Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ burns 50 years on

By  Gillian G. Gaar

Peggy Lee poses on a ladder for a 1965 photo shoot for her Capitol album Don't Pass Me By. Photo: Peggy Lee Associates LLC/John Engestead.

Peggy Lee poses on a ladder for a 1965 photo shoot for her Capitol album Don’t Pass Me By. Photo: Peggy Lee Associates LLC/John Engestead.
2008 marked the 50th anniversary release of Peggy Lee’s version of “Fever.” You might have heard it in the trailer for the “Sex in the City” film, or during the TV show “Lipstick Jungle” in a fascinating mash-up with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.”

But, it’s also the lead-off track on the reissue of Lee’s 1960 album All Aglow Again!, one of four Lee reissues from Collectors’ Choice Music (also including the two CD set The Lost ’40s & ’50s Capitol Masters, and the two-fers Then Was Then, Now Is Now/Bridge Over Troubled Water and Make It With You/Where Did They Go).

It’s all part of an ongoing process to keep Lee (who died in 2002), and her music, in the public eye.

“I’m finding more and more people that appreciate this kind of music again, and her in particular,” says Lee’s granddaughter, Holly Foster-Wells, who’s also vice president of Peggy Lee Associates, the company that oversees Lee’s releases. “I’ll say who my grandmother is and they’ll be like, ‘Now that is so cool. She’s so cool, she’s so hip.’ She would just love that people think that.”

One could say that Foster-Wells’ job is one she was literally raised to do. Foster-Wells lived with Lee as a child and grew up to the sound of her singing voice.

“I don’t ever remember not hearing her sing,” Foster-Wells recalls. “She was always rehearsing or preparing for shows. She had a music room, and musicians and arrangers were over all the time.”

At age 6, Foster-Wells and her family moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, but she continued to visit her grandmother during school vacations, eventually traveling with Lee when she toured.

“It was exciting,” Foster-Wells says. “Just preparing, getting her ready. You know the show is coming, and she’s nervous, and I’m nervous for her. Sometimes it could be stressful if she wasn’t happy with something, like the orchestra rehearsal didn’t go well; other times it was a great kind of nervousness. I would help her with her makeup, her hair and her gowns, and just be there with her. Eat dinner in the dressing room while we were getting ready. Going over the show outline and what she’s going to sing.

“And then she would go on stage,” she continues. “And the thing that I really remember is it was a complete transformation. Like seriously, during the day she’s my grandmother, and we’re watching soap operas together, we’re having lunch. And then she becomes a sex symbol and singer, and this different person almost. And she kind of talked about it like that, too, almost like that was a different person. I’m sure you’ve heard that story about her in the elevator, and she had her hair in rollers, and a scarf and sunglasses, and someone said, ‘Are you Peggy Lee?’ And she said, ‘Not yet.’ And that’s a funny story, but it’s really true; it was a transformation.

“Then I would tidy up the dressing room, and I would run out and watch her. And I never got tired of it. Really, I watched all the time, and the songs were done differently every night. And then, I would run back during intermission, and she would ask me ‘How’s it going? What are people saying? Does my gown look alright, how’s my hair?’ So even though it looked like she was getting lost in her songs she was very aware of what was going on.”

In retrospect, Foster-Wells feels she was definitely being groomed for her future position promoting her grandmother’s music.

“I really knew her and how she liked things done,” she explains. “And I was passionate about her music, and her. She just started saying things like, ‘One day when I’m gone, you’re going to be in charge of this.’ And she would talk about it in the press — ‘My granddaughter will do this’ or ‘My granddaughter’s going to produce this,’ and I would say ‘Oh yeah, sure!’”

Foster-Wells eventually stopped touring with Lee so extensively, taking the time to “… go to college, carve out my own life, become my own person. But there was the understanding that I would always come back to this, and that’s exactly what I did.” Following a stroke Lee had in October 1998, Foster-Wells returned to work full time for her grandmother.

“It makes me really happy, that she knew I came back,” she says. “I would go to her house every day, and she would see me working there, and I would tell her what I was doing. She could be a perfectionist and be difficult when things didn’t go her way, because she had such a strong vision for what she wanted. But, I felt so much respect for her, and I wish I could tell her, now that I’m running her company, how much I really appreciate what she did. Because I don’t think I showed it to her enough.”

Working with Foster-Wells on releases is Jim Pierson, producer of the Collectors’ Choice reissues.

“He’s just an amazing Peggy Lee expert,” Foster-Wells enthuses. “You’d think he’s related to her the way he wants to keep her name alive. He came up with the ideas and these particular CDs; ‘Now’s the time, it’s the 50th anniversary of “Fever;” let’s do something special.’ And it had been a long time since we had released something so we decided to do it.”

Pierson is just as fulsome in his praise of working with Foster-Wells.

“Holly has just been a godsend to have,” he says. “A family member who’s as caring and devoted and delightful as Holly is, is just something money can’t buy. For the love of her grandmother, a lot of things have been preserved and perpetuated that would otherwise be very difficult or nonexistent.”

Pierson was a college student when he first saw Lee perform in the mid-’80s, at a show in Dallas.

“She always had the ability to captivate,” he recalls. “And the show was just mesmerizing because of her ability to focus on the intimate connection between her audience without overdoing things. She had a subtlety that is a fine art.”

By the late ’80s, Pierson was in Los Angeles, working for a TV production company, while “moonlighting doing music reissues because I’d befriended people at some of the record companies; that was really when bringing out old catalog stuff on CD got started.”

In the course of this work, he met Lee and her family.

“When I like an artist, I tend to be very driven to hear their whole body of work,” he says. “I guess it’s kind of an obsessive thing, but I like to think it’s a thoroughness, too. Peggy didn’t have a lot of continuity in her management, and she had a lot of different people looking after her career over her long decades of performing. I offered to connect the dots, and did what I could to help uncover and instigate projects that would complete the picture and document material by Peggy that hadn’t been seen or heard in decades — or ever at all.

“I’ve tried to do whatever I can, whenever I can, to help promote and perpetuate Peggy’s music and her legacy,” he continues. “It’s a tall order. There’s so much going on in the world of entertainment nowadays that for new generations to be exposed to this stuff takes a lot of initiative. You want to get her songs out there in films, TV, commercials and avenues that people can hear it, because radio has become so fragmented. It’s really a full-time job.”

Pierson describes the Collectors’ Choice releases as a way of “… cleaning up the loose ends [of Lee’s catalog], particularly while there’s still at least a CD market. You’ve got plenty of Peggy Lee’s greatest hits out there, but a lot of these other great albums just haven’t been heard. So, there was this great opportunity to fill in some gaps.

“These CDs are a broad spectrum showing Peggy from the ’40s to the ’70s and the way she adapted, I think, is a testament to her artistry,” he continues. “Because I can’t think of many Big Band singers who were able to do funky, soul pop in the ’70s and be legitimate with it. And Peggy was an authentic artist who could really be flexible.”
Indeed, Lee’s ability to maintain her career and continue having hits, through a musical landscape that changed dramatically during those years, is a testament to her flexibility.

“It is amazing,” Foster-Wells agrees. “I think she was just attracted to music, and yes, her taste would change with the times. I know that the albums sound very different. Her different periods you can definitely tell — ‘That’s her Decca period,’ or ‘That’s the ’70s.’ She was a risk taker, and different people she worked with would influence her in different ways. It is amazing to me that she had such a long career. And she did so many types of music and sounds.”

Pierson feels all the reissues “have a little hook to them” for collectors. The “lost masters” release is “… a fairly obvious concept to sort of mop up things that have been buried for up to 60 years, which is hard to fathom,” he says. “There were about a dozen tracks that were still unreleased. And some of those things only existed on the original acetate disc. They’d never been transferred over, because tape wasn’t used for recording until 1948, 1949. And Capitol even now didn’t even have tape copies. So, we had to go back and pull these huge ancient 16-inch lacquer discs out.”
This process unveiled a few surprises.

“We found a couple of songs that weren’t in the files, that we didn’t know existed,” says Pierson. “There’s one or two
songs that were never listed on Peggy’s artist file cards at Capitol. One is ‘Love Ye’; we never even knew Peggy recorded it. I found that when I was getting stuff pulled from the vault. It was a challenge to clean up some of those early things sonically, and there are some imperfections that exist because they weren’t transferred to tape earlier. So, you do get a little bit of degradation after all these decades. But, at least they’ve been preserved.”

The set has 14 previously unreleased tracks because of the tendency at the time for an artist to record more material than was needed.

“An artist would go in and generally record three songs in a session, then choose two to put out on a single,” Pierson explains. “And so, sometimes a third song would be orphaned and might be neglected, since you didn’t have albums in the ’40s, so you’ve got some loose ends like that. I’ve learned after doing dozens and dozens of reissues that you’ll find some incredible specimens that are buried. And you have to champion some of this stuff [to the record company], because the markets are so saturated now with a lack of retail. As you know, music retailing had changed so drastically in recent years with the disappearance of major retail chains like Tower Records. It’s just a bizarre, scaled-down market. Fortunately, you’ve got somebody like Gordon Anderson; he’s the creative guy behind Collectors’ Choice [and executive producer of the Lee albums]. They’ve got a mail-order catalog and Web site that’s filling a niche because where else are people going to find deep catalog?”

All Aglow Again!, originally released in mono, has been “spruced up” with bonus tracks and stereo mixes.

“We went in and found multitracks and mixed things,” says Pierson. “So, about half of that album is actually in stereo for the first time. I’m a stereo nut, and if something was recorded for stereo, I like to try and find the tapes and try and make it sound the way it did in mono, but give it the full spectrum so there’s some really nice sonic upgrade on that album. And some of the bonus tracks had never been on CD.”

Bonus tracks on Then Was Then… include tracks previously only available on singles, and are also in stereo for the first time.

“And Peggy, to me, has never sounded more beautiful than she does on Then Was Then,” says Pierson. “She does some very interesting stylings on that album, some really exquisite songs that are just lush, but then there’s also uptempo numbers. That’s probably one of her top two most beautiful albums as far as just the arrangements. And on Bridge Over Troubled Water, there’s a lot of brass and a lot of that early ’70s stuff that’s very indicative of the time, but it’s great fun. Just lively. There’s a wonderful bluesy version of the BB King classic ‘The Thrill Is Gone,’ just a real snazzy arrangement; Peggy just kills with that. There’s some knockout stuff there.”

Pierson also cites the “great orchestrations” on Make It With You, pointing out, “Collectors will go for it because most of that stuff has never been on CD.” Where Did They Go, he says, “is a real departure for Peggy. It’s very commercial. She’s doing a lot of pop covers. She does a really tender job with ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him,’ and ‘I Was Born In Love With You’ is a really historic and a really lovely song.”

The CDs all have extensive liner notes; notes for All Aglow Again! are written by Pierson and Foster-Wells, and Lee’s daughter, Nikki Lee Foster, contributes notes to the Lost Masters.

“There are those people out there like you and me who still like to read liner notes and look at the artwork and hear an album from beginning to end,” says Foster-Wells. “So, we’re happy that we got to do these CDs instead of waiting to do the releases digitally.”

In addition to CDs, Peggy Lee Associates explores other ways to promote Lee’s music.

“A big thing that we do is manage her publishing company,” says Foster-Wells. “We deal with a lot of licensing requests for publishing and a lot of licensing requests for her recordings. We’ve had songs on ‘The Gilmore Girls,’ ‘Weeds,’ ‘Six Feet Under,’ ‘American Idol,’ ‘CSI,’ all those shows. And we also do things like tributes; we did a tribute at Carnegie Hall, and a tribute at the Hollywood Bowl. Things like that, that just keep her name and music alive.”

And as the company continues to explore to ways to promote Lee’s music, they also have an eye on future CD releases, such as a reissue of Two Shows Nightly (“a quasi-live album from ’68, much of which was re-recorded in the studio, which was common in the ’60s,” says Pierson).

Pierson also notes that other Lee material is awaiting release/reissue: more radio performances, unreleased material from Lee’s stint with A&M in the ’70s, live songs, alternate takes, and songs not yet available on CD and/or in stereo.

“We keep track of what’s never been out, and we know what our fans are clamoring for,” says Foster-Wells. “They discuss things very actively on our bulletin board at peggylee.com. The ‘Best Ofs’ keep mainstream people happy, but the collectors really want the rare stuff. We try and make everybody happy. But, you don’t want to do release it all at once. You have to pace it out.”

Both Foster-Wells and Pierson would also like to see more Lee DVDs available (Pierson has already produced one DVD, 2004’s “Fever: The Music Of Peggy Lee”).

And each have strong ideas about the reasons for Lee’s lasting appeal.

“I think it starts with the songs she sings,” says Foster-Wells. “She picks really good songs. She would pick songs that would resonate with her, so when she sang them she really believed every word she was saying. She was a real actress, so when she sang a song, she would act it out. Even if you can’t see her singing it, you hear it in her voice. It just takes you to a different place.”

“The music of Peggy Lee really is timeless,” says Pierson. “There’s a lot of music from previous decades that can sound dated and turn younger listeners off. But the great thing about Peggy is that most of her recordings really have the ability to transcend the time that they were made. That’s particularly true of the ’60s material, because you’re talking about good solid musicianship, real instruments and a great voice. And great ballads and songs that really, 95 percent of the time, still hold up. The special thing about Peggy is that she had a high-caliber set, and she raised the bar to do things that were often a cut above what other people were doing. So I think really that she’s not just another pretty canary. She didn’t just sing; she also knew how to build her nest.” 

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