by Peter Reilly
Norma Delores Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota is the adroitly titled umpteenth album by that phenomenon of American pop music, Peggy Lee. It is adroit because it reminds us with startling economy that hers is a career that started somewhere back in the mists of the big-band days and continues, apparently on into tomorrow, as a model of quality and intelligence. The general mood of the music has darkened considerably over the years, so there are no more light-hearted throw-aways such as “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “Mañana” or “The Doodlin’ Song.” Peggy Lee has become the supreme September singer.
For some years now her best material has been that which allows her to project the ripe autumnal womanliness of someone who has been glad, been sad, and often been had, but who has extracted a wry wisdom from it all. It never sinks to the level of slobbery “torch” singing, but is instead a mature style that evokes the occasional hectic flare-up of a distant summer’s memories, the increasing drudgery of simply living, and perhaps, ever so slightly, a dread of the fast approaching winter. Peggy simply has no competition as America’s premiere chanteuse; and though as an artist she’s vastly differently from Edith Piaf – with a mere tonal flick, for example, she can establish as deep a dramatic mood as Piaf ever could with a roar – yet there are many similarities: the perfectionist devotion to craft, the unmistakably individual sound, the ability to create a whole scenario out of a single song. And all this marvel of communication comes across as a one-to-one relationship no matter how large the audience or how worn the recording.
By the standards Peggy Lee herself has set (no others can take her measure), the new album isn’t particularly outstanding. But, as always, there are three or four stunning bands – “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “I’ll Get By” and “Someone Who Cares” here – that reach the highest level of her accomplishments, and that is high indeed. Again, however, as she has in the past, she has thrown in a ringer. This one is called “Superstar,” the morning-after lament of a deposed groupie who used to pick up her pop idol between shows – but now he don’t write or phone no more. It is a fair-enough performance, but since Peggy’s personal aura is so strong and so firmly established, it’s about as incongruous as hearing Miss Greer Garson recite “I Got You, Babe!” against a background of palm-court strings.
In the old favorites “I’ll Get By” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” she is, of course, close to perfection – “of course,” because when Peggy sings a song she feels close to, no matter how many (often too many) times you think you’ve heard it, you really haven’t. It’s is an experience akin to that of having driven for years over the same deadly familiar road in a Volkswagen, and then to have Miss Lee invite you to cover the same route in her Rolls Royce. The perspective, the feel, the very view are so different that the road will never seem the same.
Class, in every aspect, has always been a Lee hallmark. She is at her classiest – and sexiest – here in “Someone Who Cares.” She treats the mountingly emotional lyric lines with the leisurely expertise of a Colette heroine, all the while underlining them with that insistent vocal eroticism that she is famous for, finally exploding into a rock coda. “Just for a Thrill” is a different kind of sexiness, reminiscent of her earliest recording days, the long, lazy jazz line projected with great humor and immaculate musicianship. “Razor (Love Me As I Am)” is more vintage Lee – only she, I think, could so nonchalantantly drop the line “You can love me as I am / Or goodbye” and still leave so many invitations open. “It Takes Too Long to Learn to Live Alone,” on the basis of its iambic title alone, ought to be prime material for her, but for some reason – the music, perhaps – it gets a bit sudsy.
In the sense that the release of any Peggy Lee album is of interest, this one is too. That it isn’t her best isn’t as important as that she continues to add to a body of work that is already, in many ways, a classic. But “classics” are not what the music biz is all about – or at least what record companies think it is all about. They are so in thrall to the fabled mystique of the “youth market” that a Peggy Lee by any other name simply would not be recorded. Peggy is the great exception, a survivor in an unfriendly environment, though far from an anachronism. Every few years or so she pops up with a genuine chart hit. Her records enjoy a consistent, if not overwhelming, sale, and a large part of that springs from the fact that she is an honest-to-God trouper. She has never abandoned the clubs and is not above playing one-nighters. Her act is of necessity super-smooth Hollywood/Vegas, for that’s what the customers at high-priced spas expect. It is easy to be a little put off by the average Lee personal appearance. She wings into view all of a piece, rather like a fully dressed set on a turntable stage, and remains all but stationary throughout. The lighting complexities alone could do credit to the Hayden Planetarium, and all the rest runs with the chill, glittering efficiency of a sequined computer. But, after I’ve left a performance, I always can see her point. She operates out of a self-created world, and to get the dramatic effects she wants she must control it absolutely. Such perfectionism, of course, has always been a great asset in the making of her albums, as this one gives evidence.
But the future, they argue, lies with acceptance by the younger generation. Who sees her in Vegas, New York, or Miami? All the over-the-hill gang that still thinks Tony Bennett or Robert Goulet or Steve & Eydie is where it’s at, that’s who. All too true – except that in Peggy’s case it doesn’t compute. First, I don’t think it matters whether you are young or old; if you know quality, you’ll like Lee. Second, Lee is a performer who radiates honesty; no age limit on that. Third, she knows and loves music and communicates that love. Last, she is a superior actress (ever catch her in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues?) who gives a hell of a performance every time out. If I thought that people, young or old, would ever stop responding to such an arsenal of talent, I would be tempted to throw in my lot with the morons at either pole: those who claim that everyone under thirty is a drug-crazed degenerate, or the opposite numbers who wants everyone over thirty put out to pasture. One thing these groups have in common is that they don’t listen – to anything. But in every generation there are those who do listen – and one listen is all Peggy Lee needs.