Ann Hampton Callaway explores the music and songwriting of Peggy Lee
Singer and songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway has been listening to the songs and music of Peggy Lee for as long as she can remember. “She was playing on the turntable when I was born,” she said. “There was a lot of Peggy Lee going on there.” In 2003 she was invited to perform at a concert at Carnegie Hall saluting the legendary singer and songwriter and thereafter became friends with Lee’s daughter and granddaughter. The family opened their archive to Callaway who was inspired to record an album of songs written by or associated with Ms. Lee, entitled Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration.
During The Jazz Cruise, Callaway spoke with me about why she was drawn to Lee’s music and life story, as well as about her upcoming album of original songs.
Lee Mergner: You have an affinity with WBGO because of Michael Bourne. Do you remember meeting him the first time?
Ann Hampton Callaway: I'm not good at first times, but all I can say is we've had some great times. One of my favorite memories was when he came over to my house on 79th Street. We had drinks and chatted about jazz and our lives and theater and really shared a lot of deep stuff. He was a good friend. He was not just a great DJ and master of the music, but he was a thoughtful person and we had a lot in common. That was my favorite time. I''m so grateful that he and I became good friends.
Let us talk about the new album. Why did you decide to focus on Peggy Lee?
There are many answers to that. Peggy Lee was one of the most important influences in my life. She was playing on the turntable when I was born. There was a lot of Peggy Lee going on there. And it was great music. I think my father might have had a little crush on her, but 2020 was also Peggy Lee’s Centennial. And, as you might remember, I've been doing a Legacy Series in some of my recordings. I recorded a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and then later on a tribute to the great Sarah Vaughan. Peggy really interested me, not just because of her inspiration to me as a budding singer, but also because she was a trailblazer. I believe she is the first female singer songwriter of the 20th century. With her charming way of entering the world of male domination and finding her place center stage in it, writing with people like Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones and Victor Young and so many other wonderful writers, she not only took the stage in a major way, but she really made it possible for women to be taken seriously as songwriters too. I don't know why it's been such a hard battle, but it was an important thing for me in this record to feature some of her own writing. One of the thrills of the CD was getting to write a song based on an unpublished poem of hers that her granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells, had.
How did that come about that you had a relationship with Ms. Wells? It seemed like she endorsed this project.
We've been friends ever since 2003 when I was invited to be at the Carnegie Hall celebration of Peggy Lee and I sang two songs in the show. I got to know the family and then Holly. First, I was very close friends with Nicki, Peggy's daughter. And then when Nicki died, Holly and I became much closer. When I told her I wanted to make a record about Peggy and that I was also doing tribute shows, I asked her for all kinds of exposure to charts, diaries and documents. I got to tour the home, I got to do all these different things. When it came to the moment of, “All right, we're going to be recording next month and what can I do to make this record special?” Holly said, “Let me get you something that my grandmother wrote.” She suggested that I sing a song that had never been released, which is a beautiful song, "The Other Part of Me," from the 2003 Broadway musical, Peg. That was a real honor to be the first person to record that song. She also suggested John Pizzarelli because, aside from her husband Dave Barbour, Bucky Pizzarelli was her favorite guitarist. Guitar had a through line in her life because of her passion for Dave.
I think a most people don’t know how many songs she wrote. Most know “Fever,” but she wrote hundreds of songs.
Yes, she wrote more than 270 songs. Because of the poems that are now published in the new release of her autobiography, a few people are setting some of those poems to music. Michael Feinstein just wrote a song with music to one of her poems. I going to continue to do some writing to those poems. But she just was such a natural brilliant artist. She did everything in that realm and took on Disney as well. She sued Disney and actually won, but it wasn't just for her, it was for all artists. I love the fact that she had the guts to do that.
What do you think were her unique gifts as a songwriter?
I think Peggy Lee was a philosophical person and she was always listening to things, trying to understand things, trying to get over pain, trying to process things and find the beauty in things. She was looking for silver linings. She found a way of creating an insight into her own way of how she saw the world and how she felt about things. She always had that “less is more” quality and that alluring quality in her singing. She's a person who didn't overwrite as a lyricist.
She did mostly the lyrics, not the music, but she did write some music for some pieces. I think she had a very warm, conversational style. It was witty. It was memorable. She didn't get too complicated. She could be very sexy and coy, like her lyrics for “I Don't Know Enough About You” and the brilliant lyrics she rewrote for “Fever” and the bridge that she wrote to make that much more of an exciting song.
She was always finding a creative way to share what was on her mind and thank goodness she got to do that with some of the greatest thinkers and creators. She also, of course, covered songs by other artists.
You do a few of those on this album. Why did you pick those particular songs?
Well, “Fever” I just thought that's such a sexy, wonderful song. I've always loved that song. I've never really sung it before this show I put together. She wrote her verses. I wrote my own verse about how she met Dave Barbour in the Benny Goodman Band. But I wanted to do that song because that was playing when I was born. That was on the turntable in Chicago, Illinois, in our little five-floor walk-up. “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” to me is one of the most exquisite songs ever written and her best recording.
There’s a great story behind “Sing a Rainbow” by Arthur Hamilton. She got an Oscar nomination for when she played an alcoholic singer in Pete Kelly's Blues. Little did she know that her friend Arthur Hamilton would be writing the song. He gave her flowers for a show and said on the little note, “Sing a Rainbow.” She called him up the next day and said, “That is such the most beautiful thing to say to me. Thank you. You should write a song with that title.” He said, “No, you should write a song.” Then she went back, “No, you should write a song.” I had to include that exquisite song, “Sing a Rainbow” in honor of their friendship.
There’s “Till There Was You.” I wanted to honor her brilliance as a recording artist doing a concept album. “Till There Was You” was from Latin ala Lee. That song was so beautifully done on her record that Paul McCartney, three years later, got the Beatles to sing it. That was how influential she was. They never did any other songs from the Great American Songbook except that one, because they loved what she did. Also, she was the first woman to do a concept album.
What was the concept?
The concept was “The Vagaries of Love.” Black Coffee was the title of the CD, and I thought, “Oh, I want to put that on there.” I love that song. It's such a great torch song. To me, “The Glory of Love” captures her philosophy of life. I'm so happy that John Pizzarelli joined me on that as a duet.
Why did you pick certain tunes for John?
I gave him a list of the songs I was doing, and he picked the ones he wanted to do. He plays on “I Love Being Here with You.” Then he sings a duet and plays on “The Glory of Love,” for which we used the Nelson Riddle part for our quartet. It was a lot of fun. When I did this show, I told a huge story about Peggy and I talked a lot about her love life and the frustrations of losing Dave. I picked “Johnny Guitar,” which was about her. There's a real underlying story in the record that people don't necessarily know until they come to see my show.
This is also a show?
Yes, I have a beautiful show. My Legacy Series is basically combining my father and my mother's talents. He was a man who really tried to capture the essence of people. My belief is that if you know more about Peggy Lee, then these songs are going to come to life in a fresh way. I tell some very interesting stories throughout the night, because she had an extremely challenging childhood. Her mother died when she was four. Her stepmother beat her. She was from Jamestown, North Dakota and then the outlying areas. She later came to my hometown, Chicago. Benny Goodman discovered her and off she went.
Right now, we're on The Jazz Cruise with Mr. Pizzarelli. What do you admire most about him?
He’s a delightful, delicious human being who happens to sing and play his ass off on guitar. He plays everything and he can play every style. As the son of Bucky Pizzarelli, he's got some serious chops and a great attitude professionally. He showed up at the recording session in his suit and tie. He was right on time. John is one of the wittiest people in jazz. When I started out in this business, a man came up to me and said, “You've got a choice here, Anne. You can either be an entertainer or an artist.” And I said, “Really?” I believe that you can be both of those things. John is a living example of somebody who is a fantastic artist and an amazing entertainer who connects with his audiences. His beautiful joyous spirit is something I treasure.
Your band—featuring Ted Rosenthal on piano, Martin Wind on bass and Tim Horner on drums—has been with you a long time. Talk about them.
I’ve worked with Ted Rosenthal for more than 20 years. We've made several records together. Martin Wind came on board and recorded many things with us. Tim Horner and I have traveled all over the world together and been making beautiful music for a long time.
What makes a band work? Is there any secret? I think some people don’t think of the personal aspect—how well you get along.
Absolutely. I don't want to work with people just because they're good. I also want it to be fun. These guys are all funny. They're all warm, they're all professional, they're all really intelligent. They're very serious and they're very playful. No matter what happens, I can always trust them. They create a pocket and a sonic world in each song that helps me let go and let my imagination soar. Every time I sing a song, it's new for the first time. That's because they give me all of the beauty that they each possess and they just gel together. Just a thing that happens now.
I learned today that you've been working, song by song, on an album of all originals. I've always known you as a songwriter, but I also I know that you've done all these different kinds of tribute and theme projects. When and how did you say to yourself, “It’s time.”
During the pandemic, I really started to wonder if I got COVID, would I live through it? If I didn't live through it, what would I wish I had done? I'm up in heaven going, “Oh, why didn't I do this or that?” My songwriting has taken the backseat in my recording career. It's not taken the backseat in my life, because I've written all along.
A woman named Debra DeMartini, who has been a real jazz angel to so many of us, like Ken Peplowski, John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey and so many others sponsored the project. I had put on my website that I was writing songs for people, and she commissioned a song. We got to be good friends through the process. I just mentioned to her that I had started working with Trey Henry on one song that we were going to release as a single and that it was part of a dream of mine to make a whole record of originals. I mentioned it sort of in passing.
Trey is a bassist. Was it just bass and voice?
No, he's an incredible arranger. He was creating arrangements and then taking people in his circle and having everyone record however they could and creating tracks that I sang in Tucson. Everything was done not in the same room. It was a thrilling experience and she loved what we did. She said, “Why don't we make a record?” She basically financed the project. Then it got a little longer because now Melissa Manchester wants to do something and Kurt Elling agreed to do a duet of “Be The Light” and Tierney Sutton’s doing a duet on “You Can't Rush Spring.” There are a lot of wonderful people that just snowballed into this great love. My sister does a duet with me, and I'm doing a song with Allan Bergman. Niki Haris sings incredible backup vocals on one of the songs as only as she can do. It's a great project and I think it's going to be out later this year. Maybe we were thinking Spring, but I'm thinking maybe a little later would be wiser after the Peggy Lee comes out.
Over the years, I’ve seen how tribute albums can take off, like Rene Marie’s album of Eartha Kitt material or Jose James’ recording of Bill Withers songs. They create a momentum of their own.
Right. It's interesting. There are people all over this country starve for interesting shows. I've been doing my Streisand Songbook show since 2012. People still want me to do it. I do it as a trio show, I do it as a duo show, I do it as an orchestra show. I have a show with Linda Ronstadt material. It’s not just the standards, but all her wonderful other songs It has a real shelf life.
Am I remembering correctly that there was a time where you were going to write a song every day?
Well, I wrote a poem every day. Many of those poems were song or became song lyrics. They were lyrics that have not yet been set to music. I am going to start looking at and putting a list of those poems. I've written probably about 2,000 poems in my life, and that was one of the greatest creative periods of my life. Maybe I'll do a whole record, but some of the songs on my new CD, called Finding Beauty, are originals from my poems.
We're recording this interview now on The Jazz Cruise. Both of us been on this cruise before, but it's hard to explain to people how much fun it is, right? Because they say, “Oh, it's a cruise,” like we’re doing shuffleboard and sitting by the pool every day. And I say, “You have no idea.”
It's my favorite thing to do. The Jazz Cruise is indescribable. If I had to say in one word what it’s like, it’s a love fest. It's a love fest for the musicians, the music, and the people, right? What other situation in the world of any festival of any kind, can you be so close to your audience members and your fellow artists? I realized as I was on that stage with all the singers, that I've become close with each one of them because of this experience. After the cruise is over, we're in touch and hanging out together and doing projects together. The power of that love makes the music that much more beautiful. There’s more than music on this cruise. It's really a remarkable achievement. I told Michael Lazaroff [executive director of Jazz Cruises] that there should be a documentary about this because of how unique it is.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.