by Ben Gross
“Dancing should be romancing, not just physical culture,” singing star Peggy Lee told me as we were discussing the frantic gyrations inspired by rock ‘n’ roll. And, as a matter of fact, she believes that eventually rock ‘n’ roll may evolve into a form of music acceptable even to moon-bedizened lovers.
Peggy, who scored so heavily recently on those Thursday night Revlon shows (CBS-TV, 10 to 11), was continuing her discussion of popular music, the first portion of which appeared here last Sunday.
“As we all know, the old type of rock ‘n’ roll is disappearing,” she told me. “I mean the numbers with poor, nonsensical lyrics and the monotonous tunes. But the original foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, the work songs and the blues, will remain. They are true American music and for years to come they will influence pop songs and dance numbers, especially the beat.”
“Why do you think the kids went for rock ‘n’ roll in the first place?” I asked.
“It isn’t because the younger generation of today is going to hell,” said Peggy. “Most of our teenagers have a great deal of integrity. I know this because I have a daughter and through her I come into contact with many youngsters.
Asks for Tolerance
“We grownups should be more tolerant. We should realize that when we were teenagers we didn’t have to worry about Russia, the H-bomb and other such problems. We should know that tension and worry causes kids to go to extremes.”
“That’s a familiar generalization,” I pointed out, “but it still doesn’t quite explain it.”
“All right,” said Peggy, “here’s a more direct answer. In a sense the great dance bands of the past also were responsible for what happened. During the 1930s and ‘40s, many of them, unlike Guy Lombardo’s and a few others, played pop tunes that were over-arranged. The melody and sometimes the beat was lost.
Listeners, Not Dancers
“So much of this went on that during the supposed dance number the kids would quit dancing and gather around the bandstand to listen while a great player, the trumpet, the clarinet, or the trombone took off. They became listeners instead of dancers.
“So the youngsters who wanted to dance began to look for something else and they found it when rock ‘n’ roll came along.. It had life, rhythm and that big beat. They could dance and turn loose, which may explain why they embraced it.
“After all, beat or rhythm has a universal appeal. Come to think of it, there’s rhythm about most things we do – breathing and walking, for examples. I’m hopeful that the big bands will come back to us and if they’ll only remember this simple fact they’ll be as successful as they were in the past.”
Peggy Lee has come far since her childhood in her native farm community of Jamestown, North Dakota, where her father was a railroad station agent. In her early teens she sang with the high school glee club and semi-professional college bands.
After being graduated from the local high school, Peggy borrowed her father’s railroad pass and headed for Hollywood. But in the lotus land all she found was a single club date in a small bistro and soon she was back again in her own home town where food and shelter at least were no problems.
But the urge to become a professional would not die. So she transferred herself to Fargo, North Dakota, where while working as a waitress in a coffee shop, she began to sing on radio station WDAY and also performed in the dining room of a hotel.
This led to other engagements, including a term as vocalist of Will Osborne’s band and as a featured singer in the Doll House of Palm Springs, California. Then came Peggy’s biggest break, a two-year stint as a singer with Benny Goodman’s fabulous swing crew. By 1950, Billboard, the trade magazine, named her the nation’s “most popular female artist.”
There followed an unbroken series of engagements in the country’s biggest nightclubs, her own radio programs and star billing on most of the major TV musical and variety shows, including those of Perry Como, George Gobel and Steve Allen.
But, despite her former successes, it wasn’t really until this season that Peggy Lee came into her own. For years a favorite of the inner circle of jazz aficionados, during the last few months she has won wider acceptance than ever before.
Today, her recordings are top sellers and there are more offers of club and TV engagements than the girl can accept. All of this runs into big money. Consider the recording field alone, in which a top artist may make $60,000 dollars and up on a hit platter.
But now Peggy has reached the stage where she is no longer satisfied with merely collecting queenly ransoms as a singer. “More and more, I want to write, and do serious acting,” she told me. “Also, I paint in oil and do sculpting.”
As a matter of fact, she was nominated for an Oscar as the best supporting actress for her performance in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues. In addition to writing the hit song “Fever,” she did numbers for the movie Tom Thumb and for Time Machine, based on a story by H. G. Welles. And of course, almost everyone remembers her lyrics to Duke Ellington’s memorable music for the movie Anatomy of Murder. All of this, in addition to her collaboration in a popular cookbook.
In fact, Peggy, far from being a slim champagne blonde with hazel eyes who merely sings, is such a busy woman that she has had to incorporate herself.
“My business is called the Peggy Lee Enterprises,” she explained. “It’s a holding company for all my interests, which include two publishing music firms.”
Home with a View
The center of all her activities is a rambling mountain view home in Hollywood’s Coldwater Canyon. She lives there with her young daughter Nicki, the child of her former marriage to guitarist-composer Dave Barbour. There’s a spacious swimming pool, plus the other luxuries associated with such movieland domains.
But the heart of the home is an especially built sound-proofed studio. It is crowded with microphone tape units, a tremendous record collection, a grand piano, typewriters and piles of copy paper.
An Admirer – Sinatra
“My happiest hours are spent in this studio,” Peggy said, “and also sitting around the swimming pool with my friends.” These include not only persons in the entertainment field but those whose interest are electronics, religion and politics.
One of those most ardent admirers of Peggy’s singing is Frank Sinatra, who conducted for her Man I Love album. And she returns this admiration. In fact when I asked her to name some of her favorite singers, his name led the list. And among the new bandleaders whom she respects, is Neal Hefti.
“Do you like other women singers?” I asked.
“Yes, especially Lena Horne and Frances Wayne,” she said. “In fact, I like women generally if they are honest and comfortable. The kind I have no use for are those who are deceitful and want to steal your man.”