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BWW Interview: Ann Hampton Callaway of FEVER! THE PEGGY LEE CENTURY at 54 Below

Ann Hampton Callaway chats with Broadway World about Peggy Lee, days before her 54 Below debut.

BWW Interview: Ann Hampton Callaway of FEVER!  THE PEGGY LEE CENTURY at 54 Below

When Ann Hampton Callaway steps onto the stage at 54 Below on Wednesday next, she will have been waiting two years to perform her show, FEVER!. Subtitled THE Peggy Lee CENTURY, the program that has been meticulously curated by the jazz great and prolific singer-songwriter was scheduled to premiere in 2020 during the period of time that became the pandemic-informed quarantine and show business shutdown, the period of time when the Peggy Lee devotees would celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of the Legendary Lady. Not one to let a good show or a good party go to waste, Ann Hampton Callaway simply waited until the time was right, and, now that it is, her tribute to Miss Peggy Lee is ready to be seen, and there are those of us who are ready to partake of that which has remained but a dream, all these months, indeed, all these years.

As Ann Hampton Callaway prepares to premiere the Peggy Lee tribute, she graciously took time out of her day to chat with Broadway World about her personal devotion to the late, great Lee, the personal relationship she feels she has with the woman trailblazer who paved the way for other women, and why it is important to honor Lee and the other women trailblazers like her.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Hi, Ann Hampton Callaway, welcome to Broadway World!

Well, thank you. It's wonderful to speak to you, Stephen. I have missed you.

We have missed you so much. I've been waiting to see this show for so long - I've been so excited about seeing your Peggy Lee show. How does it feel to finally get to do this show?

Well, it's a real interesting experience to sing the Centennial Celebration two years later, but Peggy Lee is one of our country's greatest singers and songwriters, and she deserves a party. So we're going to put one on.

That's the spirit! So tell me this: why Peggy Lee?

I've been doing a legacy series to celebrate (mostly) women who have inspired me through the years, and the series includes Barbara Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald. Peggy Lee I've actually honored with symphonies before, and I was part of the Carnegie Hall celebration several years ago after she passed away. But Peggy is an iconic singer/songwriter and as a singer/songwriter myself, to me, she was the first female famous singer/songwriter. I grew up listening to her, as a child. My parents played her records and hers was a voice of my childhood and my adulthood. I got to hear her live. I've sung her music, and I've been fascinated, since I became friends with her family, after my Carnegie Hall celebration, I've been fascinated to get a really personal glimpse at her life by having Nicki, her daughter - she's not alive anymore. Holly Foster Wells (who will be with me on Friday, my final show) has been a great keeper of her grandmother's flame, and given me access to so much personal writing and recordings and songs. So I feel like I have this very special love affair with Peggy, and we have a similar sensibility in terms of what matters to us. She's a real storyteller, she's an impeccable musician. She was driven to write so many different kinds of things. She, too, was a poet, as I am. I really relate to her - a Midwest girl who came through a lot of challenges and came to be herself. When I do my legacy portraits of these great women that is kind of the underlying theme: how did they become them? How did they learn how to take all the naysayers and all the obstacles of the world of men, and the world of show business, and all the crazy business pressures that are fraught in any singer's career and be true to themselves and make a real contribution to art? I think Peggy deserves a real loving look at her career and her life. I've really had a fun time working on crafting it. It's really hard to narrow it down, but I have 17 songs in my show, actually more than that. And it's quite a lovely setlist - I'm looking forward to it.

There's such a wealth in the Peggy Lee canon, and here you are narrowing it down to 17 songs. How did you begin to decide what you wanted to present and what had to fall away?

I tried to capture different points in her career. Of course, I wanted to celebrate and put my own spin on some of her well-known songs that the world knows and loves. And I'm including a few songs that are lesser known that should be more understood, but I really put a special emphasis on her songwriting. She wrote her hit song with her husband, David Barbour, who was the love of her life, and that's actually another part of how I crafted the show. There's a sort of the personal timeline of her life, that he was the love of her life, the father of her one child, Nicky, and their love affair was fraught with challenges. They got divorced. She always hoped they would come back. Finally, when they thought they would get together, he died right before they were to resume a relationship. It's kind of an interesting art - I try to marry my parents' talents. My mother was a wonderful singer, pianist, and voice teacher, and my dad was a serious journalist who won countless Emmy and Peabody awards. And I'm trying to paint a portrait of her as a woman and as a singer. There's a little bit of a plotline chronologically, but also I touch on different points of her life and what mattered to her and some of the iconic contributions she made to music, as well as some firsts. She was the first person to do a concept album - Frank Sinatra was credited with that, but she actually was the first. I think there are a lot of things that people don't know about Peggy that I'm trying to show.

When you formed your friendship with her family, and you got to delve into these personal artifacts, what was something that you learned about Peggy that you had not known as a fan and as a musician, that really resonated with you?

I didn't realize that she was so creative in so many different art forms... that she did the lighting, she designed gowns. She was a real trailblazer in the fact that she faced one of the biggest businesses corporations in the world, Disney, when they didn't pay her and honor her contract. What artist had the courage to face Disney, not just for her own self, but for the sake of other artists who want, who deserve to be fairly paid? She won numerous lawsuits to be paid fairly as an artist. And it benefited many other artists and there's a sense of courage and a sense of nothing's going to stop her if she gets an idea. She also showed me how you can make a song your own. I loved seeing some of her additional lyrics that she was working on. I've gotten glimpses of her drawings, of her costume ideas, and getting to speak to her granddaughter and her daughter - the spiritual side of Peggy Lee was very interesting to me, as I am a very spiritual person. So it helped me connect with her even further. And as a matter of fact, when I would have lunch with Nicki, her daughter, at the Ivy, back in the day in Los Angeles, I would occasionally get a sort of a (message) from Peggy and share them with Nicki. And she'd say, "Oh my god, that sounds just like my mother." So it was an interesting evolution of getting to know Peggy on that personal level; by the way, her autobiography, which I read when I was putting a show together with the Palm Beach Pops many years ago has just been reissued, this month, and it's got a fabulous epilogue, and it has the book of her poems and it has a complete discography. If anybody loves Peggy Lee, they need to read this book, it's just fantastic.

I can actually put my hands on my copy of the book Miss Peggy Lee, right now.

Excellent! Isn't it beautiful! It's a great book. Have you read it yet?

Oh, yes, I bought it when it first came out. I have always had it prominently displayed in my home.

Well, my cat (Peggy Lee liked cats, like me) my cat likes to curl around it - it's on our coffee table, as I'm reading it. As a matter of fact, here's a fun story: when Kari and I got married, Holly gave me Peggy Lee's Lalique crystal cat that she kept on her marble mantlepiece in her bedroom. So that is an incredibly precious heirloom of Peggy's that I'm very honored to have. It sort of makes me feel like I have good luck from Peggy.

I love that story. As a woman, as a singer, as a songwriter navigating the changing tides and the attitudes over the decades in this business, was there a point at which Peggy Lee's contribution to the music industry away from the microphone began to resonate more for you?

What do you mean away from the microphone?

When we first become aware of Peggy Lee, it is just Peggy Lee, the singer. And then we learn about Peggy Lee, the songwriter. And then we learn about Peggy Lee, the businesswoman; she was such a trailblazer. At what point did you become aware that there was more to Peggy Lee than the woman who sang the songs?

My dad would talk about her as a kid, so I was aware that she was a songwriter. I know as a budding singer-songwriter from an early age, I held her up on a pedestal as somebody who could do it. Also, I want to say something that can be kind of controversial: I thought Peggy Lee was one of the really great swinging jazz artists and not many white women could really swing to the level that Ella and Sarah, and Billie could do. I know she was very influenced by Billie Holiday and Sarah, and Ella Fitzgerald was one of her favorite singers, she even wrote about it in her song "I Love Being Here With You" but as a complete woman, until I read her autobiography many years ago, when I was doing the symphony show, I didn't understand, not only that, but also the incredibly abusive childhood she faced; anybody who had to get through that kind of childhood and make it through, and actually perform in her teenage age years and have the wisdom, at the age of 17, to command an audience by singing softer, not louder... there's a certain kind of goddess energy in her that I think informed everything she did.

The more I've gotten to know her through the years, through her writing and through her family and through reading and watching wonderful interviews on television, et cetera, my respect expands from many levels. Most of the women that I've covered in my legacy series are the trailblazers. They're the women who said yes when everyone said no; they're the people who did the impossible. And they did it with a smile and they made people feel. I think it's what these women, including Peggy, have done. They just, with a smile and a charm, made it clear what needs to happen. They weren't like these loud, poster-carrying, complaining women. They were women who made things happen in an intelligent, charming way that people just couldn't resist getting the right thing done.

Tell me a little bit about your instinct to put these women into the light.

I think it's important to celebrate and say thank you to people who have the courage to be themselves. You know, Barbra Streisand was a woman who wasn't the obvious pretty girl, you know, the girl from Brooklyn, she was different than any other singer had ever been. And she went out there and she just was bravely Barbra Streisand. Every one of these women that I've covered are people who maybe weren't the ideal perfect person that men thought women singers should be, but they were just so good at what they did that they were irresistible to the world, and finally, people became more in love with them because they were unique. They weren't Barbie dolls. They were interesting, intelligent, and unique. And as a result of them being so bravely themselves, so many people have tried to copy them.

There are many people who say, "Peggy Lee is the reason why I sing." There's a wonderful phrase that I used in one of my lyrics: a nightingale doesn't know how to sing until it first hears the song of another nightingale, and then it remembers the song the rest of their lives. I think Peggy and these great women were true to themselves and the ring of truth wakes people up. That's why to celebrate them helps other people to find the truth in themselves. Besides celebrating the great music, I'm celebrating the courage and the authenticity, and the integrity to do exactly what you dream to do.

I just met Linda Ronstadt, another trailblazer I've covered in my legacy series; I met her two nights ago and just to be in her presence and feel her energy after five years of speaking to her and emails and on the telephone and celebrating her in shows, just to feel her energy -it's goddess energy. She's just a no-nonsense, does-what-she feels-is-right woman. And I feel that that's so exciting. I have to say, here we are in 2022, and there's just a lot of room for improvement for equal rights for women and everybody who has been a minority. It's really remarkable how much is turning back and how much more we need to celebrate courage and to instill the spirit of courage in each other.

If I were a person who had never heard of Peggy Lee and you wanted to get me hooked, what are four things that you would tell me to look into?

I think one of her most engaging songs, that she rewrote, is "Fever." It's a song that is so iconically Peggy Lee: it's sexy, it's smart, she took a song that was simple and made it better, and she put her own stamp and made it her own arrangement and her own lighting and her own concept. You see that side of her.

There's a very beautiful song she wrote called "Angels on your Pillow" - if you want to see the personal side, hear the personal side of Peggy Lee. It's a song she sang in her Broadway show Peg - I'm closing the show with it. It's the family saying - "Angels On Your Pillow." If you want to get that sense of a personal side of her.

My favorite Peggy Lee recording, without a doubt, is "The Folks Who Live On The Hill" where you hear the longing in her voice for the life she dreamed of with her husband, Dave Barbour.

There she was at capital records with Frank Sinatra at the podium, singing a Nelson Riddle arrangement of the glorious song, and the sadness and the beauty of the dreamer, the real woman Peggy Lee... you feel it and it can't help but tug at your heartstrings and bring a tear to the eye.

And another song that just shows the audacity and the sense of fun that I really love singing is "I'm a Woman," the 1961 hit. It's just fabulous, and it's still very relevant today. I mean, it just captures the sense of what we're asked to do, just a million things that we're supposed to do calmly. I love this song and I think it's even more fun to sing today.

So I am very excited to see you live and in person next week, doing the Peggy Lee show,

Well, I'm honored that you're coming to my show and taking the time to talk to me now. I look forward to seeing you on Thursday.

Take good care.

Thanks so much, Stephen. You too.

Ann Hampton Callaway FEVER! THE Peggy Lee CENTURY will play Feinstein's/54 Below May 18 through 21 with a live stream event on the final night, featuring special guest Holly Foster Wells, the granddaughter of Miss Peggy Lee.

For information and reservations to the live performances visit the 54 Below website HERE.

For the live stream information and tickets, visit THIS link.

Visit the Ann Hampton Callaway website HERE.


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