Peter Richmond Fever

ISBN 13: 9780312426613

Fever

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9780312426613: Fever
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"I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, and Mr. Cary Grant." So said Miss Peggy Lee. Albert Einstein adored her; Duke Ellington dubbed her "the Queen." With her platinum cool and inimitable whisper, Peggy Lee sold twenty million records, made more money than Mickey Mantle, and presided over music's greatest generation alongside pals Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Drawing on exclusive interviews and never-before-seen information, Peter Richmond delivers a complex, compelling portrait of an artist that begins with a girl plagued by loss, her father's alcoholism, and her stepmother's abuse. One day she boards a train, following her muse and hoping her music will lead her someplace better. And it does: to the pantheon of great American singers.

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About the Author:

Peter Richmond has been an award-winning reporter and feature-writer for GQ magazine for two decades. He has covered everything from Rosemary Clooney to sports, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He has appeared many times on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He lives in Dutchess County, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PrologueWhite NightThe Half Note was dark, Coltrane uncharacteristically silent. Birdland was battened down. Buddy Rich and his boys had taken a one-night holiday. Lonely chords serenaded the empty rink at Rockefeller Center, not a single skater to hear them. On this February evening in 1961, the blizzard of the century had all but locked the great city down. The silence of a foot and a half of newly fallen snow had blanketed the island from river to river. An edict from Mayor Robert Wagner had swept all but essential vehicles from the streets. Bars, restaurants, shops—everything was shuttered; most of the town’s famously bright lights were extinguished. Hardly a sound could be heard in the muffled night, save the winter wind whipping from alley to alley.Hardly a soul could be glimpsed on Manhattan Island, except for the intrepid pedestrians gathering in the immediate vicinity of East Forty-eighth Street and Lexington Avenue, where the most elegant of parades was making its way through the blowing flakes and the gathering drifts. Laughing couples seductively attired in minks and tuxedos, giddy revelers swathed in mufflers and mittens, all hurried through the glow of streetlights, braving the wind, lured by an unseen gravitational pull toward what was, on this singular evening, the city’s undisputed nexus. The long, rarely silent, and usually smoky room was known as the nightclub of nightclubs, and despite the climate’s extreme hostility, people packed the space—wall to wall, table to table, knee to knee, stranger to stranger—as if all the energy of old New York, banished from the streets, had been channeled and gathered into this single place, for one single night, one single show.They had come to catch her fever. They had come to bask in her cool. They had come to Basin Street East to hear the Queen. That’s what Ellington had ordained her: “If I’m the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen.” The New Yorker, describing this particular engagement in typically omniscient style, had settled simply for calling her “practically the hub of the universe,” drawing no argument from the cognoscenti. At any rate, the semantics were irrelevant. No one in Basin Street needed convincing. The only phrases that mattered on this night were melodic—jazzed, bluesy, heartbroken, hopeful—and all absolutely American. And the woman who could sing them all, from the classic phrasings of the standard popular songbook to adventurous melodies out on the rhythmic fringe, and everything in between—was about to seize the small, empty stage and claim the whole magical New York night as her very own.There was never a question that the show would go on. Even with the weather wreaking havoc, nothing could have waylaid the faithful. With delivery trucks banned from the streets, the club’s publicist had enlisted local schoolkids to scour nearby grocery stores for all the provisions they could load onto their sleds. For this evening’s show, the guests would feed on impromptu cuisine and fuel themselves on a more limited range than usual of their favorite cocktails—as if to prove the Richard Rodgers dictum that our need for melody is as strong as our need for sustenance. The club held 340 people, legally. On this occasion, it would accommodate nearly twice as many. As the listeners shook off the snow and settled into the cramped confines, the low murmur of anticipation became a rising undercurrent. On this night, instead of the usual three shows, she’d be doing just one. This crowd would be hearing everything the woman had to offer.They were here because no one would dare miss any occasion to see the undisputed female champion of pop-jazz at the top of her game, in a city and time where beat and Beat were almost interchangeable. Down on Washington Square a handwritten sign stuck to a snow-covered fence read: “Be Abstract.” But unlike Kerouac, Pollock, Ferlinghetti, and all of their friends in the avant-garde, Peggy Lee, on February 4, 1961, was not out on the fringe looking in, railing at the soullessness of it all. After years of feeling herself the outsider, she had reached the top of her game and was finally enshrined inside the big room of fame where the lights burned late and her ballads and jazz and rhythm and blues spanning every emotion reached every kind of listener, from martinied-up suburban types to the visiting jazzmen and players who had come to pay homage, to tap the tiny tables as her informal accompaniment, nodding Yes. Yes.The roster of faces in the crowd during her four-week stint at Basin Street that winter would say all that had to be said about her peers’ regard for her status in the pop pantheon. Making the pilgrimage to East Forty-eighth Street were Ray Charles and Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. (Garland once called Peggy her favorite girl singer.) Then there were Cary Grant, Jimmy Durante, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joan Crawford, Art Carney, Louis Armstrong, and a young arranger named Quincy Jones. (Tony Bennett called late one night after a gig in Detroit, hoping for a seat at the 2:30 a.m. show.) None would have thought of missing out on this engagement, not at this time, in this era when popular jazz singing was not only a craft but an art of the highest order, a universal language that touched the hopes and longings of a generation of American dreamers.The crowd wasn’t privy to her preshow rituals: first, the physical transformation from woman to Stage Presence. (One night in the elevator up to the hotel room where the singer would make up, do her hair, and don the gown, a stranger asked, “Are you Peggy Lee?” Her answer: “Not yet, I’m not.”) Then came the hugging and kissing of the musicians, for good luck. Then the healthy slug of cognac, from a large glass, followed by a drink of cool water—not just for the rush of energy, but for the added release the alcohol brought, the little bit of extra freedom. For every show had to be special—they expected no less of her, and she demanded no less of herself. An element of unpredictability could only add to the mystery. She wanted to seduce them all. She wanted them to hear each word, and feel every emotion that lay behind it. She wanted perfection. She needed perfection.Then, as the band set up out front, she said a quiet, intimate prayer behind the curtain. Now the musicians launched into the brassy intro: a medley comprising a few measures each of Peggy’s standards, a signature string of great sounds—a snatch of a chorus from one of her original hits with Benny Goodman, a melody line from one of her own compositions from the forties, a measure of a memorable bridge from the glorious early fifties, a lilt from some recent swingy triumph.Then came the voice offstage: “Ladies and gentlemen, Basin Street East takes great pleasure in welcoming... Miss Peggy Lee.” Behind the curtain, she’d let out a scream—just loud enough to start her own engine—and stamp her foot, once. Then she’d yank open the curtain and step into the light.And there she was: an hourglassed platinum doll, forty years old, shrouded in a metaphoric glow, an aura she had earned, step by step, from her first, unlikely low-down blues hit for Goodman in 1942 to the hypnotic finger-snapping “Fever” a few years back—and a whole lot of everything in between: an Oscar nomination; a turn doing the voices for a couple of Siamese cats in a Disney animated feature; the mambo-and-sex-soaked “Lover,” which made it to the top three on the charts. Not to mention Black Coffee, the jazz-vocal album that had raised the pop-jazz bar to unheard-of heights.But just as obvious as her celebrity on this night was her sensuality, a confection of cosmetics, jewelry, and hairstyle, of glance and wink and half smile, that spoke as much of illusion as it did of authentic female. Her appearance told more than a few half-truths. She was the image of glamour and independence, but there was something artificial about the strength she displayed beneath the lights, for with three failed marriages and another broken Hollywood romance already behind her, the music increasingly defined her whole world. Her artistry had risen from a childhood without real family, and by now her audience and her public had become a very large part of what sustained her. Her nightclub theatricality was as spectacular as her art, but the elaborate gowns and masquerade could not conceal the vulnerability beneath. At this crossroads of her life she found her love in those who crowded the clubs from coast to coast.The applause had not yet died when she plunged into her opener, “Day In, Day Out,” a rollicking jazz-infused arrangement of a Bloom-Mercer standard she’d recorded just that week, and immediately she had the place hooked. Her notes rushed and leaped, insistent, playing with the beat, moving behind it, shadowing it, toying with it. The horns swung a high-speed brassy subtext. The pace was breakneck; in their adrenaline rush to get the thing going, the band and the singer nearly outran themselves right out of the gate. The opening number was finished in a minute and forty-five seconds.“Thank you—thank you very much,” she said—just breathily enough. A knowing smile passed across her lips and her eyes darted off to the side. It was the coy, flirtatious expression that would ride her features all evening long, suggesting that something was being mysteriously withheld. She always kept some secrets behind the curtain, even when she insisted otherwise; even when she was exchanging giggles and laughing at double entendres and she and the crowd were meeting halfway, in perfect harmony; even when she confided about the cold she felt coming on: “See? I tell you everything.” It was a ruse, though; she never confided more than just enough.The rest of this show fell into place exactly as she had choreographed it, song by song, so that the moods balanced perfectly between highs and lows, and every rhythm, every genre, had it...

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