by Don Freeman
La Jolla, California – It seems that Peggy Lee, always a very capable singer, has developed into an extraordinarily appealing entertainer. And an assist for the transformation should go to a versatile fellow named Mel Ferrer, an actor, also a director, a producer, guiding hand at La Jolla Playhouse here and a jazz enthusiast.
It was Ferrer who staged Peggy’s appearance at Cairo’s some time back, emphasizing dramatic as well as musical values, showmanship as well as songs.
Ferrer is inclined to take little credit for what appears to be a masterful stroke. He contends that he merely offered slight aid at a point in Peggy’s career which she had reached by her own devices. This is possible, but investigation proves it an understatement based less on facts than on modesty.
For it is a fact that Peggy was given an important movie role after her Ciro’s engagement, the role of Danny Thomas’ wife in The Jazz Singer. The sense of drama added to her singing could have been responsible. It seems likely.
What Peggy needed more than anything, according to Ferrer, was discipline. “It seemed to me,” said Ferrer, “that Peggy was singing too long, talking too much between songs, and not singing the right songs. Every musician liked her, but not the general public.
“Another thing, she was too fat. Right away I put her on a high protein diet, slimmed her down. She felt better, too. She had more stamina and she was able to put more into her singing.”
Thus, Ferrer provided a combination of subtleties which completely altered her presentation. He taught her how to project her personality in the manner of musical comedy singers – but without losing any basic musicianship. In essence, he showed Peggy how to widen her appeal.
“A lot of little tricks,” said Ferrer. “One was bridging every song in her act, kind of a segue, with Peggy talking to the audience very briefly – getting them to like her personally – and with the music in the background, changing into the key of her next song. And all in the split of second timing.”
Mel, who used to produce Hildegarde’s radio program and stage some of her other appearances, recalled how lighting helped the Milwaukee chanteuse. So he brought in an expert, Jimmy Neilson – a director at Columbia Studios – to handle lighting. This offered more intense drama.
“A lot of little things,” he said. “Like having the drummer stand at certain points in her act, and having Pete Candoli – a great horn man – help out on the bongos, and Peggy’s small but dramatic gestures with her hands.
“Frankly, it’s a commercial move. Sure, but Peggy has a kid and she needs to make money, the big money that she’s capable of earning. This’ll help her. Yes, I think this will really help her.”