EDGE Interview: For the Love of Peggy Lee – Ann Hampton Callaway Honors the Jazz Great with New Show
John Amodeo READ TIME: 9 MIN.
In 1941, a young unknown songstress made a single choice while singing in a nightclub that would end up defining what would become her seven-decade recording and concert career. "She had an 'Aha!' moment in Palm Springs," says singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway, recounting this pivotal incident. "She was 21 years old, singing at a rowdy joint called the Doll House, and she thought, 'What would happen if I sing quietly' and she tried it, and the room came to a hush." The singer was Peggy Lee, and thus was born her signature soft and sultry singing style.
Lee, who sang for 2 years with the Benny Goodman Band in the 1940s, subsequently launched her own solo career and went on to become one of the most influential popular singers of the 20th century, having recorded over 50 albums, nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, landed a Grammy for her hit, "Is That All There Is," has written or co-written over 270 songs, and was entered into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In addition to this, she had a brief career as an actress in the 1950s, was a poet, a writer and a painter, a true Renaissance woman. Callaway, who says this "absolutely" was a draw for her, is a bit of a Renaissance woman herself, being not only a renowned singer and songwriter over the past 5 decades, but is an accomplished pianist, 15-time MAC Award winner, Tony-Award nominee for her Broadway turn in "Swing," interviewer, journalist, playwright, poet, and an accomplished photographer. Callaway's fascination with Lee has led her to put together a tribute show, "Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration," which she has been touring with for several years now and will be bringing it to the James Powers Great Hall at Needham Town Hall, in Needham, MA on Saturday, September 23. Click here for further details about this concert.
"I grew up with her," Callaway says about Lee. "'Fever' was released the year I was born. My dad was playing Peggy Lee on the turntable when my sister Liz and I were kids, and we would do interpretive dance in the living room. I saw her 'live' when I was 20 and saw her again late in her life in NY." Of course, Peggy Lee wasn't the only music Callaway's dad, John Callaway, one of Chicago's leading journalists, would have playing in the house. As a jazz aficionado, the elder Callaway would often play Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, all the jazz greats, as well as Garland and Streisand, all of which were great influences on Callaway, and all of whom Callaway has paid tribute to at one time or other in her career.
Peggy Lee stands out among them, not just for her singing, but also for what she represented. "Billie Eilish credits Lee with getting female singers to be respected," asserts Callaway. "She paved the way for women to be recognized as renaissance women, for women like me. She wrote a Broadway show, 'Peg,' which I didn't get to see." She even took Disney to court and won, suing for insufficient royalties from the transfer to VHS of the Disney film "Lady and the Tramp," for which Lee wrote all of the original songs, and performed the voices of several characters. That kind of chutzpah was a real inspiration to Callaway, who is a staunch women's rights and human rights advocate. "She had this slinky body and soft alluring voice, but she was a powerhouse in a male dominated business," concludes Callaway.
As much as she admires Lee, Callaway does not imitate her. "When I perform these tribute shows, I don't try to copy these singers," insists Callaway. "I try to pay homage to their achievements while bringing some aspect of myself to these songs." Over the years of performing this tribute, Callaway has begun to reconcile her own pyrotechnic vocals and several octave range with Lee's more demure presentation. "I still have my Ann Hampton Callaway style in this show, but this discussion is helping remind me of Lee's 'less is more' approach," considers Callaway. "I have tried many ways to bring in the audience, often by making up a song using words they shout out to me, sometimes by some banter I have with audience members while telling a story. I have to relate to the audience first, and once I do that, then I will draw them in by singing a stunning soft ballad and shows them who I really am. It's a lesson for any artist dealing with audiences whose attention span grows smaller and smaller each time."
When Callaway began to research Lee's life for this show, the journalist in her sought out primary sources as much as possible, and with Lee herself already gone (she died in 2001), what better primary source would there be than Lee's own daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, and granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells. "Because of my friendship with her daughter who is no longer with us, and Holly, I thought of Lee as a friend, and I have an intimate perspective which can be shared," imparts Callaway. "I've seen all of her costumes and paintings. It's just such a privilege for me, being the daughter of a journalist who wanted to paint portraits of famous people, and a mother who was a singer, I want to give a sense of what is interesting, complex, and inspiring about my subject. Not often do you get that intimate an exposure to a singer."
In fact, this intimate exposure, stemming from her friendship with Lee's granddaughter Wells, made some unforeseen and significant contributions to the show, which had originated as a recording project. In early discussions with Wells, Callaway asked her what she could do to make the recording special. Wells told her to do three things: write a song to Lee's words, record a song of Lee's that hadn't been recorded before, and do something with guitar, to honor Lee's first husband Dave Barbour, who was a guitarist.
The first of these involved a rare creative opportunity. Wells, who is the sole caretaker of the Peggy Lee estate, gave Callaway access to a stockpile of poems that Lee had written, and asked that she write music to one of them. One poem, "Clair de Lune" was Lee's tribute to composer Claude Debussy and his love affair with Gabrielle "Gaby" DuPont. Lee was so taken by this love affair that she optioned the rights to a book that detailed their affair, wrote a screenplay about them, and even painted a portrait of Gaby. Callaway wondered how she could possibly do justice to such intense feeling Lee had for this couple. "Holly and her husband Dan gave me a crystal Lalique cat that had once belonged to Lee," recounts Callaway. "I asked it to bless me with inspiration, and a bolt of light came out of its eyes, and I went to the piano and composed the song." The song by the same title, "Clair de Lune" will be in the show at Needham's Great Hall.
The song that Lee had never recorded before that Callaway will perform is one from the Broadway musical "Peg" that Lee had written called "The Other Part of Me." The show was autobiographical, and Lee wrote the lyrics to this song in homage to her first husband, Dave Barbour, who, according to Wells, was the love of Lee's life, the father of her only child, and Wells' grandfather. "What an honor to bring this magnificent love song into the world where it belongs," Callaway gushes. "The love between Peggy and Dave can now be more fully immortalized."
Callaway carried out Wells' last item, to include guitar in the tribute, by bringing John Pizzarelli, son of Lee's second favorite guitarist, Bucky Pizzarelli (Lee's first husband Barbour was her favorite guitarist). On the tribute recording and in past performances of this show, Callaway and Pizzarelli perform the duet "The Glory of Love," one of Lee's hit songs. In the Needham show, Callaway's musical director and pianist, the renowned Billy Stritch, will perform the duet with her on this number.
With so many songs in the Peggy Lee canon, Callaway had to test her skills in editing, distilling and honing to craft just the right story arc, to paint just the right musical portrait of Lee. "I created a set list after tons of research, tons of singing, I want to walk through how she got started, and I wanted to focus on her songwriting, so I do a lot of her own songs. A lot of the show is based on this through line of falling in love with the love of her life, Dave Barbour," muses Callaway. "So, I ended up with this fun, well-crafted show that not only resonates with who she is, but also contains songs I love to sing. The most beautiful song she ever sang was 'The Folks Who Live on the Hill.' I never sang that song until eight years ago, but it's a song I now sing and can bring something special, something of me to the song."
Another reason Callaway is paying homage to Lee's songwriting is that this is Callaway's year as a songwriter. Callaway has little to prove as a songwriter, given that she created a sensation writing the theme song to the hit television sitcom "The Nanny" starring Fran Drescher, and was commissioned by Barbra Streisand to write "I've Dreamed of You," which Streisand sang as a wedding song to her husband James Brolin. Still, this has been a heady songwriting year for Callaway. She was inducted into the Women's Songwriting Hall of Fame.
On September 29, she is releasing her first recording of all original songs called "Finding Beauty," with guest artists Tierney Sutton, Grammy Award winner Kurt Elling, Melissa Manchester, and Callaway's sister Tony-nominated Liz Callaway among the list of singers performing her songs. And just over a week ago, on September 8, Callaway released her Pride anthem "Love and Let Love," that she co-wrote with celebrated songwriter Michelle Brourman, and singing in duet with Elling. "There are still 67 countries in the world where homosexuality is illegal, and some of which you can be killed for it," protests Callaway, an out and proud member of the LGBTQ community. "I feel as if this is the first time in my life when my song writing is taking a stand and making a difference."
What: "Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration"
Where: Needham Town Hall, Needham, MA
Date: 23 September 2023
More information: For further information on Ann Hampton Callaway's Needham date and upcoming concerts, Follow this link.
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.