by Leonard Feather
For the seekers of nirvana in Nevada, she is the music world’s blonde contribution to American sex symbolism.
For the few remaining nightclub owners who can still afford to lure her away from Beverly Hills, she is Miss Standing Ovation of 1968.
For television producers, she is one of those rare women who can conjure up color on a black and white screen.
While the music around her has changed with frenzy and fury, Peggy Lee has stood fast, a cool calm area in the eye of a rocking, rolling hurricane.
When the storm showed signs of setting, she took her good time before deciding on a new direction. She had heard too many of her contemporaries mindlessly jumping aboard the youth-market bandwagon, the Teenville Trolley, desperately seeking the fastest route to the top of the charts.
Peggy Lee continued to make records of quality in her own tradition, the ballads soulful, the rhythm songs pulsating in her jazz-trained manner, the old-time tunes embellished with a sort of Mae West zest.
Then, a few weeks ago, the word went forth that Madame Mañana had become Miss Now; the authority for all her recordings would be delegated to Charles Koopelman and Don Rubin, two young men who have fashioned settings for the likes of Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and the Turtles.
The other day, trim and composed, speaking in the even tones that sometimes sound as though she is about to break into laughter over some hidden joke, Miss Lee explained her new project.
“These are two very successful producers. No, they’re not teenaged millionaires; I guess they’re just plain old 28-year-old millionaires, but obviously they know what they’re doing, even if I didn’t know what they were doing – at least, not at first. During the experimental stages I felt like Zasu Pitts.
“I’ve always liked some of the new music, but I noticed a curious thing. A lot of the songs seem to require a vocal group. Can you imagine how much of its effectiveness ‘Up, Up and Away’ would lose if it were done by a single singer?
“Still, hearing all the great lyrics and music produced by the Beatles, Burt Bacharach, Donovan, Simon and Garfunkel, I knew that we were long past the day when you could combine everything in the same bag and put it down as rock ‘n’ roll. The only suitable term that takes it all in today is ‘contemporary.’
“Working with Koppelman and Rubin changed my whole approach. I was used to hearing demonstration records, talking over material, rehearsing with the rhythm section, selecting my arranger, deciding on a style of interpretation.
“Under the new system, they just sent me lead sheets and I waited for them to call me up. I had nothing to do with the instrumental aspects of the records. When I found out Shorty Rogers was going to arrange and conduct the first session, I felt a lot more secure.”
At the session everything fell into place with unexpected ease. “It wasn’t a mechanical process at all. They’d put a lot of creative effort into it, preparing backgrounds so that I could just step in and bring my own interpretation of the lyric to whatever they had set up for me.”
The musicians impressed Peggy with their inventiveness, freedom and informality. The first two songs released by Capitol were “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” and “Reason to Believe.”
Peggy now has reason to believe in the feasibility of a valid transitional blend between the standard and the contemporary. Even the bantamweight Fender bass sound was unobjectionable. “It somehow seems to fit songs of this type,” she said.
A few weeks ago, at New York’s Copacabana, she made her first public appearance incorporating some of the new material into her act. “The audience seemed surprised at first,” she recalls, “but not for long.”
An aspect of Peggy Lee’s success of which the public has remained unaware is her unusually close relationship with musicians and arrangers. At one of her parties, for every Cary Grant, Nureyev or Judy Garland, you are apt to find someone like Lou Levy, her pianist off and on since 1955; Francisco Aguabella, perennially loyal delegate to her percussion section, or many of the composers with whom she has collaborated: Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Cy Coleman, Benny Carter.
Before, during and after our interview, she was on the long distance phone, checking whether a certain bass player would be able to fly from New York to Las Vegas for two weeks. (Some singers, at the end of two weeks, haven’t met the bass player and don’t know his name.) Extensive telephoning also preceded the hiring of Ed Thigpen, the Oscar Peterson drummer.
Peggy Lee runs a tight ship. “I want nothing but the top,” she insists, “and they must be equally at ease in jazz, bossa nova or whatever else is part of my act.”
That her concern for the men who surround her is part of a mutual interest has been reflected in the musicians’ reaction. At the end of several engagements in recent years they have banded together to present her with a handsome and costly piece of Steuben glass. “When I closed at the Copa last month, they gave me a magnificent Tiffany brooch with a big diamond in it. It was like receiving a highly coveted award. I love musicians and I respect them, especially the marvelously talented and spirited ones who work with me.”
“Musician’s musician” is a cliché-compliment too loosely thrown around among jazzmen. Peggy Lee, as a musician’s musician and singer, has shown that perfectionism becomes her. In bringing it to the new sounds she displays the same matchless taste with which she has always graced the old.