Downbeat, June, 1990

Riffs: Peggy Lee

by Eliot Tiegel

Quincy Jones calls Peggy Lee a songwriter with "vocal imagery who can paint pictures with words." Country shouter k.d. lang appreciates the "incredibly sultry, shimmering quality" found on Peggy’s early records.

These are the two sides to this legendary pop vocalist with the jazz background which affirm her posture as both writer and interpreter on There’ll Be Another Spring (Musicmasters 60249). This first volume promises to be the start of a revealing series of the best of the several hundred tunes Peggy has written in her least-known role as a songwriter.

For the first time in her 54-year career, the smokey-voiced singer – who turns 70 this May 26 – has released an entire album of her own tunes. The woman, whose distinct, soft, sensual voice was featured with the Benny Goodman band from 1941 to ‘43, and who eventually helped build Capitol into a powerhouse, has selected 13 tunes for the new album that, as she says, "are music from the heart."

"I Just Want to Dance All Night" is a good example of catching a piece of life and transferring it to sheet music. Written with her musical director/guitarist John Chiodini, it reflects "the first serious love affair I ever had," Peggy explains in the quiet of her Bel Air, California, abode. The man was a bandleader who remains unnamed. "We were in Minneapolis in this after-hours place and the band was playing ‘Body and Soul,’ and I wanted to dance there with him all night. I told John this story and he said, ‘That’s a good title.’

"Once young people hear this music, they buy it, and that goes for some of the rock people who come to my performances, and that surprises me. Elvis Costello is a fan. Boy George said I look outrageous, and that’s a compliment. k.d. lang likes my work."

While she composes words and music, Peggy says "lyrics are my forte. They are very easy for me to do. I hope it doesn’t sound egotistical, but when I woo the muse, it comes through.

"Rhyming," she adds, "is easy for me." When she’s writing, she checks both the music and the lyrics "for ease of singing for all singers, not just for myself." She avoids writing in what she calls the "contemporary vein" whereby one phrase is "repeated and repeated." A performer trained to appreciate the beauty of haunting melodies and engaging word-pictures, she laments: "I was listening to the radio one day and thought, ‘Why don’t you walk away humming these songs?’"

For half a century, remembering Peggy’s performances – and a string of hits that includes "Fever," "Why Don’t You Do Right?," "Johnny Guitar," and "Is That All There Is?" – has never been a problem.

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