A recent discussion on the message board brought back memories from my youth of a glamorous figure in a time when glamour had not yet assumed the tawdry implications that would later become attached to it. In 1959, Peggy Lee appeared in an engagement at a nightclub in New York City called Basin Street East, a place in which she’d achieved a triumph the year before. The poster announcing her return was displayed in front of the club and became a sensation unto itself. Versions of it made their way into newspapers, and it was pasted up on available surfaces everywhere on the island of Manhattan. In it, Peggy was wearing a white, backless, sequined gown, and the picture was taken from behind. Her bare back, revealed to the waist, was a thing of beauty to behold, and she was looking over her shoulder, her mysteriously lovely countenance caught in a look of elegant seduction. Whatever else she might have been, she was certainly an astonishing presence. Sparks seemed to fly away from her person and draw strangers into the aura they projected. This startling vision was, at the same time, contrasted by a clear statement of aloofness, distance, and unavailability. There was no question that the image being observed, although unquestionably magnificent, was an artifice that she had created. It was a measure of her talent in this regard that nobody ever asked about the real woman behind the mask. In bold letters above the photo, the caption read, “PEGGY’S BACK!”
I was twenty-three years old at the time, a bartender and seating captain (on alternate nights) at the infamous Copacabana, and it was a common practice for those of us so employed to visit one another at work on our nights off. It was great fun in the early days of my adulthood, and I spent many hours at The Latin Quarter, Versailles, The Stork Club, and elsewhere at a fraction of the usual cost. As the saying went, we took care of one another. The only stipulation was that we had to look good. And so, when the spirit moved me, I’d dress to the nines and strut beneath the storied marquees of New York’s glittering night life. In retrospect, it was, of course, superficial nonsense, but try telling that to a youngster full of beans with money in his pocket. Toiling at the Copa was a very profitable occupation for an ex marine going to college on the GI Bill, and I was determined to make the most of it.
During the first week of her reappearance, it became immediately evident that Peggy Lee would surpass the success she’d had the first time around. She became the hottest ticket in town, and when I showed up at Basin Street East during the second week, it was only my membership in the workers’ club that got me through the door. The street outside was packed with unhappy, would-be patrons. Every show for the rest of her stay was sold out. I remarked that I hadn’t seen anything like it since Sinatra’s last stint at the Copa. Amid the haze of cigarette smoke and the free flow of booze in a room filled to capacity, the hum of anticipation was palpable. When the lights dimmed, a follow spot suddenly illuminated Lenny Bruce, the opening act. There was no fanfare or announcement, and he masterfully gained the attention of the audience. His delivery was polished, funny, and very entertaining. None of the antics or topics for which he would later become notorious were contained in his material. He told stories rather than jokes and did wonderful imitations of types rather than celebrities. He became many characters, among them an Irish priest, a jazz musician, a rabbi, a Broadway tenor, and an opinionated drunk. It was a testament to his genius that he was able to thoroughly delight a crowd that had come there for reasons having nothing whatever to do with him. When he was finished, he said, “And now I’d better get off because a gentleman does not keep a lady waiting.”
As Lenny made his exit, the orchestra entered and casually took their places. When they were settled, there was a complete blackout. The room grew deathly silent. (I was later informed that it was at this point that Peggy Lee was carried onto the stage. Her gown was so tight that the tiny steps of which she was capable would have made for an awkward entrance.) In the dark, the band struck up the familiar strains of Benny Goodman’s arrangement of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” There was an immediate roar of approval; Peggy was bathed in light; and we were off and running. Her repertoire was devastating. She proclaimed, in no uncertain terms, that we had been listening to her sing for a very long time indeed and had relished every second of it. Her hair was the platinum blonde to which we were all accustomed, but it was cut short in such a way as to highlight her intensely feminine Scandinavian features. When she launched into “Lover” like a pugilist, she knocked me right out of my seat. “Fever” was a spectacle with the lighting changing her white gown into a red flag. The overwhelming force with which she attacked her material left little doubt as to how, when well past fifty years old, she would manage to maintain the glorious, statuesque figure she flaunted so confidently before the world. When she spoke, her voice was a soft, velvet baritone, and her patter was filled with a comic irony which, though delivered from a distance, wove us into her web. Once again, I was reminded of the contrasting elements that exist in a perfectly executed artifice. When she completed her last song, she thanked everyone for coming and bowed repeatedly as it seemed that the applause would never stop. And then, all at once, another blackout. When the lights came up, she was gone; no doubt because of the gown, but the audience was left with a strange feeling. It was as if it had all been an illusion which, I suppose, in many ways it was, except, of course, for that unique and splendid voice and the incredible strength of the woman who possessed it.
Twenty years later, in 1979, I was tending bar in Bradley’s, a great jazz bar in Greenwich Village. One of the regular pianists there was Jimmy Rowles, a supremely talented musician who had been a fixture in jazz circles for decades, and he loved to tell stories about music and everything that surrounded it. On one occasion, he talked about the making of Peggy Lee’s album, Black Coffee, on which he had played. He explained that, due to some kind of union or contract dispute, the album could not be released using the musicians’ real names. They all agreed to use fictitious names and made them up. I no longer have the album and therefore can’t list them, but I think one of them was Cootie Chesterfield. In conclusion, Jimmy said that it added a new dimension to the other-worldliness of working with Peggy Lee. I knew exactly what he meant.