When Peggy Lee recorded “Where or When” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with the Benny Goodman Sextet 25 years ago, her performance was noted for directness, simplicity and a perfection of phrasing.
In the years between, Miss Lee has sung much and traveled far. Her perfection in phrasing has been extended so that she has come to be regarded as a master perfectionist in the nightclub trade. The lighting, the musical arrangements, the costuming, the microphones and the acoustics must be right for her. If an army of technicians are needed to do the job, Miss Lee requisitions the army.
Miss Lee was in many ways responsible for making Basin Street East a desirable place for entertainers to appear. Now that she’s moved on to the Americana’s Royal Box (“because of more money and the fact that I do not have to do a third show on Friday and Saturday nights”), it is expected that she will work out any imperfections that exist in that overlarge room.
In fact, Miss Lee has already done much in this direction with new lights, loudspeakers, baffles and electronic equipment.
As anyone who has seen Miss Lee work in a nightclub can testify, the experience can be overwhelming. If the listener supplies a basic appreciation of popular music, Miss Lee does the rest. Using her voice, the music, the lights, the costumes, one is carried back and forth across and through a variety of emotions – happy, sad and in-between.
When Miss Lee sings “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” she looks like a motherless child. When she turns to a percussion accompaniment, her conga drums, her bongos, her bass, her tom-toms are as fresh and exciting as if they had never been used before in a nightclub act.
Miss Lee is ever-creative. At times songs come and go as if they were tatters of distant melodies, almost lost but still echoing through a troubled mind. In total it is a moving experience.
When all else fails – and it has to fail when Miss Lee must reprise some popular favorites that she has been singing for a decade or more – Miss Lee turns to humor. At this point, Miss Lee has had so much “Fever” that she is sick of it. But the fans demand these songs. Miss Lee kisses the numbers off briefly and with good-humored grace. But she can no longer take them seriously.