by Roy Hemming
You can count on one hand the number of singers who were popular 20 or 25 years ago and who still are – especially with “the kids” who determine the Top 40. Peggy Lee is one of them.
Last year she won a Grammy award for her hit recording of “Is That All There Is?” It was just one of many million-sellers she’s made (and sometimes written) since her first hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with Benny Goodman’s orchestra back in the 1940s.
What’s kept her on top? A uniquely warm and communicative style, to begin with. Also an ability to do more than keep up with changing trends, but to recognize the best of the newcomers and new things. That’s why Peggy was singing the songs of the Beatles, Jim Webb, Randy Newman and others long before everyone else got on their bandwagons. As composer-arranger Johnny Mandel has said: “Peggy is one of the few singers who can bridge the generation gap without making it sound like a tree graft.”
Senior’s Ray Hemming interviews Miss Lee for us in New York.
What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in American music over the past few decades?
Getting back to the roots, to music that people can feel and relate to. During the era of progressive jazz that followed the Big Bands era, music started to take a free form that didn’t really allow the proper communication between musician and audience. There was nothing to dance to. Unless you were a musician, you couldn’t relate to it. It got out of touch – and the young people, especially, turned away. Then came rock, rough rock at first. It had a beat. It went back to the old blues, the old work songs. Then it went through a process of refining, and made some beautiful turns. Folk songs have also taken beautiful turns. And country ‘n’ western. We used to think of it as hillbilly; now it’s being brought out with the proper respect. It’s quite sophisticated. And lyrics today are saying so much more than they used to.
In what ways, specifically?
I think the biggest is in all the social comment. That’s something we used to steer away from before. Then, I think you the freer form of today’s songs means you’re not limited to clever rhymes. There’s more warmth and earthiness and honesty about lyrics today. Before, so many of them were just slick, or just clever for the sake of being clever.
You mentioned social comment. A lot of people, of course, immediately ask: What gives performers special qualifications to comment on social and political conditions? Do they have the background, the understanding of everything they’re saying?
I have to say that a lot of them don’t really understand all the ramifications. But it’s they way they feel, and they have a right to express it. Maybe later they might feel differently, as I’m sure you’ve felt differently at one time about a subject than you may have later on when life sort of straightened out a few curves or gave you a few others. But for myself, I don’t like to get that political – so the things I choose to sing are not that. I wish for peace, too, but I march in a different way.
Do you listen to other singers’ records regularly?
I listen to Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, Blood Sweat and Tears, Sergio Mendes, Ray Charles. I could go on and on. Then I like to change the whole diet – like classical things…
Who would you say are the five or six pop singers you most respect in the world today?
(After a pause.) My favorite color is plaid. No, let’s not have me make enemies on that one.
OK, then have there been any singers in your time who haven’t gotten the breaks you felt they deserved?
David Allen, I think.
What’s the most important thing you feel you can tell someone who wants to be a singer – someone who’s now in high school?
To learn everything they can by listening and by studying – and to get as much stage experience as they can. Very often there’ll be a hit record, and the performer can’t follow through and handle himself or herself well on stage. I mean they should work a little more on presentation.
How would you define the means you’ve used to stay on top for such a long time?
I really think it’s loving music. And just loving life. When you love something you work to know all about it.
But how do you always get there first? You were singing Ray Charles’ songs even before he himself hit it big. You were among the first to recognize the Beatles and Randy Newman. What’s your secret?
Maybe the answer would be the same as, you know, having a God-given talent to sing – an ear to hear. Maybe that’s it. And being interested. And looking underneath the lyric to see what it says.
Is there anything I’ve not asked you, directed toward young people or about them, that you’d like to comment on?
There’s a lot I’d like to say, but I don’t know how to condense it. I guess I just wish a lot of them would stop complaining and protesting so much and do something. There’s so much that individuals can do about whatever is bothering them – pollution, race relations, everything. Sure, the older generation has made a mess of lots of things. But I wish more young people would try to show us how to do better, not just complain about it. Sure it’s harder. And it is a pretty frightening time we live in. Everything moves so fast. To try to absorb all that and think about what they’re going to do about their life, that’s difficult. But if they’d just take a step at a time, they’d find there’s so much they can do.