by David Sterritt
“There are certain things that I really object to singing about, and I won’t sing them. I prefer to sing about – oh, love. And life supporting things.”
One of the sturdiest personalities on the pop music scene, smoky-voiced Peggy Lee has built a fabulous career out of those life-affirming songs and sentiments.
When faced with a huge potential hit on a skeptical subject – “Is That All There Is?” – she thought for months about her interpretation. “Being a very positive person, I didn’t want to sing anything that was negative… My approach was positive, and now I’d say that 85 percent of my listeners regard the song as being on the positive side. I do believe that there is more to life… I like humor, and torch songs, too, but they have to show deeper emotion.
“I won’t sing about things that point up the difficulties we’re having in this day and age, with ecology and so forth,” she adds. “There was a trend in writing about three or four years ago where everything was about the rivers being polluted, and all that… Well, people have been doing things about cleaning that situation up. And besides, it’s not a bit entertaining or musical to sing about mud. Except maybe for ‘It’s a treat to beat your feet on the Mississippi mud…’”
As well-respected in today’s rock era as she was during the Big Band years, Miss Lee – singer, actress, songwriter – still records actively.
Her latest LP, written by top songsmiths Jerry Leiber and Mile Stoller, is titled Mirrors (on the A&M label) “because you can look in a mirror one way one day, and another another,” she says, “…it’s like a voyage of the mind… a vehicle for moving from thought to thought, place to place, person to person… you can make up your own endings… there’s a sort of question mark – on purpose, not by accident.”
And she still likes to bring her act to such a bastion of class as the Waldorf-Astoria Empire Room, where judging from a show I attended recently, audiences get as enthused as ever over the old Lee magic.
Miss Lee takes her onstage work very seriously, and technical considerations, such as microphone placement and acoustical balance, do not escape her attention. She has a sort of motto about performing: “I remember reading something by Ziegfeld on the wall of a theater: ‘If there’s only one person in the audience, do your best, because you never know who that person is.’ I’ve always remembered that, from my first days in New York.”
“Of course, we’ve been fortunate, with people from wall to wall,” she says. But in times past, if there were fewer people in the audience, I felt they deserved the same performance you would have given if you were turning people away. They’re paying the same price. And not only that – it’s a matter of personal pride.”
To be sure, audiences are different every night. “If there is someone giving me a stony stare – which isn’t very often, thank goodness – I sincerely smile at him. He may not smile back the first time, but by the third time they always do…”
Not surprisingly, Miss Lee likes “eye contact,” the feeling of looking at people and singing right to them: “I have a feeling of singing to one and that then spreads out to all the other ones. There is a one-ness, and that’s what I like to feel out there.”
Miss Lee says she leads a quiet life – “staying home a lot and working” – when off the road and out of the recording studio.
She seems to believe deeply in the meanings of her songs. This commitment has helped her move smoothly through many musical fads and fashions, from swing to Latin. Though she has ranged freely and borrowed widely, she doesn’t like all the trends in the music of the last few years.”
“When the first hard acid rock came out,” she recalls, “I was terrified. It seemed that everything was over. I would listen carefully to rock lyrics… and if you broke it down and analyzed it and brought it down inside of you, you found it wasn’t saying anything… Because I enunciate clearly and think deeply, it didn’t suit me at all. If I sing something, people listen to the words very clearly. So I have to be very careful.”
Yet Miss Lee did not close her eyes and ears to what was going on. Despite hesitations, “I began to be very interested in a lot of the contemporary writers, and did some of their things so early that they’re just now becoming standards. I found that their writing was becoming freer and more colorful.”
Yet the old masters retain much of the Lee affection – among them Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and even such an up-to-date musicman as Michel Legrand. “Good things always stay,” she says. “There will be clothing fads… but the classic lines remain the same; I think it’s the same with music…
“I have a feeling that everything is changing back again,” she continues. “but often with progress we have an upheaval. If you are going to repair a highway, you have to have some of those big machines to tear it all up and start over again…
“I’ve talked to people like [rock superstars] Elton John and Alice Cooper. They’re the nicest people, and intelligent, and have great respect for jazz and classical musicians.
“And there seems to be a trend toward studying. Several of the young men in my orchestra are Julliard graduates, or come from other fine music schools. I think they’re suddenly realizing that there’s more to music than making a lot of noise and excitement.
“I feel there’s too much being done with electronics in recording,” she adds. “It’s a more honest emotion if you can catch what you feel at the time” without too much studio tinkering afterwards. “There’s really a great longing for people to hear something that touches the heart.”
Miss Lee’s attitudes seem to be touching the hearts of listeners as strongly as ever. “My audiences are becoming younger and younger,” she says. “I have no sense of time that way; what does it matter how old we are? There’s a vast span of age groups at my shows. And I’m truly grateful for that…”