Ann Hampton Callaway Celebrates Peggy Lee

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Guest Artist, Pops

When Ann Hampton Callaway puts together a program spotlighting a great singer, she is trying to tell a story.

The Milwaukee Symphony premieres her latest effort next weekend with Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration. Callaway, an accomplished jazz singer who has performed with the MSO before, will perform many of the songs that made Peggy Lee famous in the mid-20th century.

“Peggy Lee was on my parents’ turntable throughout my childhood,” Callaway said. “She was the first successful female jazz singer-songwriter, so I have a lot to be grateful for.” Callaway has created a similar career for herself, singing in many different venues and formats, but also writing her own songs as well as covering the classics.

From her father, who was a journalist and storyteller, Callaway learned the art of presenting a concert that tells a story without being a biography. “I want to give you a sense of who the person is,” she says. “People always tell me afterward that they never knew all these aspects of the person and they can’t wait to listen to their music again.”

And from her mother, a talented singer, Callaway would overhear her giving voice lessons and learn about phrasing and “finding your own story in the lyrics.”

In the two hours that an audience spends with her and the MSO, “I’m looking for a through line of a story, how and why these songs came into her life,” Callaway said. “I hope people find inspiration in (Peggy Lee), that she could make beauty out of heartbreak and disappointment in life.”

She has also done evening-length programs focused on Barbra Streisand, Ella Fitzgerald, and Linda Ronstadt. But when she sings repertoire strongly associated with another singer, she still has to be herself. “I can do imitations,” she says, “but I don’t, unless it’s for comedy. If you really listen, you’ll hear Ann Hampton Callaway.” In Peggy Lee’s case, she says, “I’m not a ‘less is more’ singer. I believe in the beauty of dynamics, and I sing with all my heart and all my voice.”

Lee, however, did take a “less is more” approach to singing. Callaway tells the story of how the very young singer, trying to get the attention of a drunk and disorderly audience, deliberately sang softly and put a hush on the room. “It’s a very unusual sound, especially when so many singers scream and yell,” Callaway said. And that was Lee’s approach to songwriting, too. “She trusted subtlety, she trusted nuance, she believed in the listener.”

Callaway saw Peggy Lee sing live toward the end of her life (she died in 2002). As time went on, she became friends with Lee’s daughter Nikki and granddaughter Holly Foster Wells, who now administers Lee’s estate. At a Carnegie Hall tribute concert not long after the singer’s death, Callaway stepped in at the very last minute to sing “It’s a Good Day,” which earned her appreciation from the family.

Arranging Peggy Lee’s songbook for full orchestra was a challenge, Callaway said, because Lee rarely sang with a full orchestra; the singer was more likely to be backed by a jazz combo or big band. But when she was consulting with the Milwaukee Symphony’s artistic management about the upcoming concert, they were willing to experiment with different combinations of instruments.

The concerts will be led by Stuart Chafetz, former resident conductor of the MSO, who now has a full calendar of orchestral pops concerts around the country. Callaway has sung with Chafetz before and was happy to learn that they will be together again in Milwaukee. “We both like to have fun with the audience,” she said. “It’s an excellent orchestra, and I’m excited to be in the new hall. I have lots of friends nearby because I’m a Chicago girl, so Milwaukee is like my cousin.”