Downbeat, March 21, 1957
In which a multi-talented singer discusses a many-faceted career
by John Tynan
There’s a quotation from Michelangelo emblazoned on the wall of Peggy Lee’s picturesque studio dressing room. It reads, “Perfection is made up of trifles; but perfection itself is no trifle.
Realizing the innate truth and implied sadness in this observation, Peggy Lee, in everything she undertakes, watches out for the trifles. Whether she always achieves perfection in the finished article, be it a dramatic role, poem, painting, song lyric, music score, animated cartoon, or nightclub act, is not our purpose to say. What is certain, however, is that few contemporary figures in show business possess her many applied talents and fewer still can match her consistent record of distinguished artistic achievement. In paying attention to the trifles, she believes, the major problem at hand becomes that much simpler.
“All through the years,” she recalled, “I’ve had the good fortune to have someone around who acted as a big brother to me. When I started in the band business back in New York, Morty Palitz was Big Brother. He set down three rules for me. First, don’t hang out on 52nd Street. Second, don’t stay at the _____ Hotel. Third, if you overhear any of your boss’s business, keep your mouth shut.
“I guess I obeyed the rules,” she grinned, “because I’ve been pretty lucky in this business.”
She gestured toward manager Ed Kelly. “Right now Kelly’s the one who sees to it that I don’t overextend. He watches me like a hawk,” she chuckled. “You know, we just got back from Vegas and it takes days to readjust to home life. I’m liable to go for a walk, take a wrong turn and get lost – just disappear. It’s happened. Guess my mind is usually on some future project.”
Peggy’s concern with important details is evident in her choice of musicians for club and record dates. For the recent Sands engagement she had in her group pianist Lou Levy, bassist Max Bennett, Carlos Mejia on congas, drummer Mel Lewis, and harpist Stella Castellucci. “I use Larry Bunker a lot, too,” she said, “but he wasn’t free to make the trip this last time. Mel is very fine and fits in beautifully.”
On her new Decca album, Dream Street, Peggy has the cream of West Coast jazzmen in Levy, Bunker, Bennett, Shorty Rogers, Buddy Clark, Bob Cooper and Bud Shank, to name but a few. “For Dream Street I picked tunes I had really wanted to do for a long time. Different thinks like ‘Too Late Now’ and ‘So Blue.’ After all,” she laughed, “you can’t play ‘Lover’ any faster. And I felt a need in myself to do material that would be different for me.
“But I’m still not content. I get so frustrated when I hear what I’ve done. It’s always got to be ‘one more time.’ Sometimes I think a singer gets so tired of hearing her own voice, she doesn’t really know what’s good and what’s got to be done over.”
In the groups with which Peggy’s worked recently, she’s been increasingly impressed with the high musical and personal criteria of the musicians. “Although these are progressive musicians,” she spoke thoughtfully, “it seems they’ve passed the point of wanting to play just for themselves… They realize the value of showmanship when working with a singer. And they don’t think it’s silly to run through the show, to rehearse. It’s maturity, that’s all. Their personal behavior is just marvelous; many people at the Sands commented to me on that. Honestly, they give me so much confidence.”
Peggy credits Benny Goodman with teaching her the value of thorough rehearsal. “He was a pretty hard taskmaster, but there’s no one like him for getting the most from a band. Benny and Victor Young were my two biggest influences, I guess.”
In recent years, she reflected, her work with the late Victor Young was most rewarding musically. “He taught me a degree of orderliness.” She chopped the side of her hand down on the table – one, two, three, four, as if dividing the table top into measures. “He’d do that,” she said, “when he outlined procedure for me to follow. ‘This is the way we’ll do it,’ he’d say. The man had such an orderly mind and was able to accomplish a fantastic amount of work.” A shadow crossed Peggy’s face as she expressed the opinion that “so much work probably hastened his untimely death.”
The platinum blonde singer/writer is still working on lyrics to some of Young’s music. She has written a long poem to fit a theme of his recorded by Marty Paich under the title “New York City Ghost,” and hopes soon to record both music and lyrics to this.
“Another arranger I learned a lot from is Gil Evans. Not just musically, but from the man’s thinking. That’s a key, I believe, in all fields of art… A musician must start to think before he can even become great. I once asked Mel Powell why he wanted to write more than play. At the time he’d completed studies under Hindemith and was teaching music at Queens College. Mel said, ‘The piano is something like the church; it helps build a bridge between me an It.’ What he meant was that to him the piano was only a means to a personal end, his writing.”
In rehearsal, Peggy has an unusual – for a singer – means of communicating with her musicians. She will outline what she wants by means of strange phonetic utterances much akin to those terms employed by the early bebop musicians to express vocally the sounds they created on their instruments. “Give me a clitter-de-bong,” she’ll say, or ask for “feathers.” The musicians seem to comprehend exactly what’s called for because everything invariably comes out kla-bom.
Aside from the eight current projects itemized on the Lee agenda, the biggest things in her life are her husband, actor Dewey Martin, and 13-year-old daughter Nicki. Peggy’s going to see more of them now while she works with the writers of a new television format, a half-hour series which she conceived and in which she’ll star. Also helping to keep her at home with the family is her work writing verse for Buzza-Cardozo greeting cards and interest in a new animated cartoon character she originated called “Little Joe.”
Then, too, there’s a score in the works for George Pal; and “Leisure” Lee just finished one song for a film to which Frank DeVol is writing the title theme. And more record dates for a new album and singles aimed at that ever-mindful goal – a pop hit.
Back in the Goodman days there was no carefully formulated plan for success, Peggy confesses. “I just knew that I wanted to be a singer when I was 14” – a time when she was Norma Egstrom of Jamestown, North Dakota, during the Depression. “I didn’t have any path to follow when I was with Benny – although I knew it was a matter of waiting, of time. Meanwhile, I just wanted to sing. That attitude helped a lot when things were tough and the wolf was camped on my doorstep.”
Today there’s a big sign hanging over the front door of Mr. and Mrs. Martin’s mountaintop dweldorado above Beverly Hills. It’s directed at any stray wolves in the neighborhood and reads, “Get lost, man, get lost!”