July 24, 2020 Interview – Holly Foster Wells Talks The Legacy Of Peggy Lee
When thinking of pioneering performers, one of the first names that should come to mind is Peggy Lee. A singer, songwriter, composer, and actress, Lee paved the way for women in entertainment for years to come. Sophisticated and unique, her career spanned over six decades, influenced many, and earned her international stardom. Receiving 12 Grammy Awards nominations, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and more, Lee unquestionably built an eternal legacy.
In fact, her impact continues to be felt today where her music is still used in commercials, film, and inspires new artists. Now in 2020, we turn our attention to centennial celebration of Peggy Lee’s birth—May 26th, 1920. A special time to discover, rediscover, and recognize her work, there has been the release of Ultimate Peggy Lee and Peggy Lee Decca Rarities, the launch of a GRAMMY Museum exhibit, the forthcoming release of the updated documentary Fever: The Music of Peggy Lee, plus so much more. Excited about it all, Holly Foster Wells, Lee’s granddaughter, as well as president of Peggy Lee Associates, took the time to discuss her music, life, and historic significance.
Cryptic Rock – Peggy Lee is a legendary voice in music and she accomplished a great deal as a performer. As her granddaughter, were you aware early in life who grandmother was?
Holly Foster Wells – Yes. It’s funny because this is all I know, so it seemed very normal. When I was born, my family and I actually lived with her; my mom, dad, and two brothers. She had a big house in Beverly Hills; she actually had a whole wing that was basically another house. We grew up in that house in our early years. She was like my second mom and she was always around. She would then go on the road and come back, but her career was always a part of my growing up.
Eventually my mom and dad got divorced and we ended up moving to Sun Valley, Idaho. Although, I spent every summer vacation, spring break, and Christmas break with my grandmother. If she was on the road, I was with her on the road, if she was home, I was with her at home. I grew up with it, this is was the family business, this is what she did. We are all a part of it; especially me, being the only girl of grandkids.
Of course, I did realize when going out that people would look at her going, “Who’s that?” I realized of course she was famous, but it wasn’t unusual because that is how it was and that is what she did.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. Growing up around her and being a major part of her life, at what age did you start to appreciate her music?
Holly Foster Wells – I was six years old when I really remember her first show sitting in the audience to watch her and going back stage with her. I remember being mesmerized thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is what she does. This is what this is all about.” It was around the time she was doing her final album with Capitol Records, Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota (1972). I’m sure that’s the reason that has always been my favorite album of hers; I remember singing and loving those songs.
It was when I was really little like that when she said, “This music is going to outlive me and you’re going to be running my company one day.” At the time I had no idea what she was talking about. The estate business wasn’t really a thing back then. I don’t know what she imagined because there was nothing like the internet or streaming back then. She had this idea of music, The Great American Songbook, Jazz, and how it would outlive her. Now, here I am, doing exactly what she said I would be doing. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – It is unbelievable how it all turned out and how she had that foresight. What has the task of running her estate been like for you?
Holly Foster Wells – I have learned a great deal along the way. One of the things I will tell you is that, she started to tell me very early on the things that she didn’t want done and things she did want done after she was gone. She never talked about that she wouldn’t be here, it was just assumed. I think the idea of death and mortality was something that was uncomfortable for her, and yet she knew it would happen one day. She always said to me, “I want to leave a legacy.” She didn’t want to be forgotten, she wanted to leave something behind that her family would be proud of. No matter how many times I said to her, “You’ve already left us a legacy,” it was as if she wanted to do more.
I don’t know if it had to do with her childhood where her mother died when she was four, she was physically abused, and she really came from nothing. She built this incredible career and persona, so it meant something to leave it to her family. She cared very much about how it was going to continue. She gave me all these lessons and I wish I would have paid more attention to certain things. I was young and really didn’t know what she was talking about; I wish I could go back and ask her more questions about certain things. (Laughs)
What is interesting is she left behind this mansion in Bel Air just filled with memorabilia and material. She’s been gone for more almost eighteen years and it has almost been like a treasure hunt. She left these clues through her scrapbooks and I’ve been able to re-create the timeline of her life, plus learn a lot more about her music than I did even when I was growing up. One of the really interesting things about her was she was so thorough and such a perfectionist. She would record business meetings and parties. In fact, I have all these audio tapes where I can listen to things she said. I have all this material, plus my memory, and I am able to, hopefully, do what she wanted me to do. It’s such a privilege, I’m very proud of it. Doing something that keeps her dream going, keeps me connected to her, and helps my whole family… it is such an honor.
Cryptic Rock – She would be very happy with the job you are doing. May 26th marked what would have been her 100th birthday. To celebrate, there is the Ultimate Peggy Lee album which came out digitally on April 17th, then vinyl, as well as CD, on June 19th. You also have Peggy Lee Decca Rarities which is 31 great tracks released on April 3rd digitally. What was it like overseeing these collections being put together?
Holly Foster Wells – This was a dream project for me personally. I have, in my office, countless Peggy Lee hit compilations, but there was never just one of them that I could tell people, “This is the perfect CD to get you an introduction to Peggy Lee’s music.” For Ultimate Peggy Lee I was able to go through and pick, of course her big hits, but also lesser known gems that sound so fresh and withstood the test of time. It’s such a good listen! With over 1,100 recordings, it was very hard to pick 22 songs; I could have done volume 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. This to me is the collection to get.
Of course we didn’t want to leave out the die-hard Peggy Lee fans, we needed to include something really special for them, and with it being her 100th birthday, we added the never before heard song, “Try A Little Tenderness.” She recorded it in 1963, so it’s making it’s world debut right now. It sounds fantastic and I don’t know why it wasn’t included on the original album. Quite often she would record numerous songs and then just pick the ones she liked the best, but that didn’t mean the ones she rejected weren’t good. I’m really excited it’s finally making its world debut. I wrote the liner notes for the collection and her discographist, Iván Santiago-Mercado, did a wonderful track by track annotation. You can really learn about each one of the songs plus why they are interesting and significant.
Cryptic Rock – It really is a great collection people need to hear. What can you tell us about Peggy Lee Decca Rarities collection?
Holly Foster Wells – That is another interesting collection. She spent a short period of time at Decca Records in between stints at Capitol Records. The body of work that she created there was amazing. She was given tremendous freedom and it all started with that song “Lover.” I don’t know why they didn’t want to do it with Capitol, but Decca let her do it. That’s what started it all off at Decca.
We realized that many of these Decca songs were not available digitally, so we wanted to make sure to put them out there. What is also exciting about that is, many of the songs on this album, she actually wrote. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about her; she’s a singer-songwriter and she did it at a time that wasn’t really a thing. She started writing songs in the 1940s with my grandfather, Dave Barbour. They even started their own publishing company, and that was another unprecedented thing. That is, by the way, the company I am still running today. She never sold her publishing, she always said, “You can sell diamonds, but don’t ever sell a song.”
Cryptic Rock – Wow, she was a very smart lady. All these songs still sound so fresh and lively all this time later. Some of these recordings are seventy years old, yet they sound so crisp, clear, and powerful.
Holly Foster Wells – I am so glad you say that. I’m telling you, even me, with all these recordings I listen to all day long, I keep re-discovering her music myself. In 2019, we put out a digital reissue of Is That All There Is? (1969), which is now a 50 year old album. That song, “Me and My Shadow,” could have been recorded yesterday. The chart is contemporary, in fact, The Black Pumas discovered that song when the album came out; they have been talking about Peggy Lee since.
With her music, I keep finding and discovering things. What’s exciting is to actually release them. I know Peggy Lee fans were so excited about Peggy Lee Decca Rarities because there is stuff on there that hasn’t been available to be heard for decades.
Cryptic Rock – That is fantastic that everything has been documented and available for release now. You had a special concert planned for August in celebration of Peggy Lee’s 100th birthday. Is that on hold due to COVID-19?
Holly Foster Wells – Yes, The Hollywood Bowl announced that for the first time in ninety years, they had to cancel their season. We had such an incredible concert planned with Count Basie Orchestra, Debbie Harry was headlining it, and we had other artists we were talking to as well. I hope it will happen the following summer. We had another couple of big concerts that were not announced yet that will need to be postponed or cancelled.
The exciting news is we still have a virtual birthday celebration for her. We have partnered with the GRAMMY Museum, and for the time they are actually curating an exhibit specifically for the internet. They worked with me on an exhibit that debuted on her birthday, May 26th. They will also do an in-person, bigger exhibit where you can see her gowns and more, if everything is okay, in March of 2021. Before then, we are going to debut the teaser, online exhibit. They also hosted a panel discussion on Zoom that was aired on their website May 26th. The panel featured K.D. Lang, me, and Dr. Tish Oney; who recently put out a book called Peggy Lee: A Century of Song.
We also debuted a radio show where I was interviewed by Charles Pignone of the Frank Sinatra estate where we talk about Ultimate Peggy Lee in detail. We also had a wonderful social media campaign where a lot of artists posted about her. In August, there will also be a PBS documentary that airs which will also have several pledge products; a never seen or heard DVD and two CD box set. There are also other big releases coming throughout the year. Her centennial happens for a whole year, so we have some time.
Cryptic Rock – It seems like there is so much out and so much more yet to come to celebrate her music. You mentioned how Debbie Harry was scheduled to play the Hollywood Bowl concert. Was Peggy Lee aware of the impact she made, paving the way for other females in modern music?
Holly Foster Wells – I think she was somewhat aware of that. She got to meet K.D. Lang and Madonna. These wonderful artists, when they were still up and coming, met her, and told her what an impact she made on them. Paul McCartney actually came to dinner one night with Linda, and brought her a song. He told her, “Instead of wine or flowers, I’m bringing you a song.” He and Linda wrote a song called “Let’s Love,” which Paul went on to produce for my grandmother. She got to hear how she influenced Paul McCartney, K.D. Lang, Madonna, Diana Krall, etc. I think she would be so incredibly proud to hear it still continues. Billie Eilish talks about Peggy Lee now and the influence she had on her.
My grandmother said one of her favorite things to hear was a song she’s written sung by someone other than herself. I think she would be so amazed to see how many people cover her compositions such as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Queen Latifah, and Regina Spektor. She runs the gamut of artists that are considered to be Jazz to Alternative Rock artists. She wasn’t defined by one specific genre; it’s fascinating for me to see how it continues on and on.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, it is a testament to her work and her massive universal influence.
Holly Foster Wells – I always say her music speaks for itself. I don’t have to sell her music, but what I need to do is make sure it gets out there so people hear it. I love seeing people discover it and then artists putting their own stamp on it. Although my grandmother certainly got to see the impact she made, I have to wonder what she would think about the year 2020 and to still have people celebrate her in this way. Her music is in all these different TV shows and commercials. Her song “Similau” was used in a Samsung commercial. It is a song that wasn’t even a big hit in the 1940s, but that song now caused her music to be back on the billboard charts again!