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Jeanne Peterson, Peggy Lee … and a flood of memories

Jeanne had as big a career as a musician can have in local radio — 22 years at WCCO in the days of variety shows with singers backed up by orchestras, all of it live.

Jeanne Arland Peterson had as big a career as a musician can have in local radio — 22 years at WCCO in the days of variety shows with singers backed up by orchestras, all of it live. 

When I read Monday morning that Jeanne Arland Peterson, the matriarch of Twin Cities jazz, had died during the night, I was hit with a flood of memories: images and sounds of Jeanne’s singing and piano playing on radio, television, records or at the countless hotels, nightclubs, theaters and restaurants where she entertained during a career that spanned nearly eight decades — continuing right up to last December when, at 91, she played a brief set at the Hopkins Center for the Arts.

While raising five talented children, most of that time as a single mother — her husband Willie died in 1969 — Jeanne had as big a career as a musician can have in local radio — 22 years at WCCO in the days of variety shows with singers backed up by orchestras, all of it live. Jeanne lived through a golden age of radio and nightclubs that is long gone, but she never seemed like an oldies act.

Her singing style – the sweet tone, the flawless pitch – never changed. But her piano playing moved with the times. When I first heard her on the radio, she was swinging in the manner of Teddy Wilson; later, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she favored a fast-moving, harmonically complex fusion approach that reminded me of Chick Corea.

Jeanne leaves thousands of people with memories. My own favorite comes from a night in August, 1987, when she was my date to see Peggy Lee in what turned out to be Lee’s last Minneapolis appearance: five shows (all sold-out) over the course of a weekend in the Scandinavian Ballroom in what was then the new Radisson Plaza (on the site of the old Radisson on 7th St., where in that hotel’s much-storied Flame Room, Lee had sung with the Sev Olson band in 1941).

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“Norma Dolores Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota,” the title of an album Lee made in the early ‘70s, had cut her teeth as a radio singer at WDAY in Fargo, N.D. (The station’s manager gave her the name Peggy Lee.) Moving to Minneapolis to pursue a career, Lee first sang on KSTP, then joined Jeanne and Willie at WCCO. Late in 1941, Lee moved to Chicago, where she landed a job with Benny Goodman. With him she made her first recordings, including her first hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right.” Jeanne and Peggy had stayed in touch over the years.

“I knew right away that Peggy was going places,” Jeanne said that night right before the show. “And she was so beautiful.” At 67, as anyone who was at the Radisson that night will attest, she was still beautiful. But she was frail, having undergone a coronary bypass the prior year. (“I want to thank you all from the bottom of my new heart,” she had told an audience just a few months earlier in Los Angeles.) And in the spring of 1987, she fell and fractured her pelvis, which meant she walked on and offstage that night with the aid of a sequin-spangled cane and sang in a chair. But her voice was unimpaired, as true and silken in tone as ever. And contrary to legend, it was a big voice. She had chosen many years earlier to use it sparingly for the subtlest rhythmic and tonal effects, but she could definitely turn up the volume, as she did that night on a rock tune, “Railroad Man.”

Jeanne and I stayed for both shows, which I was reviewing for the Star Tribune. Backed by her superb quintet, Lee was in high spirits that night, laughing and telling jokes between songs. She did some of the numbers we all wanted to hear (“Fever,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Is That All There Is?”), but there were surprises, too: “Just One of Those Things” done as a samba and a sad, probing reading of “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Midway through the set, as a comment on her temporarily reduced mobility, she sang Jerome Kern’s “I Won’t Dance,” dedicating the song to all her broken bones.

Jeanne and I went backstage between shows. The dressing room was hot and humid, thanks to an air purifier that was putting out a steady whoosh of steam — relief for a singer’s vocal chords. Wearing her trademark big, round tinted glasses, Peggy hugged Jeanne warmly, and then Jeanne introduced me, though Peggy and I weren’t strangers. I had interviewed her several times over the years. Knowing she liked poetry, I gave her a copy of St. Paul poet Carol Connolly’s widely praised collection “Payments Due.” The two singers spent the next 10 minutes bringing each other up-to-date on their lives.

Later, after the second show, Jeanne and I were driving down Hennepin Avenue. When we got to the corner of 6th St., she pointed out Brady’s Bar. “Look,” she said, “on the second floor of Brady’s is where I got my first professional job, singing with a six-piece band at a place call the Coconut Grove in a show featuring a chorus line and a 300-pound emcee. I was 15 years old. It was 1936. If my older brother Donald hadn’t also been in the band, they wouldn’t have let me do it. He looked after me and made sure I did my homework between sets. Gosh, it was a wonderful life.”

And now they’re both gone, two gifted women who made a lot of people happy for a lot of years, Jeanne Arland Peterson and Peggy Lee, who died in 2002. Perhaps the most memorable moment in Peggy’s show that night in 1987 came at the end. Peggy bucked tradition all through her career. She was, after all, a farm girl who grew up to be the hippest singer on the planet. So, where tradition says you end a nightclub act with your biggest, loudest number, Peggy ended the evening instead with her softest, gentlest number, a sweet, poignant version of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Did she pick that one, with its beautiful lyric  (“I’ll be seeing you/In all the old familiar places …”) as a way of saying goodbye to this city and its people that she was so fond of, knowing she would probably never return?

And surely it’s a sentiment that Jeanne would have cherished, that even though part of her is gone, a lot of us will still see her around town, if only in our imagination, singing and playing and laughing it up – in all those familiar places.