To her biographer, James Gavin, Peggy Lee was the definition of cool.
To the Twin Cities' sassiest song stylist, Davina Lozier, Lee was a "sophisticated, multifaceted artist — not just a cute girl onstage."
To New Standards maestro Chan Poling, Lee was "a kind of naughty, bad-ass rock singer with jazz overtones."
The many facets of Lee will be explored in a musical biography Monday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis with narration by Gavin and music sung by four divergent vocalists — Nellie McKay, Catherine Russell, Jonatha Brooke and Lozier — backed by an expanded version of the New Standards. Between songs, Gavin will explain why he titled his 2014 biography "Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee."
"Peggy Lee's life was a musical version of 'The Twilight Zone,' " said Gavin, a regular New York Times contributor who also wrote biographies on Lena Horne and Chet Baker. "Peggy was a mystery figure. She was the definition of cool. There was a lot of withholding, a lot of secrets swirling around her as she sang. A lot happening in the eyes that wasn't explicitly spelled out. At her strangest, she bordered on insane."
Born in 1920 near Jamestown, N.D., she had an impoverished upbringing on a farm where no one in her Scandinavian family ever complained. "She developed this very controlled facade; underneath was a deep and murky river of very violent emotions," Gavin noted.
"Peggy was always a peculiar presence. You felt a strangeness when she sang, as well as sex appeal, swing and romance."
After she moved to Hollywood and her career took off, she had drinking problems and then graduated to downers, especially Valium, in the late 1960s. She went on to live in a fantasy world in the mid-'70s, with anger and a bizarre sense of humor, Gavin explained. "She later acknowledged that she was a weird little child with a strange imagination."
'A flair for telling stories'
Lee got her start singing with Benny Goodman's band. But her romance with bandmate David Barbour — Goodman forbade fraternizing among his musicians — got them booted from the group. She raised their daughter and began writing lyrics in earnest.
"She had a flair for telling stories," Gavin noted. "A lot of these stories were very odd and kind of vague — they reflected the dream world Peggy lived in, but Peggy was also very funny."
Few pop singers, other than maybe Mel Torme, were writing their own songs. Lee collaborated with such composers as Cy Coleman, Victor Young and even Duke Ellington.
From 1941 through 1993, Lee recorded more than 50 albums with orchestras and under her own name. Her biggest hit was "Manana (Is Soon Enough for Me)," which spent several weeks at No. 1 in 1948. Other distinguished singles include the definitive 1958 recording of "Fever" and the 1969 comeback hit "Is That All There Is?"
For Disney's 1955 animated film "Lady and the Tramp," she wrote lyrics for six tunes including "He's a Tramp" and "The Siamese Cat Song" and portrayed voices for four characters. In 1988, she famously sued Disney Studios for performance royalties from the sales of videos because a clause in her contract referred to transcription royalties (for radio recordings) long before videos were marketed.
"Peggy felt taken advantage of," Gavin said. "Even though she was infirm at the time and in a wheelchair, anger propelled Peggy in her life — through bouts of illness and every kind of problem. She spent a fortune on lawyers. She felt certain Disney was waiting for her to die and go away."
She prevailed in 1992, collecting more than $3 million from Disney — "the last great triumph of her career." She died in 2002 at age 81.
Meeting New Standards
The evolution of this musical biography started when Gavin had a book-release presentation three years ago at Joe's Pub, his favorite cabaret in New York. A fan of the New Standards, he invited them to fly in from the Twin Cities to be the house band because they had expanded his musical horizons.
"By paring certain songs to their essentials, they made me see that I'd cheated myself out of an incredible body of [contemporary] lyric writing and composing," he said, referring to the trio's lounge versions of hits by Britney Spears, the Replacements and others.
Gavin toured the world doing a similar show about Lena Horne featuring Mary Wilson of the Supremes. He staged a Lee biography at Lincoln Center. Now he's hoping to take the show on the road with the New Standards.
"There's not any acting," Poling said of the show. "It's a musical biography."
Each of the featured vocalists will offer four numbers. McKay is the New York cabaret darling who has done everything from recording an album of Doris Day music to singing a marijuana tune at the New Standards holiday show.
Grammy-winning Russell, a featured vocalist with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, has toured with David Bowie and Steely Dan and sung background vocals for countless stars.
Brooke is a much lauded singer-songwriter and playwright who moved to Minneapolis last fall. Lozier settled here a decade ago to front Davina and the Vagabonds, a rollicking New Orleans-inspired blues/R&B ensemble.
Poling will get to sing "Is That All There Is?" Lee's final hit written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the legendary rock 'n' roll songwriters.
"That's my tune," Poling proclaimed proudly.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719