Peggy Lee, moving in on her 66th birthday next month but as cool and mellow as ever, still has a lot to say about the most basic emotion: "I love," she said, "to sing about love."

As well she should--since love, in its many forms, has energized most of the material she's performed in her 40-plus years as a highly regarded singer of jazz-tinged popular songs.

But another word-- healing-- has become prominent in her vocabulary as well, in part because of the heart condition that very nearly took her life last year, in part because of a renewed sense of what her music means, both to her and to her audience.

Lee has rebounded from coronary bypass surgery, ready and eager to return to performing.

"I came very close to checking out," she said in a recent interview. "I think when you survive what I went through, you realize that you're not finished yet for a reason. I'm not quite sure what God had in mind when he kept me around, but I know I'm still here for a purpose."

Despite the seriousness of last year's physical crisis, Lee looks and sounds in top form. Slimmed down and shapely, her trademark white-blonde hair styled in an attractive pageboy, she evokes a convincing image of classic Hollywood glamour.

From her elegant Bel-Air living room, filled with banks of fresh flowers and artwork, Lee has a commanding 180-degree view of the Los Angeles basin. The setting attests to her success.

But she is not a performer content to rest on the laurels of an illustrious past. On March 31, she was given an Aggie award by the Songwriters Guild of America for her "contributions to the songwriting art."

It was a glittering evening, with much of Los Angeles' music community present. Proud as she was of such high praise from her peers, Lee continues her commitment to doing work that justifies the honor.

She'll have her first chance in many months to do so on Wednesday night when she opens an 11-day run at the Westwood Playhouse. Her program is titled "Spring 'Fever' "--an obvious play on one of her biggest hits.

"I'm looking forward to hearing how I sound," she said, with a smile. "It's going to be as interesting to me as it will be to the audience, I guess, since this'll be my first chance to test whether everything's in good working order. Hopefully, no one will be disappointed."

It seems unlikely. Lee is one of the rare survivors of the big band era who has continued to attract new fans. Her successes have included swing pieces like "Why Don't You Do Right," novelties like "Manana," the jazz-tinged "Fever" and "Lover," as well as Lieber and Stoller's 1969 Grammy Award winner, "Is That All There Is?" (with a remarkable arrangement by Randy Newman).

She has written songs for Disney ("The Lady and the Tramp"), for television ("A Man and a Woman") and for features ("The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming" and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter"), authored television scripts and created artworks that have been exhibited at New York City's Lincoln Center.

For her appearance at the Westwood Playhouse, Lee's carefully planned program ("I've got a production book this big," she said, holding her hands a foot apart) will include a well-balanced mixture of new and old. Among the more topical works will be an original (written with guitarist John Chiodini), "I'll Give It All to You," "Love Dance" and "a few other pieces in which we've tried to throw away the familiar approach and start over with completely new interpretations.

"But the thing I'm really concerned with," she said, "is good, positive lyrics. It's what I always look for first, because if the song doesn't say the right thing, no matter how good the music is, it's not going to make it--at least not with me."

When she spoke of her goals for this program, Lee kept returning to her now-familiar words: love and healing.

"I want to make people happy and I want to entertain them," she explained. "Since love has always been one of the important themes in my music, I'll sing a lot about love.

"But this time it'll be about healing love as well as romantic love. When I was in the hospital I was getting love and prayers from everywhere--I've got boxes of letters--and it really helped. Now I want to give some of that love and affection back to all those people in my audience who cared so much."

She paused for a moment, her gaze wandering across the luxurious room. "Music's been wonderful to me--it's paid my bills and taken care of all those mundane things.

"But I can never forget what a powerful force it is. Like atomic power, it can be used for good or evil. . . .

"I get a lot of letters from people who tell me how healing some of my music has been for them. That always makes me feel wonderful, because it makes me feel as though I do have a purpose.

She smiles again: "Who knows, maybe that's what God had in mind for me, after all."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World