by George T. Simon
One Christmas Eve, after she’d finished work with Benny Goodman’s band, Peggy Lee went to a friend’s house, ostensibly to celebrate. And you know what the glamorous doll did? She spent a good part of the evening making a home recording of some blues lyrics she’d improvised on the spot – terribly sentimental lyrics all about wishing she were a little girl back home, playing with her dolls again, instead of being there in New York singing with the country’s greatest swing band.
Peggy’s a sentimentalist all right. It has shown through ever since in so many of her records, including her new Capitol album If You Go. But she’s also a realist, and it’s this unusual combination that has contributed so much to her phenomenal success.
Unlike most jazz singers, who leave so much to chance and just hope (they like to use the ad lib aspect of jazz as an excuse for not being better prepared), Peggy labors over each of her routines, examining each nuance carefully, planning every move, and never settling for anything less than the best she think she can do.
“I’ve been given a talent,” she says, “and I feel a responsibility to try to improve the presentation of it.”
Peggy’s perfectionist attitude undoubtedly was nurtured by her close association with Goodman, who has always demanded and usually gotten the most out of his performers. Sidemen helped her too.
“I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else. They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train.”
It’s interesting to note that most of today’s singers who sing with a really good beat came out of the good swing bands. Ella Fitzgerald started with Chick Webb. Frank Sinatra came from those of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan were with Earl Hines, Kay Starr and Lena Horne with Charlie Barnet, Doris Day with Les Brown.
The beat of those bands was both infectious and inspiring. But the singers couldn’t go haywire, for, as Peggy points out, “they made you sing reasonably within measures, because you always had to consider the dancers.” Still, for someone like Peggy, who enjoys singing with a definite, sure beat, such restrictions seldom loomed as major hardships.
But many of today’s teenage phenomena still have to learn what time is all about. With no bands in which to serve their rhythmic apprenticeship, they go out on their own too soon and flounder.
“Band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians,” Peggy explains. “We had to work close to the arrangement. Even if the interpretation of a particular song wasn’t exactly what we wanted, we had to make the best of it. I can remember some songs I sang with Benny when I felt they should have been treated the opposite of the way he’d had them arranged. So, like all band singers, I learned to do the best with what they gave me.”
Big band enthusiasts, like Miss Lee, should enjoy themselves in New York night spots for the next few weeks. Tomorrow night, Lionel Hampton’s romping crew returns to the Metropole… Si Zentner’s impressive new band has been held over at the Roosevelt Grill… Duke Ellington begins his first New York night club engagement in several years a week from Monday at Basin Street East, and three nights later Count Basie and his men renew their jumping ways at Birdland… Who said big bands are dead!