by Ren Grevatt
Miss Talent – Peggy Lee, that is – was perched on the edge of the stage singing “Travelin’ Light” in her whisperingly provocative way when I walked into New York’s Basin Street East club.
It was an afternoon rehearsal – the afternoon before her triumphant return engagement in the Manhattan boite, a spot where, one year before, she had broken all records.
“Travelin’ Light” is just one part of her new act. But it’s an important part, for it’s a tribute to the late, great Billie Holiday.
“I never knew ‘Lady Day’ very well,” Peggy confessed, “but I knew her well enough to realize her greatness. She was a wonderful artist.
“I’m a little timid about trying to do her songs, but I want people to enjoy them all over again, just as I do.
“I’m terribly sick of so much of the kind of music the kids are getting today. It’s so unmusical and unfeeling when you compare it with the music of Billie or Ray Charles.
“My 17-year-old daughter Nicki introduced me to the music of Ray Charles. He’s so far above the run-of-the-mill rock -n-roll.
“He’s the blues. He’s real and down-to-earth rhythm and blues. I give him so much credit for teaching our kids something real and authentic about music.
“I’ve put together a sort of medley of Ray Charles in my act, too, and when I don’t do my Lady Day group, I do the Ray Charles numbers. There’s so much feeling and soul in them.”
Ranging on other topics of interest, Miss Lee revealed a dislike of country music, and her own identification as a band vocalist. For Frank Sinatra, however, she had only praise.
“I know a lot of people think country and western music is wonderful,” she asserted. “I don’t. Maybe it’s because I was raised in North Dakota and, as a kid growing up, I had a steady diet of it. I got sick of it. I like something that swings a little more.
“Everybody reminds me that I was once a band singer with Benny Goodman. Those were great days, of course, and I enjoyed them.
“But now I’m something else. I want to feel I’m something on my own, that I’ve made a contribution myself. That’s how I want people to think of me.”
I asked Miss Lee to comment on reports she would one day join Reprise Records, Frank Sinatra’s new label.
“This is the first I’ve heard of such a story,” she remarked. “I can only say that I have a lot of admiration for Frank. When I was between contracts at Decca and Capitol, I did an album with him conducting the band and producing.
“All I can say is, it was a pleasure. And although some people thought it was a fake, Sinatra did conduct, and he did a terrific job.”
The lady who had a great hit with the low-down blues, “Fever,” who recently was a cowriter with Duke Ellington of “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” and who would love one day to write the score of a Broadway show, is coming to Britain for her first time as a performer.
“I’ll be in California for Nicki’s graduation, and then we’ll go to Britain in July,” she told me. “I’ve waited this long because I’ve always wanted to mix business with pleasure. I want to look over everything.
“We’re looking forward to our trip, to singing for our friends in London and seeing Europe. It’s going to be a great experience.”