by Peter Clayton
Peggy Lee has one of those rare voices you can reach out and touch. What your nerve ends encounter is a sugared almond, or one of those huge, egg-shaped pebbles you find only at the eastern end of Chesil Bank. Cool, smooth but not shiny, and instantly recognisable in the dark.
It’s one of the few sounds I’d cross a road for – indeed, I’d probably risk it over both carriageways of the MI – and I’ve always been prepared to sprint through traffic ever since I heard “Why Don’t You Do Right?” in the early Forties.
Miss Lee, then in her teens, was still small print on the label of a Benny Goodman record. The voice was a little more angular, nothing like so assured. But it already had in it something which made boys impatient to start shaving.
In time, of course, it took her on to an international fame far less exaggerated and hysterical than is usual in show business, and far longer lasting. I believe, quite simply, she grew into the finest female singer in the history of popular music, a claim I expect her to substantiate at her Albert Hall concert tomorrow.
I got some idea of what’s to come tomorrow during Miss Lee’s Albert Hall rehearsal on Friday. Watching a singer rehearse has the same collusive intimacy about it as staying for breakfast. It was good to be able to stand close and hear how that disturbingly erotic sound is made, how she glides languidly into a note the way the late Johnny Hodges used to. Not that there was much actual singing on Friday, which was mostly devoted to getting the measure of the hall.
She took from a vast zip bag a bell-tree – a pagoda of little brass bells – and a Chinese cup gong. As Peggy walked backwards across the empty oval floor, her musical director, Lou Levy, struck the little gong. “I’m not exactly a virtuoso on this thing,” he muttered as he worked. “That’s fine,” called Miss Lee’s voice from somewhere in the direction of Hyde Park. Back on stage, she said: “I use it for effect in one of the songs, but it’s great for testing the acoustics of a place.”
Peggy is heartened by the appearance of a whole new school of good songwriters and by the increasing imagination of young musicians. “When the hard rock thing got going,” she told me, “they’d only do the one thing. Even ‘Happy Birthday’ was beyond them. Now they’re so adventurous.”
She tends – unjustly – to belittle her own songwriting, though she wishes she had more time to do it. And she did agree that her strange and wonderful song “The White Birch and the Sycamore” (“It was a sad time of my life when I wrote that”) was much in the vein of today’s more poetic songs, and years ahead of its time. I left with the distinct impression she plans to re-record it. I hope she does, for it will prove that she is the one singer who can keep up to date without even trying.