“It’s incredible,” Peggy Lee said, waving toward the vases of flowers scattered about the living room of her hotel suite. “I’m not due to be working for two weeks!”
She was reminded that the start of her two-week engagement at the Ballroom, 253 West 28th Street, was actually Tuesday, only a few days off.
The singer paused, obviously concerned. Then she looked at her feet, and exclaimed, “Heal!”
The recent surgery on her toes, however, is a minor disturbance for someone who underwent heart-bypass surgery 2½ years ago and suffered a broken pelvis last February.
“I have to perform seated for a little time yet,” she said. “And since I’ve been doing that I feel it kind of suits the whole thing, a little like Mabel Mercer. It works well.”
A chair is not likely to distract the legion she has charmed for nearly five decades, nor could it hinder the wisdom of her phrasing – the confident ease of her vibrato-less delivery, the wispy way she cradles “I’m Glad There Is You” or the insinuation that turns to gusto on “Big Spender.”
For those who lament the dearth of new contributions to the great American songbook, Peggy Lee at 65 remains a silver lining. What she can’t find, she writes, often with guitarist John Chiodini. She sang two of their songs – “I’ll Give It All to You” and “Over the Wheel” – during her last visit to the Ballroom, in 1986. “We’re writing all the time,” she said.
“I used to get loads of new pieces offered to me, and then it stopped. But they suddenly swept open the door and started coming in again. Johnny Mandel has given me about six new songs. Everybody was a little bit heartbroken that a high-quality standard of music wasn’t about for a while. However, it was about. Everyone’s been writing and waiting for the day we could say, ‘Here’s something.’ ”
That day is here, she said, “because rock is gentling out. They’re getting a lot more dignity about themselves.” One of the consequences is that, for the first time in about 10 years, Lee is recording an album this weekend, for MusicMasters. With her will be guitarist Chiodini and the rest of the support system behind her at the Ballroom: pianist Mike Renzi, bassist Jay Leonhart, drummer Grady Tate and percussionist/vibraphonist Mark Sherman.
“I have a lot of new material for the Ballroom show,” she said. “And a lot of very old, I mean some Bessie Smith songs, and maybe Lil Green.” Green, of course, made the original recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” which Lee fell in love with in 1941. “I played it all the time for my personal amusement while I was singing with Benny Goodman, and that’s why he decided to do it. His dressing room was right next to mine and I drove him mad with it.”
Lee’s 1941 rendition of the song with Goodman was one of her all-time hits. “It’s amazing, that recording just goes on and on… I’ve had very good luck with sort of standard quality… I guess it’s an instinct. When I write, I write carefully so that I don’t include things that could date or mark a piece, you know – slang or things that may be overtaken by time.”
The instinctive quality underpinned her selection of material in the late ‘50s, when she heard Little Willie John’s recording of “Fever” and did it herself with her own lyrics. She followed it with “I’m a Woman” and “Is That All There Is?,” both by Jerry Leiber and Fred Stoller. “Those songs were hits across the board,” Lee noted. “I wasn’t even thinking of that when I recorded them, but material by Leiber and Stoller had always been big in rock circles – ‘Hound Dog,’ for instance.”
Her good instinct dawned much earlier. In the mid-1940s, she and her first husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, wrote such songs as “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “Mañana.”
During her last engagement here she noted that, when she married Barbour in 1943, she decided to stay home and be a housewife. And while Barbour was working at the studio, she puttered around the house, making notes for a tune.
“When David came home,” she said, “the dinner wasn’t ready – but the song was.”
Lee’s instinct has advised her to perform a few very old numbers this time around “because there’s a group of young people in their twenties who have begun to attend my performances. They seem to have missed hearing my kind of music. I don’t know where they came from, but God bless them.”
Their attraction to her may be linked to recent videocassette releases of Lady and the Tramp, the 1955 animated film in which she did four voices and sang three songs; or Pete Kelly’s Blues, the 1956 film with Jack Webb in which her stirring portrayal of a fading nightclub singer earned her an Oscar nomination.
“I suppose another milestone would have been The Jazz Singer with Danny Thomas in 1952. And I had hit records all along. ‘Lover’ was in there someplace. It was written as a waltz and Richard Rodgers was quoted as saying at the time, ‘Oh, my little waltz, my little waltz.’ Later, he was very kind to me. He said, ‘You can always sing anything of mine.’ From him that was quite a compliment, I later learned.”
Returning to her health problems, Lee said that she broke her pelvis while she was performing with George Burns at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “They introduced me and I walked out. And there was a steel plate in the floor to cover some electrical plugs. The steel was highly polished and sent me flying. That’s when I really started writing on my book, which is nearly complete now. Then I started feeling really good, and I know that I have to keep exercising for my heart, so I bought an exercise bike. And rode on that too soon and re-injured myself.”
The toe problems, she explained, were the result of a pair of shoes – “they were beautiful but they were terrible for my feet. I have diabetes, and it takes nothing to start a problem. Circulation, I guess. I had to have minor surgery.
“All these ailments are almost like a joke,” she said, in obvious good spirit. “I think God keeps me around for laughs.”
Jazz Singer: It Ain’t Necessarily Scat (sidebar)
“I’ve never been able to define a jazz singer,” Peggy Lee said: “but I can tell when I hear one.” Then she leaned back on the couch in her hotel suite, contemplating the ceiling, and said,” “I think it’s a composite of good taste in music and understanding of harmonic structures. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to scat-sing at all. I think it’s a question of phrasing and choosing good material. And it’s certainly a question of time, and being able to skip two measures you need to re-establish where you started out – always knowing where ‘one’ is.”