by Dave Dexter Jr.
Los Angeles – She has played it cool for almost a full decade, accepting engagements only sporadically. Now Peggy Lee is out of the chute again and pursuing her singing career as she did back in the 1940s when she was rated the nation’s most popular chanteuse.
Last week, appearing with pianist-comedian Steve Allen and a 21-piece orchestra, she rocked the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion here with a bright new act which bagged near-idolatrous reviews.
“And now I’m gearing for a long concert tour with Tony Bennett,” she says. “We have rehearsed 40 songs together. It’s not going to be each of us doing a segment and then coming out at the close to do just a couple of tunes together.”
Lee, nearing 60, reports her health is “much, much better” than it was in the ‘70s. “I feel better than I have in many years,” she notes. “Good enough to make yet another trip to England a little later this year.”
In London, she will be the star of a BBC television special which, in time, may be beamed over a U.S. network.
From North Dakota, Peggy made her mark in the early 1940s singing with Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Her “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with Goodman sold more than a million copies for Columbia at a time when a million seller was a rarity. She then married Goodman guitarist David Barbour, gave birth to a daughter, and retired from show business.
“My retirement,” she recalls, “lasted less than a year. I was asked to cut a couple of sides for Capitol Records. They got a lot of spins on radio and soon I was recording every month.”
The blonde Lee, frankly astonished with her success on records as a soloist, then churned out “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Black Coffee,” “Lover,” “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” to maintain her position as a consistent chart act into the 1970s, when circumstances impelled her to slow down.
She’s a highly regarded ASCAP songwriter. She composes poetry. She’s a gifted painter. And in 1955, one recalls, she was nominated for an Oscar for her sterling dramatic work in the motion picture Pete Kelly’s Blues.
But there’s something missing in her 1981 rejuvenation. “I’m not tied to a record contract at the moment,” she says. “I like today’s tunes and sounds and I think I can again win acceptance on disks. Returning to the studio is my next goal.”
“For me,” she softly declares, “it’s a whole new ball game.”