by Eugene Boe
Beverly Hills, California – She sits there at her desk in flowery lounging pajamas, looking so young-girlish with her blond hair combed tight across her heard and coiled into pink-ribboned pigtails. She sings softly into a mike held with one hand while the other makes jottings on a piece of sheet music.
“Now ‘Don’t Explain.’”
The drummer can’t find his music. “Does it have another name?”
“‘Hush Now.’ But I don’t like that. It has an – oh, harsh sound… First I say, ‘Billie Holiday, who knew more about forgiveness than most people…’”
The scene is the studio-library in the home of Peggy Lee, a ranging modern aerie up-canyon a mile or so from the venerable Beverly Hills Hotel. It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in March and Miss Lee is making ready for her April 7-22 engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room. Half a dozen musicians are rehearsing with her. On an easel to the right of the grand piano sits her nearly finished portrait of Moshe Dayan, which she has been painting from photographs.
“I’m not really singing,” she tells a visitor. “This is mostly to cue in everything. And for Hugo.” Hugo Granata, her lighting man, sits across the desk from her. “Cued in” to the contents of her act – with all its breaks and pick-ups and shifting flavors and moods – he will precede her to New York to get the lighting set at the Waldorf.
“Those are jazz eighths,” pianist-director Lou Levy points out. “…retard the last two bars.”
Through a long, low-keyed, good-humored afternoon, the songs are run through from top to bottom. This is maybe the fifth rehearsal and there will be another on Thursday. The following week Peggy Lee will go to Chicago’s Sherman to play her first date there since 1941, when she came to fame singing with the Benny Goodman band.
With her will go her key musicians: Lou Levy, lead guitarist Mundell Lowe, drummer-vocalist Grady Tate, and Latin percussionist Francisco Aguabella. They will also go to New York with her and then to Washington, where she’ll perform at the Shoreham. With her, too, will be her hairdresser (her own hair and falls, no full wigs), her wardrobe mistress (new gowns by West Coast designer Michael Novarese), and “Charlie,” a breathing machine she uses to keep the lungs in shape after a bout with double pneumonia some years back.
The Chicago audiences will not hear the act that will be unveiled in New York. For New York everything will be new. But in Chicago there will be rehearsals for the Waldorf and additional days of them in New York prior to the opening. No one in the business is more meticulous, and clearly she means the Empire Room to be an important engagement. She remembers, as do we all, those exciting nights at the Basin Street East – a club she really put on the map – when her fans would queue up all around the block to see her.
“…Ride a painted pony, let the spinning wheel spin…” “Spinning Wheel,” a Now tune recorded by the rock group Blood, Sweat and Tears – soulful-sounding over a hard-driving rhythmic section: hit calibre… “Lean on Me,” beat-beat-beat, an original Peggy Lee-Mundell Lowe clicker… “Natural Woman,” the bluesy Aretha Franklin big one… “Help Yourself,” a happy song of Tom Jones celebrity…
These fresh sounding items were all to be aired in the Empire Room act, which would be a kind of preview of the new Peggy Lee LP album (Natural Woman) to be released by Capitol Records on May 1. During her New York visit, Capitol will issue “Spinning Wheel” as a single.
It can be argued that musically Peggy Lee is as hip a singer as they come, if hip is defined as the state of awarenes or the knack of keeping in touch with the turning world. As a WASP of Scandinavian descent, she’s also proof that blacks by no means have a corner on soul, if soul signifies the capacity to feel – and to project feeling – down to the fingertips and the nerve endings.
“I hate that word ‘soul,’” she comments. “I like ‘contemporary.’ I just want to sound contemporary.”
How does one manage to sound “contemporary?” By keeping an open ear and an open house, apparently. “My musicians bring me things they’ve heard. And I try to listen to whatever’s happening.”
Might she be too contemporary for Waldorf audiences? Might not they prefer a recital of her familiar hits from over the years to adventures in the unknown? Take Tony Bennett as a recent example of someone who played to big business (at the Copa) by doing what came habitually.
“We do it the hard way,” Lou Levy remarks. “We may spend $15,000 in new arrangements alone and maybe a total of $35,000 before we even hit the road. But no. People come to hear Peggy. They’ll hear the hit medley wrap-up, of course. But they come to hear her whatever she’s doing.”
“It’s like a Broadway production,” she explains. “You can’t expect to come back to town and have people pay to see a show they’ve already seen.”
Effective as it is, she wonders if she should drop that poetry into to a number since she had used it in her Copacabana appearance last autumn. Maybe she should also drop “Didn’t We?” She loves the Jim Webb ballad and has been singing it for months. But now everybody’s singing and recording it…
The rehearsal is over but the musicians linger on. The bar is open and a party ambience is building.
An interested guest thumbs through the looseleaf notebook. There it all is, the magnificent organization, like a military manual of Standard Operating Procedure. The programs for Chicago and New York, with alternate selections. The lyrics of all the numbers that would be used. A page of dietary reminders (“No, No Never” for the truly naughty foods). Allocation item by item – down almost to the last lipstick – of the wardrobe and accessories that will fill a score or more pieces of luggage. Memos (“Important, Please Note: Need organ, timpani.”) Lists of musicians in the cities where she performs… Chicago, New York, Miami, Las Vegas.
In the Empire Room, Peggy Lee will be flanked by 18 musicians. Her contract permits her to choose nine of these, who will enmesh with nine Waldorf or “house” musicians. Was so large a backup absolutely essential? Especially for such a singerly singer? Yes, yes, it was. You see, there was this effect here and that effect there where you really needed an amplified bass or a harmonica or a phalanx of French horns and guitars…
The contract with the Waldorf was signed last July. In the interim there has been the restless search for the best material. Through John Springer Associates, ace show-biz public relations representatives, she has commissioned an artist’s rendering – a free and loosely lined drawing, instantly identifiable, that will grace the Waldorf lobby and will subsequently be used in promotional and advertising outlets. The hegira eastward, the additional rehearsals, and the massive schedule of newspaper and magazine interviews, and an Easter Ed Sullivan Show appearance all lie ahead.
But the pieces are falling into place. Tonight’s a happy time. Peggy Lee is “at home” surrounded by friends, fellow professionals, doting help, and Sir (a poodle) and Sungi La (a Lhasa Apso). A hostess aims to show a New Yorker what Western hospitality can be.
“Here, you must try these. They’re one of Willie Mae’s specialties… Your glass is empty; let me fix it… This is your personal, advance copy of the new LP. When you hear it, everything is just the way it was recorded. You know everybody’s dubbing these days. But that’s not the way I like to work.”
“What about the kids?” she is asked. “The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf set? The ones who really control the pop music market? Are they potential fans? Or is the generation gap so fixed you just hang on to your own crowd?”
“Oh no. It’s all music. Some of the kids are just putting us on. But most of them will grow out of one thing into something else. Young rock musicians come up here and hear us doing things they haven’t heard before and they take it back with them.”
Guests arrive, casual dropping-in style. The driveway crowds up like a downtown parking lot.
“How was New York?” La Lee asks neighbor-pal-singer Carmen McRae, who’s just checking in after her Rainbow Grill gig. “Freezing cold. But the people were warm.”
Johnny Mandel, who wrote “The Shadow of Your Smile,” breezes in with a new song hot off the 88s. He wants friend Peggy to write the lyrics, as she did for his Russians Are Coming theme (“The Shining Sea”), and she promises to play the music tomorrow.
A young man named Adam Foshko bursts upon the scene and fastens a juicy kiss on the cheeks of his hostess. “I’m going to marry you,” he informs her – and splits to a bedroom to catch a screening of The Wizard of Oz on TV. Adam is five.
Far below, to the south, Los Angeles turns on its lights.
Over the stereo a familiar voice recites a verse, then lifts into a haunting, Kurt Weill-ish minor-key refrain: “Is That All There Is?” It’s a Randy Newman tune that was written for the film Ship of Fools, then dropped from it. Later Capitol will release the Peggy Lee version as a single and she will sing the song – a predictable show-stopper – in the Empire Room. Four verses, reprises of the “Is That All There Is?” refrain, then a stark ending.
“I’ve lived the whole thing,” the reciter-singer declares. “The fire, circus, marriage, all of it.” And she’s recalling a North Dakota childhood that was “like a century ago” with the hardships and privations of prairie life.
Yum-yum trays keep issuing from the kitchen and when Willie Mae delivers them personally, mistress and cook exchange little hugs. The bar – an open-end concession – is leaking pretty good. The people-center is a sofa about twice as long as Broadway. And the acetate disc on the stereo keeps spinning the spellbinding “Is That All There Is?”
Hers has been a long career, but she talks about the Benny Goodman era as if it were the night before last. She has grown and flourished, while few other female jazz-oriented pop singers have even managed to survive.
After a hearty buffet supper has been put down (topped off by the best cheesecake ever ingested anywhere – “here, you must take a doggy-bag home”), the hour is late but one question remains.
“Why do you uproot yourself to do the heavy schedule of club dates? When you could stay here and keep busy with TV appearances, recording, painting and writing. Why?”
“Well, of course, there’s the money. I do want to leave my family…”
But of course it isn’t just the money. It’s making music. And making it to live bodies, and in that there is something that can’t be found in TV or writing or recording or painting, something ultimately gratifying… like the embrace of love itself.