by Ben Gross
The great days of the Big Bands, when all of America danced and sang, swayed and swirled to wondrous sounds – Peggy Lee hopes for their early return. “And I believe they may come back soon – there are already signs of it,” she told me, “if only TV will do its part. It can do as much for good pop music as radio once did in its time.”
Peggy, regarded by many discerning critics and also by a considerable portion of the public as the supreme stylist and interpreter of the best in U.S. popular song, is a product of those great days. But far from being a mere echo of the past, she is very much of the present. Like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and others, this Jamestown, North Dakota girl has plowed ahead.
Not only do her records sell by the millions (her latest are Latin a la Lee and “Heart”), but in 1960 she is one of the “hottest properties” in show business. She was signed, for instance, to make a few guest star appearances on CBS-TV’s Revlon Revue, and scored such a hit that she became almost a regular feature.
Also, she has been engaged by the Dallas, Texas Theatre for a starring role in New Girl in Town during the summer; she played her first dramatic part during March in a GE Theatre play, and now Peggy is turning down dozens of lucrative night and supper club offers.
During a recent engagement in that special New York haunt of jazz, Basin Street East, an unprecedented thing happened. The crush of cash customers was so great that Peggy was forced to put on three and sometimes four shows a night instead of the usual two.
As a result of this and her success on the Revlon Revue, you may also find her soon as a headliner on the Ed Sullivan variety hour.
But despite these current achievements, a nostalgic light glows in Peggy’s hazel eyes as she speaks of her hopes for a great revival in American popular music.
“I’m a Big Band girl, never forget that,” she said as we sat in the living room of her luxurious Sherry-Netherland suite. During her visits to New York, she shares this with her girl secretary and a kindly elderly lady, her Swedish companion.
Indeed, Peggy is a product of the legendary dance orchestra era. Before she became a star she sang with a succession of them, including Will Osborne’s (a simon pure Rudy Vallee imitation). But she really came into her own during the 1940s as the featured vocalist of Benny Goodman’s band.
“In those days,” Peggy explained, “it was radio that made the bands. They played hotels and clubs for months at a time, occasionally even at a financial loss. But that didn’t matter, because practically every night their music was broadcast from those spots by network radio from coast to coast.
“So at the end of such an engagement, they’d hit the road, playing one-night stands. The ballrooms were packed as a result of the radio buildup, and these bands made fortunes. Such people as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey were idols. They were worshipped by the kids. Then something happened.”
“Well, TV came along.” The slender, five-foot-six Peggy with the champagne blonde hair sighed as she sat among soft cushions. “Don’t misunderstand me. I love television. It has been good to me. But it killed radio as a means of exploiting the bands. Of course, radio with its disk jockeys is still the big thing as far as selling records, especially of singers, is concerned.”
“That’s true,” I said, “but how can TV help to bring these bands back?”
“By doing the same thing radio did – put them on during late night hours. Pick them up from hotels and nightclubs.”
“But wouldn’t that be too expensive?” I asked.
“Expensive yes; but I believe that sponsors could be found to pay the bills.”
“Don’t programming executives argue that bands, as a rule, make dull television shows?”
“It all depends on how they’re presented,” Peggy insisted. “Look at Lawrence Welk. Most of the critics panned his program when he came to TV, said he wouldn’t last.
“Don’t overlook one big point. I get around this country a great deal and find that most of the people – even the teenagers – are longing for good popular music today. Rock ‘n’ roll is fading; the ballads, fine jazz, the melodious standards – which have never died – are being played and sung more and more. And the bands, along with first-rate singers, can give these to us,” Peggy continued.
“So why not on TV, which today dominates the entertainment field? I really believe that even if they didn’t present elaborate shows, such as Welk’s band, they would become popular again if they were put on television during the late hours.
“And do you know why? Because, as I said, both the public and the professional musicians would like to hear those wonderful big sounds again. Out in California, for instance, Terry Gibbs has formed a new band and some of the greatest sidemen in this country are playing with him just out of the sheer love of music.”
“Of course, from time to time some great bands and the best of the singers are seen on TV,” I remarked. “Has television proved that it can turn their numbers into hits the way old-time radio did?”
“Once in a while it has,” Peggy said. “But the disc jockeys of radio, despite the payola scandals, are still more important than anyone or anything else when it comes to making hits. However, I’ve found that after making a recording and singing it on TV there is an immediate demand for it.”
Peggy Lee has some interesting thoughts on why rock ‘n’ roll captured American teenagers and also on why it has declined. You’ll find her opinions here in next week’s Sunday News.