More than 30 years since the release of her debut album, jazz vocalist, songwriter, and Winnetka-native Ann Hampton Callaway shows no sign of slowing down. With well over a dozen albums to her name, including live and holiday recordings, as well as collaborations with her sister Liz Callaway, Ann is a prolific recording artist. Additionally, her songs have appeared on movie soundtracks, and more significantly on albums by Barbra Streisand.
She’s even comfortable joking about what may be her most famous tune, the theme song to the popular ‘90s sitcom, The Nanny (starring Fran Drescher). As if that wasn’t enough, Callaway is known as a dynamic live performer who regularly tours with themed concerts. Her latest album, Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration! (Palmetto), a musical love letter to Peggy Lee, is being released, fittingly enough on Valentine’s Day. Callaway was generous enough to make time in her busy schedule in advance of the album’s release to talk about her career and influences.
Ann, your artist legacy series has featured your musical tributes to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Linda Ronstadt …
…and Barbra Streisand. My (artist legacy series) recordings have been Ella and Sarah. Then I did a CD called Signature where it was a compilation of tributes to my favorite male and female jazz singers. I like saying thank you and I like studying people and finding out how to do a portrait of them musically that’s still allows me to be myself as a singer.
Did Peggy Lee’s centennial, as well as the 20th anniversary of her passing, have anything to do with why she’s the focus of your new album Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration!?
Yes. The centennial was very much a time when I thought I could finally do a serious portrait of her in the way that I gave the artistic attention to these other wonderful artists that I have covered. Since I’ve been a friend of the Peggy Lee family for so long—I met them in 2003. I had performed symphony concerts honoring her. I’ve learned so much about her over the years. She’s been a lifelong influence for me. It seemed like the perfect time to do a serious musical portrait of her for my live concerts. When Missi from Palmetto Records asked me “What do you want to do?” We’d just finished a great run in New York and my previous record was Jazz Goes to the Movies. We did that recording a few months after we had done a long run and I found that it was such a great situation to record in because the band was so deep into the songs that it could be recorded in a day and it could be musically exciting and satisfying. It was just the aligning of stars for me to be able to finally write my love letter (to Peggy Lee) through a recording, as well as a live show. One of the things that makes the record special is that because I’m friends with Peggy’s granddaughter Holly Foster Wells, I had access to so many wonderful things, such as getting an unpublished poem by Peggy Lee and getting to write music for it and singing a song that had never been released as a recording before. Things like that that make it not just a bunch of Peggy Lee songs but something that tells a story about her life and shows the uniqueness of her contribution as a songwriter, which I think has been really a neglected part of her career in terms of people understanding what a huge difference she made in the industry.
Do you remember the first Peggy Lee song you ever heard?
I’m pretty sure it was “Fever.” That came out the year that I was born. My father (the late Chicago Tonight anchor, John Callaway) I think, had a little bit of a crush on Peggy. I just remember seeing that beautiful blonde lady with her pretty voice and thinking, “Wow, she seems really magical.” As I became a mature person and a person who loved jazz and great music, then I got to know who she was and what she was about. But “Fever,” and [music from] that whole time period, were some of her best records, and my parents had a hefty collection of Peggy Lee albums, including that one.
With so many Lee originals from which to choose, how were you able to narrow it down to “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “I Love Being Here With You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Where Can I Go Without You?,” “Angels On Your Pillow,” and the “This Is A Very Special Day/It’s A Good Day” medley?
You have to understand that when I do these shows, I tell stories that help people to care more about her as a singer which helps the songs to have a lot more resonance. Some of the stories of my live show portray when she was finally getting to accept the fact that she did want to be a singer, and not just be a retired singer and a devoted wife and mother. She started writing with her husband, and those hit songs that she wrote, that’s a part of the storytelling. Her love affair with David Barbour, who was very much the real key to her heart, and yet kind of a tragic relationship, became a throughline in the story. How did she cope with it? How did she feel? How did she express herself? There’s a lot of resonance in her life story that these songs reflect and that was one of the main influences of why I narrowed them down. Also, I just thought they were exquisite songs. I have two songs from her Peggy Lee Broadway show called “Peg” in 1983. “Angels on your Pillow,” and the song that had never been released before, “The Other Half of Me,” are both from that show and co-written with Paul Horner, who is a wonderful composer who I don’t believe has really gotten his due in terms of the quality of music that he writes. He’s a delightful gentleman who I have spoken with on the phone many times. I felt like since she wanted to write about her life in that show and share what mattered to her, that those two songs would be an excellent emotional source of resonance for the record,
When you approach Lee’s covers of songs that were written by others, did you feel pulled towards honoring her rendition or trying to leave your own mark, or maybe a combination of both?
It was definitely a combination of both, on “Fever,” and a few other pieces. Most of the record has my own stamp on things, but “Fever” is so iconic I didn’t really feel like I could do much. I’ve heard many recordings of people singing “Fever” that did not come near what I think of as the sultry, sexy power of what Peggy Lee did. How I made that my own was I wrote a verse. She wrote new verses and a bridge to “Fever” to make it a hit song. I wrote about her and her relationship with Dave Barbour. We put piano in it that was not something she had in her rendition. Some of the really iconic things that make people go, “Oh my God. I love that!” It’s hard not to put a little bit of that in. My favorite arranger from that period is Nelson Riddle, and he did such great work for her. So, the duet that I do (on “The Glory of Love”) with John Pizzarelli, who is one of my favorite artists of my generation, was based on his arrangement of that. I think it has a very charming quality to it, and I didn’t think I could do better.
Speaking of covers, Lee’s creative relationship with songwriting duo Lieber and Stoller resulted in one of her biggest hits “Is That All There Is?,” as well as entire album of their songs, including “Ready to Begin Again,” which was recently covered by fellow North Shore native Christine Ebersole on her new album.
Had you considered recording any of the Lieber and Stoller tunes?
I recorded “I’m A Woman,” and I was not happy with it. I didn’t feel it was my best work, so I took it off the record even though I think it’s such a great song. I had already recorded the Lieber/Stoller “Is That All There Is?,” which I thought I did such a lovely job of, on my album Signature. I didn’t think I wanted to do another version for this record. It’s an interesting piece because sometimes people don’t understand how meaningful it was. I do that song in my live shows, but because I already thought I covered it well in that other record I didn’t re-explore it for another recording. I was very disappointed that “I’m A Woman” didn’t sound better. It also didn’t quite fit how the album evolved. It’s sort of a sultry, beautiful listening experience. It’s romantic and it’s coming out around Valentine’s Day. It seemed sort of jarring in the setting with the rest of the songs. It was a difficult thing to say, “All right, I’m cutting this song,” because I love it so much.
We’re talking a few days before Christmas, and my friend Dan recently turned me onto Peggy Lee’s stunning song “My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year).” Do you have a favorite Peggy Lee holiday song?
That remains to be explored, but she has written some lovely pieces. That’s a great idea for me to look at. I love that song. It’s very charming. Who knows? I might sit at my piano and play it before the new year begins.
Have you started thinking about who’s next in the Artist Legacy series?
Right now, my legacy series is taking a little turn in the new year. After honoring one of the people who helped me have a road ahead to be singer/songwriter, I’m going to be releasing a record later in 2023 called Finding Beauty of all my original songs. I’ve written some of these songs with great people like Alan Bergman. Melissa Manchester and I are working on the last song right now. I think because the pandemic made me feel like, “Oh my goodness, we don’t know how long we have,” what’s really important to me is that I have so many songs that haven’t been heard or recorded, this is going to be a part of my life now where I want to give more attention to how I see the world, what I learned in my life, and what matters to me. It takes a certain amount of courage to do something that people don’t necessarily know they want to hear. Although people who come to my shows frequently tell me that their favorite songs are the ones that I wrote. Even though I have hits on Barbra Streisand’s records and I’ve written with people like Carole King and many other wonderful people, it’s still kind of a little bit of a secret of my songwriting. They just think I wrote and sang “The Nanny” theme [laughs]. But there will be other people that I want to portray. I did a lovely show about Judy Garland. This year is her actual centennial, and I would have loved to have done something on her, as well, in a recording. What I’d love to do is do all my divas and have a box set of these shows. I think that would be a really exciting project.
Finally, Oscar-nominated actress Michelle Williams has been cast to play Peggy Lee in filmmaker Todd Haynes’ Lee biopic Fever. What do you think of that choice?
I think it’s a brilliant choice! She’s an incredibly exciting actress, especially when I saw her portrayal of Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon. She’s such an extraordinary actress. Her ability to create somebody who has many sides to them at the same time will serve her very well playing Peggy Lee. She has the sensuality, the intelligence, the vulnerability, and she has the power. I know how strongly Holly feels about her playing her grandmother. If Holly believes in her, I have no doubt she will give us a sensational performance, and probably get an Oscar nomination for it. That would be my guess.