So Long, Peggy,
and thanks for all the "Fever".
I'm not entirely sure, because the relevant events and attendant reactions happened about
45 years ago, but I'm pretty certain that I got my first inklings about sex from Peggy
My child's memory and my male hormones put the year somewhere around 1955, but it could
have been a year or two, or even three, later. The year may be in doubt, but the song --
"Fever" -- won't ever leave me. Even before I'd achieved double digits in age,
she'd clued me in that something more was going on behind the sandbox than the
construction of mud pies.
When Peggy Lee died at the age of 81 on January 21, it occurred to me how long she'd been
a part of my musical life and how long it had been since I'd heard anything at all from
the first torch singer to matter to me. And how old I'm getting -- and foolish, still to
be nursing a crush on an octogenarian.
But it was in the nature of Lee's sultry style to invite such reactions from such a
sexed-up youth as I was. Her recorded legacy, like that of Ella Fitzgerald, sets a mark of
timelessness. Where Ella's voice evoked the perpetual 16-year-old innocent who, despite
the spit and gore of living, could still be cheerful and naive, Peggy's called to mind the
sadder-but-wiser gal who, despite all her humiliations at the hands of shallow men,
retained her zest for the pleasures of the flesh. And the spell she wove wasn't even aimed
at pre-adolescents. Men melted at the mention of her name, and her statuesque blondness,
married with her smoky voice, was a man-killing combination.
It turns out, after some cursory research, that Little Willie John's "Fever"
became Peggy's signature tune in 1958. So, OK, it's only been 44 years since I first fell
into lust. Report me to my mother.
But, man, who can top this?:
"Never know how much I love you;
"Never know how much I care.
"When you put your arms around me
"I get a fever that's so hard to bear.
"You give me fever
"When you kiss me,
"Fever when you hold me tight.
"Fever in the morning,
"Fever all through the night."
It's a song written by a man to a woman, with all the accompanying male psycho-terrain
that the headshrinkers can conjure. But Peggy Lee had the stuff to turn the tables without
losing an ounce of the sex and ooze and mystery, and she made the song into a two-tiered
statement of sexuality, a sort of "Playboy Philosophy" presentation that
proclaimed feminine independence, yet which preserved that mysterious woman-thing that no
man can ever understand about the funk of physical love.
These, of course, were all quite outside my experience in the 1950s, but they pointed the
way to better days ahead.
There is another side of Peggy Lee's career that bears noting, and that is her early
advocacy of rock 'n' roll, an anomaly among jazz singers, to be sure, although a good many
of them were not loath to raid the rock songbook later, when the popular marketplace
rewarded such pillage with middle-of-the-road dollars from the baffled parents of young
virgins who'd sworn fealty to Elvis, or to the burgeoning hippies found to be wandering
the Haight-Ashbury a decade later.
For a sheer one-of-a-kind jazz vocal experience, I think Peggy Lee offers more than ethnic
purists might sanction. "Fever" is without peer as a performance and is her
song, despite its long and respectable provenance. But how about "Manana," or
Ellington's venerable "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," or
There was allure in her delivery and her embrace of later, less substantive, genres were
indicative of an eclectic point of view, rather than of a pandering one. Everything that
Peggy Lee touched with her distinctive voice was infused with an importance that might
belie its particular place in the pop lexicon. But she made those tunes her own in
performance and in fact. I harbor a notion that the music found her, rather than the other
way around, but the result is that that a Peggy Lee performance connotes an elegance,
allure and the funk of an era when the first two of these qualities were expected and the
third, while welcome, was never discussed.
I loved her earthiness. And I'll miss it.