The spotlight which hit cool, blond Peggy Lee left most of the big room in blackness, but the ringsider’s voice that came out of the dark was recognizable: “That’s the old pepper in there.” It was Benny Goodman, on hand one night last week to welcome an old friend on her first appearance in New York in three years. Basin Street East was packed to capacity, and the masses of bouquets on hand prompted one onlooker to observe that the place looked more like the Metropolitan Opera after a Tebaldi premiere than a jazz joint on the East Side.
Peggy Lee – born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota – has been a reigning favorite in the popular-music world for nearly twenty years, or ever since she made her first big hit as the girl vocalist with Goodman’s band, singing such classic old-timers as “Why Don’t You Do Right?” She is particularly popular with other musicians for her musical taste and polished style, and last week’s admiring audience included, besides Goodman, such jazz figures as Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, and Diahann Carroll. (She’s solid,” said the Count. “Sheer perfection,” enthused Miss Carroll.)
For any female who can look so sexy and sing so lowdown, Peggy offstage is surprisingly reminiscent of a small-town librarian. She’s pretty, she’s friendly, she’s intelligent, and she’s genuinely unaffected. She is also inarticulate about her own talents: She is an ASCAP composer and co-author of such hits as “Mañana” and “It’s a Good Day,” an actress who got an Oscar nomination for a supporting role, an exhibiting painter, a poetess, and fine cook. “I like them all for different reasons,” was her comment about her varied activities.
How does she account for the appeal that has kept her on top for so long? “The basic thing is choosing my material,” she answered – “material which is commercial yet is good musically.” Director Abe Burrows, who had been rehearsing her for her Revlon show on television last week (she has five in six weeks), had another explanation: “Peggy is one of those rare performers who can handle silence. She has amazing control. Also, she’s somebody who likes herself – in other words, she likes what she does, and the audience gives her respect.”
Peggy, who had just sung torchy in “My Man,” liltingly in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and hot as all get out in “St. Louis Blues,” insisted: “I think it’s mainly the material. But interpretation does play a part in it, I suppose.”