A spring afternoon in Bel Air… a time and a place as evocative as an English summer. Driving up into the hills of north Los Angeles, you glimpse (through the rainbows of the sprinklers that are everywhere), a world of ideal homes. Here great wealth is marked out by the emblems of the small town: a neat front lawn, newly painted fences, mailboxes and the sound of barking dogs. At this place, Heaven hangs close to the earth and stars are everywhere.
This is where the singer Peggy Lee now lives. She and her French Regency-style house seem well suited to Bel Air. Entering her home you feel you have stepped inside her music. It is an understated world of elegance and pastel shades, but novelty is present too: when Peggy Lee gardens she wears a karate suit. The singer, her home and her new album, Peggy Lee Sings the Blues (her first for ten years), are all bang-up-to-date and yet they remind us of the good things of the past.
“My new record is an album of old blues,” she says. “Songs by people like Leadbelly, Bessie Smith and Lil Green – whose song ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ was my first hit. To me, good blues always sounds as if it’s just been written. It’s always fresh. When I sing I might find new meanings or want to create new impressions, but they’re songs that to me never get old, they’re always about right now.”
Peggy Lee herself seems timeless. Her hair is still Scandinavian blonde and her skin luminously pale. She wears pajamas, decked with feathers and pearls, cut from a diaphanous fabric of a type she has for many years favored on and off the stage. She reminds you of an old-fashioned sweet made from spun sugar. The only jarring note was struck by the walking frame that a recent fall compelled her to use. She has, in recent years, been dogged by a series of illnesses and accidents that at one point forced her to perform sitting in a wheelchair. Her characteristic response to this was to begin her concerts with a wry rendition of “I Won’t Dance.”
“Sometimes,” she says, “I think God just keeps me around for laughs. But He’s fair, He makes sure I get mine, too, right back to when I started, when [in 1941] I was invited to join the already legendary Benny Goodman’s band. I was a huge fan of Goodman’s and it was wonderful not to have to put a nickel in the machine to listen to him. But sometimes he was too much. Terrifying. You’ve heard of the ‘Goodman ray’? He would fix musicians with a look that would reduce big men to tears.
“His special trick for me was that he used to play the melody in my ear while I was singing. Now I don’t really sing melody, so finally I said to him: ‘If you do that one more time, I’m going to hit you in the mouth!’ I was on stage singing at the time and I had to fit in between verses, but he got the message. Later we both thought it was very funny.”
In other ways, too, her ear and timing were good. She admits to being “always on the look-out for something new, some fresh sound or rhythm. I’d get my ideas from anywhere. Once, I got an idea for the way I could change the rhythms of a song by watching a film about the Foreign Legion. It had lots of horses and watching theses horses walk, then trot, then canter, then gallop, suggested to me how I could switch the rhythms in this particular song. That song was ‘Lover.’ “
This appetite soon established her as one of the most audacious and versatile singers of popular music. She was the first American singer to incorporate Latin rhythms into her songs. “Mañana,” her first experiment, was for years her biggest hit. She recalls: “It caught on immediately, everyone seemed to be grateful for a new way to go.”
These songs suggest only a small part of the range she has marked out through the three decades that stretch from the Goodman’s big band era to the Seventies. There was also the poignant theme from the cult western , the soundtrack for Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp> (for which she also supplied the voice of Peg, the tarty street dog), to the irresistibly sexy “Fever.”
In 1969 she recorded her haunting version of “Is That All There Is?,” Leiber and Stoller’s song about the disappointment of seeing one’s first circus, experiencing first love, and so on. This song spoke directly to Peggy Lee. “I felt in some ways that song was my life. It wasn’t written for me, but a lot of the lyrics seemed to be about me. Perhaps for that reason I was determined to find a way to sing it that sounded hopeful. It took me a long time, but I think I finally managed to turn it into something positive.”
She regularly performs self-out concerts in America, but she has not recorded a new album for ten years. Why not?
“Rock music,” she replies. “The standard writing of popular songs, show tunes and such has suffered greatly from rock. I’ve always been hungry for change, but change for me means progress, and rock didn’t seem to offer that. I found the Beatles quite musical…Paul McCartney wrote a song specially for me. But in what came after the Beatles it was difficult for me to find the lyrics or the meaning. I like rock people – don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound as if I wouldn’t have them around my house – but they left no room for me and my music.
Recently Peggy Lee has detected a change in popular music, a move away from the rock she found so alien. In response, she has recorded a new album. And she is once again taking chances. Abandoning the lush productions of her later records, she has returned to a stripped-down quintet of piano, bass, drums, percussion and vibraphone. It is an album which leaves the singer exposed, making no concessions, offering nowhere for a voice now in its late sixties, to hide.
From the first notes, her voice rings out – confident, supple and perfectly clear. She says: “I don’t like to think in terms of years. When you enter the world of a song, time means nothing. Your world goes on forever.”