Peggy Lee


On the Lee Side

by Philip Oakes

For years, Peggy Lee lugged a Japanese temple bell around with her when she went on tour. It contributed one note to one song in her entire repertoire. “But it was,” she recalls, “a beautiful sound.” Now she saves on freight charges with a water bell which is much smaller but makes the same music.

She also finds room in her arrangements for a Chinese cup gong and a tree bell (like a shiny brass section of elephant trunk) which goes “shang” when stroked with a drumstick. They’re not gimmicks but musical effects to please the perfectionist, and tomorrow night at the Albert Hall they’ll be adding their mite to a concert which mark’s Peggy Lee’s first London appearance for nine years.

In several senses she’s never been away. She writes songs, and film scores, and her record albums are constant bestsellers. But more importantly she embodies a brand of musical excellence, a classic pop style which is literate and tough enough to weather all sorts of revolutions.

She looks pretty durable herself – a big, buttery blonde with platinum hair, and an oddly impassive face which leaps to life when she describes her craft, and freezes at the first wink of a camera. She made her first hit record – “Why Don’t You Do Right?” – in 1942, when she was a singer with the Benny Goodman band. “But I avoid counting how many years I’ve been in the business. It makes me feel old.”

There’s always an argument about whether or not she sings jazz (one clue: she reveres the memory of Billie Holiday). But what’s more to the point is that, like all great popular singers – Sinatra, Piaf, Lotte Lenya – she has laid claim to a patch of musical terrain, and made it precisely and unquestionably her own.

Peggy Lee country lies on the edge of night-town, jumpy with sexual encounter and parting, sometimes jubilant, always electric. She celebrates good times and bad with an extraordinary awareness. She summons mood and meaning, incident and occasion with total assurance. She offers a sentimental education: passes guaranteed.

She works partly by instinct (she returned from a sightseeing trip around London on her first night here with an idea for a new song), but it’s hard work that digs up the gold. All her program material – she changes her act three times a year – is assembled and shaped over months of slogging rehearsal. “I start by gathering songs, maybe a hundred. I have a standing order with favorite composers – Johnny Mandel, for instance, and Michel Legrand – because anything they write I want to see first. Then I get together with my permanent rhythm section, five or six guys, up at my house, and we go through it all, sorting it into the ‘A’ and ‘B’ piles. Then we rehearse some, and my lighting director – who’s a former musician – joins us, and we decide on the kind of arrangements, and where to make all the light changes.

“Then we think about clothes – I like soft, flowing things – and start to build the actual program. We rehearse quite a bit because there are intricate things in the arrangements and they have to be precise. Then we’ll check out the acoustics of the concert hall, and the balance of the orchestra. And by the time we’re ready to go on I’ll have gone through 120 songs, leaving me with thirty for the show. The odd thing is that my voice seems to be getting stronger all the time. There’s no sign of strain. My throat man looks at my cords now and then, and he can’t get over how healthy they are.

“I work harder now than I’ve ever done in my life, because I’m the boss. I pay for anything and I’m responsible. When I was with Benny Goodman I traveled a lot, doing one-night stands. I was my own hairdresser and wardrobe mistress, and I just can’t think how I got through it. I’m asked a lot about durability, about why there are so few big women singers. But I don’t really know the answer. I often wonder about it. I suppose it takes a lot of strength. You have to be strong.”

She was born in North Dakota of Swedish-American stock, and going by the available dates, she’s nudging 50. “A local radio announcer christened me Peggy Lee because I guess he felt he couldn’t go on the air and say ‘Ladies and gentlemen, here is Norma Egstrom.’” Benny Goodman heard her sing in Chicago, and hired her to replace Helen Forrest, who had just resigned, and for two years she toured with the band.

“Now I have a sort of network of musicians, key men I can call on in various cities. When I knew I was coming to London I called one of our best arrangers, Quincy Jones, and asked him what I should do about the music and he said not to worry, British musicians were great.”

He’s right, and they are (the Albert Hall contingent will include Kenny Clare on drums and Ike Isaacs on guitar), but each performance stands or falls by what Peggy Lee herself puts into it. “I regard singing pretty much like acting. Each song is like playing a different role. I get very involved with my material. I feel a responsibility for the emotion it brings out in the listener.”

For this reason, she says, she can’t sing a song by Leiber and Stoller, who wrote “Is That All There Is?,” her biggest hit in years. “Sometimes they do such far-out stuff that I can’t tackle it. Lyrically, they’re very bold. The one they’ve just sent me is beautifully written, but the subject is murder, and I just can’t sing about that. There’s already too much violence in the air.”

She’s made two films, the best of which was Pete Kelly’s Blues, but she’s most at home on the club and concert circuit, with the occasional TV special which she can record locally in California. Last week in London she recorded a TV show with Petula Clark, for whom she has high regard, but it’s the live performance, one feels, which keeps her at full throttle.

She’s been married three times, and twice went into semi-retirement. “I really tried to quit, but I was pushed back into it. I don’t think I have time now to be married, There’s too much to do. The worst moment in this kind of life is just after my last rehearsal, when you start worrying whether you’ve forgotten anything. But then you’re on, and you can’t stop to worry. That’s how it is. There’s never enough time.”