by Gary Giddins
Anita O’Day pounces onto the stage of Reno Sweeney in a flash of auburn. Sharp, tough, she swings into her theme, “Waves,” cuts it short, gets down to business. “Let’s play nightclub,” she says and her flannel voice paces “There Will Never Be Another You.” She allows a competent piano spot, then trades with the bassist. She moves quickly about the platform, telling the pick-up trio what to do. No prestidigitation, just work. “A gig is a gig,” she says. Her voice drops for the a cappella opening of “Is You Is,” swinging it “over a Lunceford two,” as she explains. Free of any taint of innocence, she makes the novelty tune a scorcher, sexy and daring. She takes “Watch What Happens” to high, draws attention to the error with a joke, tries it again. She knows as soon as she starts a phrase whether she will be able to finish it.
Peggy Lee, on the other hand, ensconced at the Empire Room of the Waldorf, enters a phrase like a balsam glider riding a breeze. Only sometimes the breeze is a misjudged gust which sends her sailing flat or sharp or somewhere in the great uncharted middle. Peggy is a performer pickled in aspic; violinists churning to the left of her, an orchestra riffling to the right, two pianists and a drummer who socks his cymbal every time the third beat of a measure rolls around. Anita is a singer coping with the reality of getting her trio to swing right.
Peggy takes time to tell us what a wonderful audience we are. Anita tells a dirty joke which is neither funny nor very dirty. “I’ll drink to that,” she says and makes the bassist tune up “Honeysuckle Rose” over a bass walk; gentle but rich and penetrating. She wants us to know she doesn’t travel with this band. “Can’t you hear that diminished? Well, play it,” she exhorts, but laughing, hip, funny and relaxed. On “Tea for Two,” she trades fours with piano, bass drums, then twos, then ones, holding up the appropriate numbers of fingers to indicate how many measures they should take. She has them in stirring groove, then whips them in behind her final chorus. She says, “I once had a piano player who was 22! We were gonna do ‘I Cried for You.’ I said to him, ‘A flat.’ He said, ‘How’s it go?’”
Peggy’s musical director doesn’t look much older than 22 and he’s provided her with arrangements as pompously up-swinging as anything this side of Stan Kenton. She occasionally encourages the audience to clap in time, instantly converting the packed room into a Shriner’s convention. Peggy sells sex, but like an untouchable apparition. Her breathy voice quivers like the lips of a goldfish. Anita is sex, riding the rhythm as relentlessly as Calamity Jane. Peggy’s patter is greeted with hearty guffaws. Ha ha ha! Anita’s audience titters, not unafraid that she will suddenly tell them to fuck off. Peggy is 52, but supporting an enormous white muffin of hair and offering as much cleavage as possible she doesn’t look a day over 51. Anita is three years her senior but hasn’t anything to recapture because girlishness was never her long suit. Dressed to the neck in a mannish outfit, she’s limber and strong. Blow at Peggy and she will waft away into the wings; blow at Anita and she will whack you in the teeth.
Peggy coos, “I’m so proud that Paul McCartney wrote a song for my new album.” Anita wails on “S’ Wonderful.” Peggy and her retinue have been imported to the Waldorf by Atlantic Records. Anita puts her own records out on Anita O’Day Records. Peggy is generous with her time. Anita leaves the stage after a 35-minute set. The people cheer wildly, “More!” She shakes her head, her left wrist slices the air decisively, “No!,” and she is gone. Anita is cantankerous and unpredictable. Peggy is staged and drained of soul. Each is a superb singer, but for the meantime it may be more rewarding to stick to the records.
Wanted: The Real Peggy Lee
A.K.A.: Miss Standing Ovation, the Queen, the Finest Singer in the History of Popular Music
by David Tipmore
Weight: Unknown. Recently dropped 47 pounds from “raw vegetarian” diet.
Age: Unknown. Admits to birthdate of 1920. Looks younger.
Last Thursday night I went to the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria to see Peggy Lee. I ate a wonderful steak sandwich, traded secrets with the waiter, admired the chandeliers, and whistled as Bob Rosengarten and the Orchestra slid through “Satin Doll.” I sat back excitedly as Frank Fiore, Miss Lee’s 20-year-old conductor, tuned up the violins. The room darkened and suddenly a voice announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Empire Room proudly presents Miss Peggy Lee…”
With a burst of white light Miss Lee appeared stage right in Stavropoulos chiffon, acknowledged the audience reception, and segued directly into “I Don’t Know Why (I Love You Like I Do).” She was difficult to see because intense lighting gels obscured her face in an opaque sheen. She was difficult to hear because the orchestra, which Miss Lee conducted periodically during the show, played with Sousa-march volume. Scanning the orchestra, I saw three violins, French horn, clarinet, saxophone, synthesizer, electric guitar, an intimidating percussion section, and, in the far corner, a black back-up trio, whose names Miss Lee did not seem to remember.
Peggy Lee is trying out a new act at the Empire Room. “New act” means that Miss Lee is delicately maneuvering into the rock idiom. “Rock” in this case means inaccessible, electronic numbers performed with perfunctory hip movements. Songs by Paul McCartney, James Taylor, Melissa Manchester, and Thom Bell – all from Miss Lee’s latest LP, Let’s Love – were greeted with short gusts of applause, but the middle-aged audience quite naturally preferred the deja vu of “Fever,” “Mañana,” “Is That All There Is?,” “Lover Man.” The Empire Room is not, after all, an “In Concert,” and Peggy Lee did not earn the right to play the Waldorf because of her innovations with synthesizers. While Miss Lee seemed comfortable with rock and R&B, her security comes more from a scientific exploitation of production value than from a perfect wedding of vocal style and musical idiom. Let me explain.
For years critics have employed a hirsute hyperbole when discussing Peggy Lee, declaiming about her “soul” and her warm, provocative performances. To criticize her is to deface the Statue of Liberty. Rarely does anyone address how disinterested and selfish a performer she can be, how scantily she uses her rather meager voice. Watching Miss Lee sing the R&B hit “You Make Me Feel Brand New” demonstrated this remoteness: The soul of the song was supplied not by warm singing or acting, but by the red gels and the bleached back-up trio and Mr. Fiore’s electronics.
At the end of the show, the audience stood politely and gave Peggy Lee a standing ovation. It was as cool and controlled a standing ovation as I’ve ever seen – even considering the regal surroundings. Economics aside, ignoring the need to expand artistically, the audience wants the old Peggy Lee back. So do I. I want “My Old Flame.”