by Bob Thomas
A few weeks late, Japan is getting ready to celebrate America’s Bicentennial with fireworks, festivals – and Peggy Lee.
One of this country’s most appealing exports, Miss Lee has been invited to be guest of honor at a series of celebrations, including a fireworks festival at Karuizawa, and a formal dinner in her honor given by the U.S. Ambassador, James D. Hodgson. Her visit is sponsored by the Mitsukoshi Department Stores, which will present four Lee concerts in Tokyo, Sapporo and Osaka this month.
Miss Lee was chosen, said Mitsukoshi president Shigeru Okada, “because her great warmth and lovely personality are representative of the American people.”
“The Japanese have sent 30 requests for songs they would like to hear,” said the singer as she prepared for the trip at her Beverly Hills home. “I’m amazed at how much of my work they know. They asked for songs that go back to when I was writing with Victor Young. They want not only ‘Fever’ but ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘Autumn in Rome.’ I’ve also written a special song for Japan, ‘Dreams of Summer.’”
Like certain brands of chateau wines, Peggy Lee seems to improve with the years. At 55 she is singing to a second generation of fans, and her blonde beauty seems little changed. The survival road has not been easy, given the ever-changing nature of pop music and the rigors of road travel. She admitted to hospital visits in recent years, also a career lapse when hard rock swept through the music world.
“When that kind of music took over, I was destroyed emotionally,” she admitted. “I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t find my place in it. I told myself if that’s where music is going, I didn’t want to go along, so I’d better find something else to do.”
“But after a while I made a conscious effort to study and understand what the younger musicians were doing. Gradually I came over. I realized there were some new, wonderful things evolving. Some of the soft rock is very interesting, and the Latin songs are something I can understand.”
“More good songs are coming along all the time. There is a dearth of beautiful ballads, but I can always go back to the great songs of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Otto Harbach and Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein.”
While getting ready for the Japan trip, Miss Lee was also picking out music for a Rodgers and Hammerstein TV special being produced by Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion. She was also finishing up an A&M album she made with Cy Coleman [sic], Mirrors, and planning a concert tour of Europe.
“The doctors tell me I should change my lifestyle,” she remarked, “but what can I do? I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I try to take care of myself, but I like to work. And when I work, I pay attention to detail… I simply like to be professional.”
Along with her other activities, Miss Lee is doing some writing on her early career, which tells much more about her current habits. Born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, she started singing on a Fargo radio station, later was hired as band singer by Benny Goodman. That’s when she got her education in the music business.
“It was like boot camp,” she recalled, “tremendously tough to endure. But if you come through it, you’ll be in shape for anything that comes along.
“I was being paid $75 a week and out of that I had to pay for my gowns, hotels and meals. I washed my hair, I handled my own wardrobe; once I remember ironing my gown in an auditorium light booth. It was always catch-as-catch-can for hotel rooms, trying to find the cheapest, cleanest room available.
“It was hard, but I learned the underpinnings of how to put a show together. I feel sorry for artists today who have a big hit and can’t present a show properly.”