "concert presentation" than the Illusion Theater production. In addition to Lee's well-known classics, Evingson has included a range of songs from Lee's repertoire, including her current favorite "I Want to Be Loved," which was recorded in the 1930s. In addition, Evingson is now performing Lee's moody 1968 classic "Is That All There Is?" in its entirety, rather than as part of a medley.
Evingson is quick to explain that she isn't trying to recreate Peggy Lee. "I'm not playing her. I'm not imitating her voice," she explains, adding that while some of the arrangements "are very true to the originals, I do get creative with some of the songs."
Evingson senses she has a link with the jazz chanteuse she's never met. "I've always been interested in people who come from small towns and go places," she says. But it may go deeper than that. "There is this Scandinavian thing," she adds, alluding to her own ancestral lineage. "There just aren't very many Swedish-Norwegian jazz singers in this country."
© 2003-2018 Connie Evingson