The voice of Miss Peggy Lee is a quilt of black velvet and yellow silk. It is warm and sexy, romantic and comforting. Behind the rich fabric of her vocals is a deep understanding of life. When you hear a Peggy Lee song, you know she knows what she is singing about. Her music is just so true.
From early hits such as “Mañana” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” to later classics like “Fever” (newly recorded on The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring, from Musicmasters) and the soundtrack to Lady and the Tramp, Miss Lee has offered a message of faith and life. This credo led her to the hopeful “Oh no, there’s more!” interpretation of “Is That All There Is?” In a season during which we reflect on peace and new beginnings, what better artist to recommend a few Christmas tunes than the legendary Miss Lee, who believes in “the human spirit and the hand that guides us from above?”
I: You sang with the Benny Goodman band. What was it like to spend Christmas on the road? Was it hard?
PL: Those weren’t terribly jolly holidays. You didn’t get any time off, and you were never anyplace in a family atmosphere.
I: You didn’t try to make it a festive occasion, as a group together?
PL: No, we didn’t do anything like that. Of course, Benny was Jewish. But he never gave me a Hanukkah present either! [laughs]
PL: Coincidentally, I am writing a Christmas special called The Legend of Christmas. It contains a great many of my own Christmas carols that have been reissued over and over again.
I: Who’s going to be in it?
PL: Dom DeLuise is going to be one of the Santa Clauses. Won’t that be perfect? We’re trying to get Jonathan Winters. I have written a song for it: “Everybody Needs a Santa Claus.”
I: I need one!
PL: [chuckles] We all do! The second line is: “Even Santa Claus needs a Santa Claus.”
I: I was going to ask you if you like Christmas, but if you’re writing a special about it –
PL: Oh, I love it, I love it.
I: One of the things that has always impressed me about your singing is the musicianship behind it. Your voice is wonderful –
PL: Thank you.
I: But it’s so clear that you’re a musician as well as a singer. Does that influence your choice in Christmas music?
PL: Oh yes, it does. I love Sammy Cahn’s song “The Christmas Waltz.” And everybody loves Bob Wells and Mel Tormé’s song: “Chestnuts roasting –” I particularly like some carols by a man named Al Burt, who was a young man – he died right after he wrote them. One if called “The Star Carol.” A beautiful thing.
I: When you listen to music, are you just listening, or are you a singer hearing a song you might like to sing, or are you a musician aware of the musical nuances?
PL: Strange you should ask that right now. I was thinking yesterday about Irving Berlin and “White Christmas.” I have always thought of that song with Bing Crosby. I loved Bing so much. But yesterday I was thinking about the construction of it, and Irving Berlin’s talent for simplicity, in getting right to the point of things.
I: Berlin was incredibly talented. But he was also lucky in that his music was so suited to the age in which he lived.
PL: Yes. I’m finding out that a lot of things I wrote in the ‘50s are now… This last album [The Peggy Lee Songbook] contains things that I’ve written in one way or another. Mostly lyrics. I’m amazed at how well they’ve held up.
I: Is it fun to hear others singing your songs?
PL: As a matter of fact, I get very frustrated that no one will sing around me. My daughter and my granddaughter – I want to hear them. Just by accident I’ve heard them out of the corner of my ear, but they hide.
I: Well, I can understand. I would never sing in front of you! You’re so good.
PL: I’m not that good.
I: Don’t give me this! [laughs] Are there Christmas songs you hate? If I hear “The Little Drummer Boy” one more time…
PL: When I first heard it, I thought it was so lovely, and I recorded it while I thought that. But I don’t like it anymore…
I: It’s all the airwaves play during the season.
PL: And that sort of p-r-r-r-rum-pa-pum-pum. Besides, it’s not easy to sing.
I: You were on Nat King Cole’s TV show in the ‘50s. What about his Christmas music?
PL: Oh yes, Nat Cole has got to be a part of Christmas.
I: What do you think it is about his voice that conjures up such a Christmas feeling?
PL: There’s such a lovely and loving quality in it, and it’s a full, round sound. It lets you picture things like green trees and white trees and Christmas decorations. I think that the images in his mind were probably very clear. And that’s communicated.
I: Anyone else?
PL: Once Cannonball Adderly had a wonderful Christmas song.
I: There are so many people I never think of doing Christmas music – Cannonball Adderly.
PL: They were all little kids once. It’s the child in us that’s at the bottom of what Christmas means.
I: That child remains so needy, too.
PL: That’s good. Please bring that out in this.
I: Your music speaks to the child in us. It speaks to something deep inside.
PL: Oh yes, music does. There is a spark deep in every one of us. A spark of life.
I: That seems to be the right note on which to end. Thank you.
PL: Thank you. I really enjoyed it very much. And I wish you a Merry Christmas.