Great Encounters #38: When Peggy Lee sang for Jack Benny

September 23rd, 2014

Great Encounters

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


Peter Richmond


A 1942 performance of Peggy Lee singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

A 1947 Jack Benny radio program


Share this:

One comments on “Great Encounters #38: When Peggy Lee sang for Jack Benny”

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In This Issue

Jeffrey Stewart, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke, is interviewed about Locke (pictured), the father of the Harlem Renaissance.

Also in this issue…A new collection of jazz poetry; "On the Turntable," a new playlist of 19 recommended recordings by five jazz artists; three new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Great Encounters”; several short stories; the photography of Veryl Oakland and Charles Ingham; a new Jazz History Quiz; and lots more…

On the Turntable

This month, a playlist of 19 recently released jazz recordings, including those by Branford Marsalis, Joe Martin, Scott Robinson, Allison Au and Warren Vache


In a special collection of poetry, eight poets contribute seventeen poems focused on stories about family, and honoring mothers and fathers

The Joys of Jazz

In this new volume of his podcasts, Bob Hecht presents three very different stories; on Harlem Stride piano, Billy Strayhorn's end-of-life composition "Blood Count," and "Lester-ese," Lester Young’s creative verbal wit and wordplay.

Short Fiction

We had many excellent entrants in our recently concluded 50th Short Fiction Contest. In addition to publishing the winning story on March 11, with the consent of the authors, we have published several of the short-listed stories...

“What are some of your all-time favorite record album covers?”

Gary Giddins, Jimmy Heath, Fred Hersch, Joe Hagan, Maxine Gordon, Neil Tesser, Tim Page, Veronica Swift and Marcus Strickland are among the 25 writers, musicians, poets, educators, and photographers who write about their favorite album cover art


“Thinking about Homer Plessy” — a photo narrative by Charles Ingham

Jazz History Quiz #127

Before his tragic early death, this trumpeter played with Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, and John Coltrane, and most famously during a 1961 Five Spot gig with Eric Dolphy (pictured). Who is he?

Great Encounters

In this edition, Bob Dylan recalls what Thelonious Monk told him about music at New York’s Blue Note club in c. 1961.


Jerry Jazz Musician regularly publishes a series of posts featuring excerpts of the photography and stories/captions found in Jazz in Available Light by Veryl Oakland. In this edition, Mr. Oakland's photographs and stories feature Stan Getz, Sun Ra, and Carla Bley.


Romare Bearden biographer Mary Schmidt Campbell discusses the life of the important 20th century American artist

Cover Stories with Paul Morris

In this edition, Paul writes about jazz album covers that offer glimpses into intriguing corners of the culture of the 1950’s

Coming Soon

Michael Cuscuna, the legendary record producer and founder of Mosaic Records, is interviewed about his life in jazz...Award-winning photographer Carol Friedman, on her career in the world of New York jazz photography

In the previous issue

Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, talks about her book, and the complex life of her late husband.

Also in this issue…A new collection of jazz poetry; "On the Turntable," a new playlist of 22 recommended recordings by seven jazz artists; three new podcasts by Bob Hecht; a new “Great Encounters”; several short stories; the photography of Veryl Oakland and Charles Ingham; a new Jazz History Quiz; and lots more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive