It was 1982.
The entrance of Creative Galleries.
The limousine arrived and she emerged.
There is a word I’ve been saving for the sort of story I’m about to tell you.
She debouched from the limo. (She deserves a special word.)
Instantly I recognized her. Who wouldn’t? (Maybe you wouldn’t.)
I’m older than you and I’ve lived a helluva life. I’ve seen things.
Her real name was Norma Egstrom, the seventh of eight kids born to Norwegian and Swedish parents. I know you don’t care about that but you need to know.
She had a rough childhood.
Her mom died when Norma was four. Her dad was an alcoholic.
He remarried and the new mom hated her guts. Such a bend in the road can make you stronger and more serious about the rest of your life if you’re Norma.
Well, by now you’re wondering who Norma is. Or rather--who did she become?
She was a slinky blonde. She was a singer, an actress, a songwriter, a poet and she would become famous. Fame is like that one perfect summer day that arrived and departed which you can never forget. Fame colors everything else.
For Norma, fame was selling a million records again and again. Fame was receiving twelve Grammy nominations and winning twice. Fame was getting an Academy Award nomination, or finding a place in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Fame is also the memoir of an amnesiac.
When Norma died, the Academy left her out of their tribute at the Oscars. When I tell my story you’ll scratch your head and not remember her. That’s fame too.
Oh but wait--I’m not going to let that happen. Today, you are going to hear about Norma in this itty bitty story and I’m going to link one of her songs which really cuts me up when I listen to it and the message it spells.
You see, Norma was special and I insist you spare a moment to appreciate her. Norma became Peggy Lee.
Peggy Lee was discovered by bandleader Benny Goodman. She traveled with his band and recorded her million selling hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” She sang in two movies and really looked swell up there on the big screen. Easy on the eyes.
Peggy fell in love with the guitarist in the band. Benny fired him. Peggy quit. For love she walked out. Love meant something to a little girl from a cold, heartless family. She would make the most of it. She’d be a real mom and wife--not the other kind.
"I fell in love with David Barbour," she recalled. "But 'Why Don't You Do Right' was such a giant hit that I kept getting offers and kept turning them down. And at that time it was a lot of money. But it really didn't matter to me at all. I was very happy. All I wanted was to have a family and cling to the children [daughter Nicki]. Well, they kept talking to me and finally David joined them and said 'You really have too much talent to stay at home and someday you might regret it.' She continued to record and had another million selling hit. "Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)"
The day Norma walked in the entrance to Creative Galleries I smiled and found myself saying out loud, “Peggy Lee, come inside and rest your weary frame of mind.” She actually smiled. We connected.
By the time I met Peggy Lee, she was 62 and her health had betrayed her. She was heavy now and she dressed all in black from the top of her head to the souls of her shoes. I think she felt she was unrecognizable--and what must that feel like? Imagine being beautiful and famous and having all that dissolve like a lump of sugar in a hot cup of tea.
But I had recognized her with a smile and a welcoming tune in my voice that was genuinely excited to see her and greet her.
The next fifteen minutes were wonderful.
I was all about ‘fanboy’ encyclopedic awareness. I knew the names, places, dates and particulars of her career in a respectful way. Not pushy. No gushing. Listen, I was a tall, good-looking 35 year old man paying Peggy Lee the kind of appreciation she deserved. Why wouldn’t she respond?
We covered it all, from cabbages to kings, in our cozy stroll through the gallery. I told her how much I loved the song she sang for the movie, “Johnny Guitar” and she nodded. “Nobody but you would ever remember that song” she laughed. Yeah, that’s probably true.
We talked about the voice-over work she did for Disney in LADY and the TRAMP. She truly enjoyed singing the Siamese cat song, “I AM SIAMESE, if you please”. Walt Disney, she told me, had a crush on her and even did a promo for his animated film by showing the rehearsal and dubbing session with Peggy Lee. She scrunched her face into a girlish little smile and said, “I gave Walt a kiss on his cheek and he almost fainted.”
It’s funny now--well, not ha-ha funny--but you know what I mean. Small moments in your life come and go in an instant of time and yet they linger, coloring your heart with a warm afterglow.
Peggy Lee had to go. She had an appointment with her doctor and she had wanted to get her mind off what he might tell her. She had barely noticed the gallery after she had rummaged through the Antique Guild across the narrow street outside. She had told her driver to pull up so she could go inside.
I was listening and nodding, not expecting what she said next.
“I told my driver I wanted to go in because I saw you standing just inside laughing at something and I needed to be around laughter that very moment.”
I confessed I was laughing at how long her limousine was--I’d never seen anything quite like it before.
She turned and stared at it for a few seconds and turned back.
“You see Honey, in this town nobody takes you serious if ya don’t take yourself serious.”
She gave a little wave and off she went. The long, sleek limo purred away and I stood long watching it vanish.
Peggy Lee lived another twenty years. She didn’t let go and never gave in to her diabetes and heart condition. She continued to perform in a wheelchair for the crowds who still paid to hear her sing.
And now I get to the reason I told you my little story. I wanted you to know what sort of life Peggy Lee had lived and what sort of person she really was. Why? I want you to listen to this song and understand it comes from deep inside a person who has REALLY LIVED and knows what life is all about.
Thanks for listening!