Peggy Lee


Peggy Lee: A Consummate Artist

by David McGee

Peggy Lee, whom Jerry Leiber has described as “a consummate artist,” recently visited New York, where she appeared in concert at the Empire Room in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. While here she took time out to talk to Record World about a number of things, including her new album, Mirrors, which reunites her with the Leiber and Stoller team for the first time since 1969, when the three of them combined forces and came up with an intriguing hit song entitled “Is That All There Is?”

Record World: I’ve heard you’re interested in transcendental meditation.

Peggy Lee: Yes, and I’m beginning to think everyone is.

RW: How did you get interested in it?

Lee: Actually it was through a friend who went to India and studied with the Maharishi and when she returned there was such a change in her. She was so much happier and she was about 15 years younger and was just really well-adjusted. Had a great sense of well-being, serenity. So I said “I don’t know what that is but I want to try it.” And later, when she passed away, I was amazed to discover that she was much older than I thought she was. So then I was initiated for the second time by the Maharishi personally and that was a great honor.

RW: I saw your show recently and I was most impressed that you weren’t leaning on your old hits. Why have you chosen not to go the easy way?

Lee: It would be boring for me. It really would. That’s more for my own pleasure as well as feeling… I like progress and I don’t like to leave out the things that people hear, but…

RW: You save those until the end.

Lee: Yes.

RW: Is it difficult for you now, at this stage of your career, to maintain a certain high level of enthusiasm for doing new things?

Lee: No, it’s the new things that keep your enthusiasm up. Keeps all of the creative juices flowing.

RW: Did the new album, Mirrors, start out as a concept album?

Lee: Leiber and Stoller had originally hoped for that, but they weren’t prepared for the whole album when they came to California. In the meantime I had to go to Japan, so we set the keys on the things they did have and when I returned they had written new things. By then it had become a concept album.

RW: Were you in discussion with them while they were actually writing the songs?

Lee: Yes, they spoke to me about the ideas they had and there’s one that, oh it’s of no importance because it isn’t in the album, but it was about World War I and I didn’t think we needed that again.

RW: When you’re working with Leiber and Stoller – the three of you together are tried and tested pros – what can they do for you in a studio and what can you do for them?

Lee: Well, I admire what they write. I think they’re fine writers. And I only do songs that I think I can interpret. Sometimes I would, well I have an open mind about… for instance, if you were an actress in a role, a director would tell you how he wanted the scene done; in most cases if I don’t feel I can interpret it, then I would rather not do it. But if I were playing a role as an actress and the director was showing me what he wanted I certainly would follow the directions.

RW: Did they actually say to you, “Listen, we’ve got all these songs here. It is a concept album?”

Lee: No, no. You see when it started out it wasn’t; they had hoped it would be and because of my trip to Japan they were able to finish the other writing by the time I returned, and then it did become a concept album. They had the idea in mind all the time and they had ideas of different characters and things. There’s one that they were going to write, and I still wish they had, called “Aunt Charlotte” and that was a character I really loved. And these things, for example, “Ready to Begin Again” is a… that character is very alive to me. I feel as though I know him.

RW: Did you have trouble with any of the songs? Were any of them hard for you to learn?

Lee: No. Not with Johnny Mandel arrangements. I think he’s one of the greatest ever and he’s a marvelous conductor. We have always worked together very well. That was a joy.

RW: What songs do you think are the strongest on the album?

Lee: I can’t say. It seems that “Some Cats Know” is getting a lot of attention, but “Say It” is one that I like. I think it’s very pretty, kind of gossamer; it brings back an era that’s very pleasant in my mind. If I lived in that era I don’t think it would have been pleasant. But I have a whole make-believe concept of it, what “Say It” says. That wasn’t a play on words.

RW: Do you think the audience understands what you’re doing?

Lee: Certainly seem to.

RW: But if it’s an unpleasant time…

Lee: No, I put that aside. I say if in actuality that period of time has been sad, but no it’s a very pleasant experience. I feel, oh, almost like Jean Harlow kind of, and dancing… you know the line “Take me in your golden arms, my bright and shiny youth?” It’s a lovely kind of fantasy.

RW: How long did you spend recording the album?

Lee: Well, we started in about 1942. Seriously, we did set keys in April, and then I went away, and when I returned we recorded for awhile, and I went away again and came back and finished it.

RW: Do you like to take awhile to record and album, or do you prefer to go in and get it done?

Lee: I really like to go straight ahead and get it done. ‘Cause then it’s a whole consuming thing. I can devote my full attention and not break that. I much prefer that. If I did my program and stopped to get a drink of water at the water cooler if would just break the continuity. However, with music that’s somewhat different; once the music, like Johnny Mandel’s music, he can very quickly put you in the right mood.

RW: You don’t talk to the audience very much in your show. Why do you avoid saying anything?

Lee: Basically because I think they came to hear me sing, and I like to sing as many songs as I can. In fact, we even shorten the applause at the end of each song by going right into the next one.

RW: Are you still writing songs?

Lee: Yes. I’ve just written a whole flock of lyrics and my pianist, Byron Olson, is doing some of the melodies for them. It might wind up being an interesting kind of work. I don’t know exactly what it is yet.

RW: An entire album of Peggy Lee songs?

Lee: I don’t think it’ll be an album. It could be an art piece or something. It’s an interesting project and it’s going to take a long time.

RW: How often do you write? Do you have a regular schedule?

Lee: No, I write mostly when I’m home, but in this case that wasn’t true. I was working, and after the second show these lyrics kept flowing out. I was almost annoyed that they kept coming out; I was so tired, but I couldn’t stop writing.

RW: How many weeks out of the year are you on the road?

Lee: I think around 21, 22 weeks a year. I went to Japan for the first time, I played Vegas, went to Chicago…

RW: Are you playing rooms like the Empire Room or are you going into concert halls?

Lee: Mostly I’ve been playing… well, in Japan they were concerts. In the United States it’s been supper clubs like the Empire Room. I did a gala concert with the Dallas Symphony, the 75th anniversary. That was such a thrill; I went down a day early to hear Beverly Sills, who was just marvelous as usual.

RW: Do you prefer supper clubs over concert halls?

Lee: No, not really, because the people at concert halls are so totally focused on what you’re doing that you still feel a kind of intimacy even though you’re in a large gall, 5,000 or something like that. But you’re at a closer range with people in supper clubs and I enjoy that too. In fact, the closer they are the better.

RW: This was your first visit to Japan, the one you made awhile back?

Lee: Yes.

RW: How did it go?

Lee: It was wonderful. I was there for ten days and did five concerts, and the musicians were excellent, just really excellent, and they were so good to us, so very nice.

RW: Were the audiences more controlled or wilder?

Lee: They’re a marvelous audience. Their favorite song of mine is “Johnny Guitar.” At the beginning of that song the strings play a melody and on the first note they started to applaud. That’s how well they knew the songs.

Lee: I plan to go to Europe next year, because next year I’d like to concentrate more on concerts. They have theaters there with regular proscenium stages and that’s where I think I could do my best. That way I can reach a large part of the population that I’ve not been able to because of the price range in supper clubs. I wanted to do concerts this past year, but we hadn’t worked out the format properly.

RW: Do you ever hear from Paul McCartney anymore?

Lee: Oh yes, every now and then.

RW: Did you enjoy working with him?

Lee: He couldn’t be nicer. And Linda’s a doll too. They’re really very nice, nice people.

RW: How did that association come about?

Lee: Well, it was kind of an odd happening. He had been a fan and I was in London – I was at the Dorchester – and I called them and asked them if they’d come to dinner, and they came that evening. When he got to the hotel he said that rather than bring champagne or roses, he was writing a song for me. And it was almost complete, maybe two bars left to write. Then they came to California and they were at my house for dinner, so he played it for me then.

RW: Do you think you have any weaknesses as a performer?

Lee: Of course I think I have weaknesses.

RW: What do you think they are? There’s a large number of people in this country who would disagree with you.

Lee: One thing that always surprises me is that I feel something much more strongly than I think it comes out. If I hear a tape of it afterwards, and I thought I’d used more dynamics; it surprises me because I know how I felt at that time. I’m trying to work on that.

Lee: I had a marvelous conversation with Stravinsky once about music dynamics and it was almost eerie because he had no way of knowing that I was interested in that and he talked to me for about an hour about that and the composer’s intentions and so forth. Later, after he passed away, someone told me that I was one of his favorite singers, and I was asked to make a statement. I thought that was a very high honor, of course. And I think that’s been one of the interesting things to me about music in general – how to change the colors and the moods and how to build up like an ocean wave and let it wash away and then be very quiet… that’s what makes it interesting to me.

RW: What do you think your contribution has been do popular music?

Lee: I could say that I’ve tried to keep some integrity going. And I did start the combination of American and Latin rhythms – I’d forgotten about that, it was so long ago. I look back and think of a musician who’s gone on to reach greater heights and so forth; I think I’ve been extremely fortunate in being able to find good musicians, and not only are they jazz musicians but they’re well-schooled in almost anything creative. They can do a variety of things. I’ve been meaning to have an alumni party sometime. Wouldn’t that be marvelous!?