Book excerpts that chronicle famous encounters among twentieth-century cultural icons
When Peggy Lee sang for Jack Benny
In this excerpt from Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, author Peter Richmond writes about how singing in front of a boisterous Jack Benny and his entourage in a Palm Springs haunt led to her discovering the power of singing “softly, with feeling,” which became the hallmark of her style
(The excerpt begins with Ms. Lee recuperating from throat surgery in 1940)
After her recuperation, Peggy accepted another invitation: to join [bandleader Will Osborne’s manager] Max Schall and the band’s pianist for a drive out west, back to California and straight back to the Jade, where the crew welcomed her with open arms. But when a new guy in town, songwriter Jack Brooks, heard her sing, he suggested a venue with a little bit more style and class, down in a town that was a little less woolly than her current environs: Palm Springs, a vacation spot once known as nothing more than the home of the Cahuilla Indian tribe’s hot springs, had suddenly become a mecca for the wealthy. Here an aspiring singer might easily catch an A-list eye.
Seasonal home to the Hollywood glitterati — Gable, Lombard, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Gary Cooper — and vacationing captains of industry alike, by 1939 Palm Springs had sprouted four large hotels to accommodate tourists in season, when the population jumped from five thousand to eight. Entertainment was plentiful: golf, gambling (in nearby Cathedral City), and nightclubs, from the top-end Chi Chi Club to the Doll House to the more atmospheric Western-themed Mink and Manure. The Doll House would become a legend as the room where Lorre and Cagney did their drinking, where Sinatra would court Gardner…where Peggy Lee, fronting a band called the Guadalajara Trio, caught the eyes and ears of a baseball magnate and a Chicago hotelier who would give her the biggest boost of her career.
But first she had to undergo an inadvertent transformation of her singing style — thanks, indirectly, to radio giant Jack Benny. One Saturday night, Benny and his radio entourage were in the crowd at the Doll House. Peggy was petrified. Benny and his admirers were a boisterous bunch, and singing over the din was not her style; when she started to belt, she lost something, style-wise. She realized this.
“When I sang quietly I felt more emotion,” she would say many years later in an interview. “My voice seems to have a center core surrounded by rings of overtones, and when I sing loud, I lose some of those overtones. When I sing softly, they’re all there. I like getting into that very careful place.” But on a Saturday night at the Doll House, there wasn’t a lot of room for nuance. Frustrated, nervous, and a little pouty – “I was thinking people didn’t want to listen to me, so I’d just sing to myself” — she decided not to try to sing over the noise, but under it.
“In a moment of intense fear, I discovered the power of softness,” she recalled. “The more noise they made, the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘Softly, with feeling.’ The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience — softly, with feeling.”
Excerpted from Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee
A 1942 performance of Peggy Lee singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
A 1947 Jack Benny radio program