by Leonard Feather
SAN FRANCISCO – In her room between shows at the Fairmont Hotel, Peggy Lee is in the mood to talk. Resting on her bed, her feet elevated by pillows, she feels relaxed but resentful as she considers some of the acts that are being perpetrated in the name of entertainment, and many of the sounds that are being passed off as music.
As one of the most durable survivors of what has now come to be known in some circles as the good music generation, she remains secure in her career and her artistic beliefs. When she speaks out, she is motivated neither by bitterness nor envy, but by a passionate concern for the future of a profession to which she has devoted herself as both a singer and songwriter.
Speaking of her upcoming concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Wednesday, she says, “We like to do our part in preserving music as more of an entertainment and less of a sideshow. We’re going for all-out elegance and glamour. I’m using some lovely new material and we have 32 great musicians to play for me.
“I still have a strong conviction that beauty is important in life, whether it’s in singing, writing, literature, paintings. We’ll never lose those values. I do feel that people in the arts have a duty to maintain certain standards of excellence to counteract…” She paused for a moment, as if uncertain whether to point the dagger, then plunged in.
“Take this rock group Kiss. Did you see them in that program The Hype and the Glory with Edwin Newman on NBC? They’re in their late 20s or 30s, they’re never seen without makeup, and the young kids have this illusion that they are romantic idols or something, when in fact it’s just a total put-on. Grotesque.
“The Sex Pistols – when I was in London I was so embarrassed because at first I was under the impression they were an American group, and they did this dreadfully offensive song about the Queen. I was quite shocked to hear that A&M had signed them to a recording contract, but then later I learned that they had been dropped and paid off with quite a sizable sum of money.
“Remember the days of the carnival, when they had the men they called geeks? They made them eat live chickens and lizards or whatever they were told to do. The geeks were poor fellows who hardly knew where they were, they were winos or mentally ill, and the only way they could survive was by doing these weird things. I just hate to think of show business slipping back to a stage that isn’t too far removed from that.”
One can well empathize with Ms. Lee, whose whole thrust has always been toward perfectionism, toward the concept of creating a gracious illusion for her audiences. When she reads the great debates on such topics as to whether or not this or that pop group spat blood or vomited onstage, she may well say to herself, is that all there is to show biz?
Her concern extends to recording activity, and area for which she has lately found a more congenial base in England (as did Bing Crosby in the last year of his life). “Right now I just don’t find conditions conducive to recording in this country. I’m thinking of the great power wielded by producers; in particular I have in mind a team of producers I worked with who spent a great deal of what was supposed to be our working time just lying around in the sun in the South of France – and all the expense involved had to be charged against my royalties. It wound up being nothing but a very costly demo, which I in effect paid for.
“I like to go in and sing with the orchestra, live, not overdubbed, and it doesn’t call for a whole lot of production. It fact, it shouldn’t necessitate more than two or three takes if you know what you’re doing. But then producers will put on limiters that erase all the overtones in your voice, so that you don’t even sound like yourself anymore, and all the life is taken out of the performance. The producers spend so much time doing this sort of thing, and time is money, so it all comes out of the artist’s royalties. I object strongly to that kind of thing in the recording industry.
“I guess I’m being controversial for the first time. Are you surprised to hear me talk like this? No names, but if the shoe fits, either wear it or throw it away – or rather, if it fits, I hope it’s too tight.”
On the other hand, says Ms. Lee, in England you are treated as though you are an artist. “I made two albums in London; one was live at the Palladium and it was literally live – brilliant engineers – and the other was a studio session. The musicians were very well prepared and they didn’t waste time fooling around. They played marvelously in tune – they have a sense of discipline that is to be admired.
“I know a lot of fine musicians in America who would love to be working and wonder why they aren’t. Well, one of the reasons is that the costs have gone sky-high here. It’s gotten to the point where even the copyists make almost as much as the arrangers, or in some cases more – which is unfair, because an arranger is a creative person. By the time you pay the copying costs nowadays, you feel like retiring.”
Partly because of her concern about the high cost of touring, Ms. Lee is very selective in accepting bookings. She has only recently been back in action after an accident while stepping out of an elevator in New York kept her off the scene for almost all of 1977. Now she looks forward to such prestigious dates as a pair of April appearances with symphony orchestras in Amarillo and Lubbock, Texas. “And I’m excited about my week in Detroit, April 25-30, where I’ll finally be appearing with Count Basie’s orchestra. After all these years of wanting to do that, it should really be fun.”
She is not one to allow her mind to idle – or her hands. During the inactivity that followed the accident, she busied herself making a king-size afghan for her daughter, but what had started out as a time-killer soon became a business as she began designing for a large chain of fabric stores in Japan.
Songwriting, her second love after singing, has returned to her schedule in the form of a commission to work on a motion picture score. “Maurice Jarre is going to be doing the music. I already have a number of lyrics finished – they’re quite an integral part of the movie – but I’m waiting for Maurice to write the melodies, then I’ll rewrite the words to fit them.”
For all her reservations about her profession as she sees it, Peggy Lee retains a lively interest in every genre of music she considers valid. “What do I listen to? That’s hard to answer. There’s always Leontyne Price. At home I listen to a lot of instrumentals, a lot of classical music.
“I love Billy Joel, love his writing; I like Carol Bayer Sager, Carly Simon, Miles Davis with Gil Evans, Satie. Depending on my mood, I can go from Hurricane Smith to Carmen McRae. I enjoy to listening to that album Paul Horn recorded in the Taj Mahal. Of course, there are all the foregone-conclusion people whom I shouldn’t even need to mention – Ella, Sarah, Frank, Tony.
“I guess you could sum it up by saying I can appreciate almost anybody who doesn’t eat live chickens.”