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Fever Pitch

Listening to NPR on her birthday a year ago, singer/actress Betty Craig says what she heard that day propelled her in a new career direction. She had been thinking about creating a musical tribute to Peggy Lee and got a universal green light to move forward.

"They interviewed a man named Peter Richmond who just finished a biography of Peggy Lee. I thought, 'I should just stop thinking about it and just do it.' I decided right then ... that's a sign from heaven."

Craig listened to Lee's music while growing up in Tucson and thought she was an amazing woman. "She had a career of 60 years. Peggy Lee is an American jazz and pop legend. ... I thought she would be fascinating to do a show about. She had quite a range of music and was singing into her 80s."

Craig says her own style as a jazz pop singer matches Lee's quite well. And similar to Lee, Craig has a variety of performance experience under her belt.

"I've been singing all my life. I started professionally in 1975 with Mickey Greco, a jazz pianist. In the '80s, I began doing musical theater with the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company. I was Anna in The King and I and also played Mame. I've done small ensemble pieces at Invisible Theatre and have sung with the Tucson Symphony. I was in the cast of Arizona Onstage Productions' Elegies. ... I am fortunate to have many different kinds of experiences."

In her process to create a musical tribute to Peggy Lee, Craig watched performances on DVD and read all the books she could find about the singer. Lee's six-decade career began in the 1940s with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. She performed in nightclubs, and on the radio and television. She also acted in several films and received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for 1955's Pete Kelly's Blues. Her 60-plus recordings earned 12 Grammy nominations and one Grammy for "Is That All There Is?" Other hit singles include "Lover" and the signature "Fever."

Craig says she wants to acknowledge each decade of Lee's career. "I am not trying to be Peggy Lee. But I want to stay true to her style and what she did."

With so much material to choose from, Craig had many choices to make. "The challenging part was leaving out certain songs and material. It was a constant struggle to exclude material. There was too much to tell. ... I decided since she had a six-decade long career, the easiest way was to focus on each decade.

"She kept her essence and changed her style through each decade. In the '40s, it was the Big Band sound. In the '50s, she was more creative with an artistic vision. In the '60s, she recorded some rock 'n' roll hits. In the '70s, she tried adapting contemporary music and did her thing with them. 'Some Cats Know' is an example. In the '80s, she recorded a fine blues album called Sings the Blues."

During her show, Craig will talk about the music of each decade. She will also talk about Lee's life and character.

"She was very true to her own artistic vision. She knew what she wanted. Some would say she was demanding." Craig relays a story to illustrate these points.

"In the '50s, she was recording the song 'Lover.' It was written as a waltz. She wanted it as a Latin arrangement. Capitol Records wouldn't let her record it (that way). She left Capitol and went to Decca. The song sold 1 million copies. Even if she had to leave one record copy and go to another, she would do it. It was all over one song. That's pretty fine."

Lee also stood her ground in 1991 when she won a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company to receive loyalties from the video release of 1955's Lady and the Tramp. Lee wrote songs and voiced characters for the film. She was originally paid $3,500, while the re-release of the film earned millions.

When Craig takes the stage to pay tribute to the singer, she will be accompanied by Jeff Haskell on piano, Jack Wood on bass and Fred Hayes on drums. She says she has performed with Haskell off and on for the past 15 years.

Craig has high aspirations for the production and would like to see it expand beyond one night. "I hope people walk away with an appreciation of all the wonderful music and joy of the music of Peggy Lee. ... She was definitely a woman ahead of her time."

Betty Craig performs FEVER! A Musical Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Doubletree Hotel, 445 S. Alvernon Way. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for cabaret seating. The show has a running time of approximately 75 minutes. Tickets cost $25 general admission, $23 seniors and students. Call (800) 838-3006 or visit brownpapertickets.com for tickets.

More by Irene Messina

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