by Peter Reilly
There is a certain sort of praise which, if voiced often enough, can do oblique damage to performing artists of recognized stature: “Peggy Lee? Oh, she’s great!” Or, as a friend said recently, “As long as they write songs, Peggy Lee can sing them. She can sing anything.” Miss Lee is, along with Ella Fitzgerald, one of the most universally admired singers in America. She is also one of the most “complete” singers, musically and professionally. Musicians admire her, and her record company shows its admiration through its clockwork release of her albums and single discs.
Is all this admiration deserved? Within the currently accepted framework of what constitutes good popular singing in the United States today it most definitely is. Miss Lee attempts more than most singers, and often she achieves more. On at least three bands of her latest Capitol album we are aware that we are in the presence of a greatly gifted artist. But there is also, on other tracks, considerable evidence that it is about time Miss Lee made some artistic decisions. While it may be true that she can sing almost anything, she really should not. When she is good, she is magnificent, and while she may not ever be truly bad, there is at times a creeping sort of offhand glibness that is now becoming uncomfortably apparent.
The reason for these lapses may be insufficient consideration of material, too many records released, or, most probably, the sheer pressure of being a first-rank star and the resulting necessity for Miss Lee to prove her right to stay where she is. It is an old axiom in the music business that you never know where your next hit is coming from – so just keep right on recording. If this latter opinion is one shared by Miss Lee and/or her advisors, it is to be regretted. It is distressing to hear her amble passively through a piece of goulash like “My Guitar,” trimming it with all sorts of extraneous frills such as the Sinatra-like pronunciation of “yearn” and “return.” Or her half-hearted recital of “Mohair Sam,” a song which she seems only to tolerate.
I think that the crux of the matter may be that Peggy Lee – blonde, glamorous, sexy Peggy Lee – is now a woman of a certain age. As attractive as she ever was, but, in that immemorial third-act phrase, “in a different way.” The density of soft focus on her album-cover photos lately is matched only in those of Doris Day (who is disappearing before our eyes year after year, leaving us only with a hazy image of fluorescent teeth, a helmet of shining hair, and a rather accusing glance.) Miss Lee is too good and natural to bother with such nonsense as the vanishing American myth that a woman’s attractiveness ends at the age of thirty. How could any young woman evoke the chilling finality of the opening phrase “Close the door” in the song “An Empty Glass?” In those three words Miss Lee immediately prepares you for the song itself. Her formidable narrative gifts are brought fully to bear on this superior song as she sings of a woman who has finally seen through her “sometime” lover. Her voice carries with it all the knowledge of the pain the unloving can impose on the loving – and the bitter realization that she will have to learn to live with that knowledge. Or take “Good Times,” the saga of a good-time girl for whom things have gone irretrievably bad, the disillusion expressed in words but the searing loneliness implied by the artistry. Here is a loneliness that is not a momentary period between lovers, but a deeper involvement with an essential state of being. And who else but someone who had lived and observed could inject the right note of ribald good humor into the delightful “Nice ‘n’ Easy”? There is a very healthy sort of earthiness here that has been a Lee strong point since the long-ago “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and it is a talent that, to my knowledge, has never been shared by any other young white female singer.
Of course Peggy Lee’s incredible smoothness and solidly based musicianship carry her more than adequately through most things she chooses to sing. This present album, with the reservations specified, is no exception, and she is particularly helped by the dazzling arrangements (by Dave Grusin) on several songs. But here too, her strange ability to be able to stand outside her material, a ploy which is so effective in her better songs, becomes a marked liability when she sings songs with which she has less sympathy.
My suggestion is that Miss Lee turn off some of her admirers who keep telling her she can sing anything and sing instead only what is right for her. She should simply follow her own instincts and forget about whether it will sell or won’t. Her audience is large and faithful, and I think she has more to lose in the long run by singing down to them. America is growing up, and in its own terms it is ready for its own Piaf. Peggy Lee is a natural choice for the spot. May I remind everyone, though, that Piaf wore her emotional scars like badges of honor and never, even on her eighteenth birthday, considered herself young as such. American audiences are already tiring of at least one sensational aspirant because they are beginning to realize that no amount of vocal fireworks can make up for the real thing; the experience of having lived a life. Miss Lee conveys this experience immeasurably better than any other singer we have.