by Charles Champlin
I am absolutely persuaded that amid the crackling thunder of the city in flames, some Roman lover turned to his lady, gestured at Nero and said, “He’s playing our song.” We’ve never been exactly sure what our song was, fire sirens in the rain or my scratchy old 78 of Peggy Lee singing “Where or When” with the Goodman trio.
This piece of unabashed sentiment is from a magazine which breathed its last shortly after publishing the article. I wrote it, and it is here filched from the archives only to establish a point of view, amounting to heroine-worship, about Peggy Lee.
When I first heard that she and the Benny Goodman band were going to be reunited – for a week at Melodyland starting May 3 and later at San Carlos – it was like being offered a stroll into the better parts of your past. Not entirely, of course, because Peggy has never been a “remember when” institution, but has kept on top of the swinging present every day of her musical life. Still, it’s a reunion that triggers a memory, or three or four or more, and I jumped at the chance to say hello at her penthouse above the Sunset Strip. (The years have dealt kindly every way but matrimonially.)
“‘Where or When,’” she was saying. “We recorded that at Liederkranz Hall in New York, I remember. Must’ve been 1942. The place was so live that we all had to take off our shoes while we worked. The mikes were picking up the foot-tapping.”
She’d been singing with a small group at the Ambassador in Chicago in 1941 when Helen Forrest decided to leave the Goodman band. “Somebody told Benny he should come in and hear me,” Peggy remembers, “and one night he and his wife came in. I was scared of my own shadow in those days, and I was petrified that night. He just stared at me, and when he left I said, ‘I wish he would have enjoyed it.’ The next day my roommate said Benny had called. I said it was a joke, somebody was putting me on. She said she was sure it was Benny and the least I could do was call and find out. So I did and he hired me and I was in a state of shock.
“I was so frightened I didn’t sing well. I was singing in Helen’s key without rehearsal, and the critics slaughtered me. I hate to admit this, but they were right. On my birthday, May 26, Downbeat ran a picture of me with the caption, ‘Sweet 16 and will never be missed.’ I agreed. I tried to quit. I was reflecting on Benny’s bad taste. He wouldn’t let me quit, bless him forever. If I had quit, I know I’d never have sung again. I’d have run back into the hills, done something.”
Goodman, who in the years since has been in and out of the swing of swing, never misses one of Peggy’s New York openings. He was at Basin Street East a few weeks ago. She was booked for the Melodyland appearance but the bill as a whole wasn’t yet set. “I introduced him in the audience and the place went mad. They wouldn’t let him just take a bow. They wanted him to play and he very graciously agreed to. We had a ball. Did a duet on ‘Hard Day’s Night.’ Afterward I said, ‘Why don’t we do Melodyland together?’ He said, ‘I’ll check’ and he was clear and here we are.” Their only previous reunion since the great “Why Don’t You Do Right?” days was a Texaco television special.
During a London engagement a few years ago, Peggy caught pneumonia in both lungs and was for a few moments technically dead. Her lungs were left permanently damaged, and as a result she has to have between two and four sessions daily with a pressure breathing machine which feeds her a mixture of oxygen and other gases. “It’s a little scary, but we named him Charlie and that takes the scare out of it,” she says. Charlie’s existence was kept secret for a long time, but the rumors got to be worse than the brave truth, so Charlie and the affliction are now in the public domain.
Miss Lee is in fact more avidly energetic than ever, painting, composing (she has acquired a moppet audience from her work for Walt Disney), arranging, philanthropizing (as board chairman for the Tom Dooley Foundation) and, of course, singing. From the terrified teenager standing stockstill before the mike at the Ambassador to the smoky-voiced woman chanting “Where or When” only a year later, she’s never stopped evolving. And some 500 recorded songs later, she can still surprise you with songs (currently) as different as “Pass Me By” and “One-Eyed Jack,” and a few bars lifted straight and played straight from Brahms’ Third Symphony to lead into a blues medley.
She recently discovered an uncommon instrument, the bass flute, and scored it into some of her arrangements. About to open a Florida engagement, she found she couldn’t get one locally. “I called a flutist friend here in L.A. and asked him to let me rent it. ‘Pal,’ he said, ‘I’d just as soon rent you my wife.’” She finally located and bought one in London.
“The trouble with vocabulary is it keeps getting out of date,” she says. “First you were hep, then you were hip. Now, I think, I’m hup. Hmm, might make a lyric. I mean, I hope I’ll always be abreast of the modern musical thinking. When I’m 75 or 80 and wearing a lace collar, I’ll still be snapping my fingers.”
And I hope still singing “Where or When,” as she will with Benny again next week.