by Peter Fiddick
Britain has produced no one like Peggy Lee. Nor, for that matter, has it yet produced anyone much like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Crosby, that whole durable generation of singers, some of whom are verging on their fourth decade in the business but whose talents yet keep them very firmly in the limelight.
Think of a British popular singer of the forties or early fifties who is still around now, and if you find a name, consider what scale of talent you are talking about. The gap is cavernous. Until the group era of the sixties, when the new generation stopped a whole musical tradition in its tracks and started its own thing, we were strictly for the pierrots.
Now, of course, in this country we might not immediately think of some of this style of singer as still potent forces. We hear them much less. Even Sinatra is a name more for his offstage exploits than for his songs. Radio, television and the dependent record industry focus on the modern pop vogues to the exclusion of much else, so the ballad, the jazz-based number, gets little chance to break into the charts. But weep not for the stars of the standards – they are working, the are earning, and one of them is currently adorning the plusg Oliver Messel Suite in the loftier reaches of the Dorchester.
Peggy Lee’s concert at the Albert Hall on Monday is her first here for nine years. She is therefore older, and she looks a shade plumper than in the pictures you remember from record sleeves, but a quite small woman, making Mr. Messels’s drawing room, all chintz and gold and intricate white lattice-and-mirror frames, seem more expansive than it is. She wears a black trouser suit, new black patent boots, about which she is self-consciously pleased, and a black and grey silk scarf of which the words “Christian Dior,” writ large, are integral to the pattern.
She is very blonde, and her makeup is perhaps more for the photographs, or for the television studios in which she has this week been working on a show with Petula Clark, than for life. She is also soft-spoken and friendly. We drink Coke on the rocks, and talk about work, and as we talk some of the reasons why the singer of the 78 era is still with us become much more tangible.
“The first thing is that you don’t just walk on to the stage and sing. I produce maybe three new shows a year and each one takes months of work. First we have to edit the new songs, rejecting some of them but with the promising ones, trying to see how to interpret them best.”
She has a song, “You’ll Remember Me,” selling very well in the States at the moment. “That song was brought to me as a rock number but now there is a sort of Kurt Weill, circusy feeling about it. The writers were very pleased.” Much of the new material comes from writers associated with her.
“Then we work on the song with the rhythm group, to get interpretation in more detail, to get the style right for me. Once that is done we probably do a cassette for the arrangers so that they can see what we are aiming at. We might work for two hours on four bars or we might work all day and still reject the song at the end. Then there are some that don’t fit when you get on the actual stage you are using, that somehow are not suited to the room – so you have to put another in.”
Working that way demands going through an immense amount of material, much of it to be lost, and Peggy Lee’s is not a temperament to delegate her aeroplane tickets, let alone her music. “I have to be in on everything,” she says. “I learnt a long time ago that if someone says, ‘Don’t worry about a thing,’ you’re in great, great trouble.
So for each trip there is a Show Book, with everything detailed, down to the names and telephone numbers of the best musicians in town. “Before I came to London I talked to Quincy Jones and Johnny Mandel and they gave me names of musicians they are very enthusiastic about whom I have asked for.” So on Monday night it is a group of the city’s leading session men, including drummer Kenny Clare from the Clarke-Boland band, who will be behind her.
But all that work, on music, rehearsals, lighting (by her own man), dresses (therefor often white), organisation, are not just for one-night stands like the Albert Hall, nor even for the television spectaculars so handily available to her Beverly Hills home.
A main reason the big singer in the States is able to run a big operation (Peggy Lee reckons she spends more on production costs than most) lies in the rich pickings of the nightclub, supper-room circuit. If we don’t see them over here, it is simply that they don’t need to come. Peggy Lee likes her home and family, but she still spends half the year away from the West Coast, at the Waldorf and the Copacabana in New York, the Sherman House in Chicago. And just 40 minutes flying time from home is Las Vegas… the Landmark, the Sands, Riviera, Frontier, Flamingo, and now the International Hotel where she played the inaugural season. Gold in the desert – and not just cash, but audiences, reviews, reputation, record sakes: the big-time lives.
But it has had its hiccups and the beat-group revolution was the worst of the lot. Somewhere in the early sixties a girl felt her age. “There was a period of several months when I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t find anything I could relate to because those numbers were built around the groups – a solo singer couldn’t sing the lot and without it couldn’t make sense of the music.
“Then not only did the music change and get refined, but the lyrics too became more poetic than they had ever been. I think there is some very beautiful music being written now – and it is written with everything built in: you cannot change much and you just have to work your way into the song.”
She’s come a long way from Jamestown, North Dakota, and it is nice that she is still moving on. I suggest to her that maybe the reason for the durability of herself and the others lies somewhere back in the old days. Is there maybe a hint of discomfort at talking about something so long ago? But she agrees. “Yes, the big band era gave a singer a grounding, I guess, that you just couldn’t beat. Just to sit there on the stand and listen to that music and those musicians.” The Benny Goodman band, the best backing group a girl ever had.