by Gene Lees
Among the more dismal haunts of our sad and stumbling society are nightclubs. If they were ever places of pleasure, it was before my time. Preposterously expensive, they are being put out of business by records and their own sullen and sometimes vaguely sinister atmospheres.
There are, however, a certain few artists whom I’ll go to see in spite of the claustrophobia (“the clausters,” as Woody Herman calls it) these places consistently engender. On the top of the list is Peggy Lee. I’ll go to see Miss Lee anywhere, any time, and her visits to the Copacabana are among the highlights of New York’s entertainment year. Peggy Lee is my favorite female singer.
There arose in the 1940s a school of singing that, for lack of a better term, I think of as Stanislavskian. This approach came from several sources. The late Russ Colombo and Bing Crosby were among them, Billie Holiday was another source. But the “method” came to flower in the Forties with, I submit, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.
The microphone sired the change. No longer was it necessary to belt out your message. A certain few singers began to grasp that the microphone had the effect of putting the listener’s ear inches away. The microphone did not create an artificial style of singing; on the contrary, it restored naturalism. It made it possible to bring the voice back to natural volume.
Sinatra and Miss Lee began to deliver songs as if they were spontaneous creations. Sinatra’s curious genius lay in his ability to project the impression that he meant everything he was singing and the words were being made up as he went along. Miss Lee did the same thing, though in a stylistically different way.
One factor was conviction – and that’s an intangible, beyond analysis. But certain aspects of the method can be specified. One of the important ones was the rephrasing of songs. If the words to a song did not fit the music in a natural, speechlike way, Sinatra and Miss Lee would alter the melody slightly. Take the Rodgers and Hart song “It Never Entered My Mind.” If you phrase the opening line the way the music is written, it comes out “Once I laughed when – I heard you saying…” That’s inappropriate to the meaning. The right way to sing it for the sense of it is “Once I laughed – when I heard you saying…” Like Mr. Sinatra, Miss Lee developed this kind of reinterpretation into a high art.
She was rooted in Billie Holiday, and for some time sang with a distinct resemblance to her, though that act has long since become a diminished factor in her style. She reduced the volume in her voice to its lowest audible level. If you think that’s easy, as opposed to wide-open belting, try to stay in tune and maintain some support under the voice while doing it.
Miss Lee created the impression that she was singing directly and privately to you. (For a male listener it could be, and still can be, stupefyingly sexual.) For the dawning age of the LP, this quality of the personal was important. For, as Archie Blyer once pointed out, a record is listened to usually by one or two persons. I would add that if there are more people present, they’re probably not listening anyway – they’re talking.
Miss Lee had always impressed me, but I began to be electrified by her work with the 10-inch Black Coffee LP she made with Decca. Her best was yet to come. As far as I can see, she’s still evolving and growing.
Miss Lee today is the most mature, the most authoritative, the most sensitive, and the most consistently intelligent female singer of popular music in America. During her shows at the Copa, both the laymen and the professionals in the audience are barely breathing, as they hang on every word of every song.
She has all but impeccable taste in material, and I suspect that the occasional lapses are due to a weakness for doing favors for songwriter friends. Unlike most singers, she doesn’t repeat herself. I know singers who have been doing essentially the same material for ten years. Yet every visit to the Copa finds Miss Lee with an entirely new act and new (and always superb) arrangements. She puts together a large orchestra of the best musicians in New York to play them.
Her pianist and accompanist for several years has been Lou Levy. California-tanned and with gray-white hair (“my good gray fox,” she calls him), he’d be enough to distract the attention of the ladies in the audience from an artist of any less command than Miss Lee.
Lou sets her up with a long vamp from the orchestra. She comes onto the floor slowly, usually in a loose-fitting robe that makes her look like a high priestess at some elegant but pagan rite. She starts with a swinger, as almost everyone does. But her swingers swing. She has marvelous time herself, and the rhythm section usually is built around the propulsive drummer Grady Tate and bassist Ben Tucker. Then she’ll go into a ballad. Often she’ll introduce new songs right at the beginning, saving the old favorites – which the audiences demand – for the end. This is contrary to usual procedure. But she wants you to hear these new songs, listen to them and understand them.
As her act unfolds, you realize that Peggy Lee is a great actress. In one song, she’ll be the fragile, rejected girl of the Dick Manning-Luiz Bonfa ballad “An Empty Glass.” Then, with a wink and a bawdy wave of the arm, she becomes instantly the frowzy London hooker of “Big Spender.” Then, perhaps, she’ll become the mature woman finding love on a new level in “The Second Time Around.” Or the happy, round-heeled jet-setter of “When in Rome.” Or the wistful woman contemplating her vanished youth in “What Is a Woman?” Toward the end of her act, she throws dignity to the wind and does her utterly, delightfully silly reading of “Fever.”
To see a fine actress build a convincing characterization in the ninety minutes of a movie is impressive enough. But to see Peggy Lee build fifteen characterizations in the course of an hour is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in show business. How does she accomplish these instantaneous transformations? I don’t know. It mystifies me.
Miss Lee was recorded by Capitol on two evenings of her April engagement at the Copa. It is in album I’ll await eagerly. If it’s like her other albums, it will be a fine piece of work: no one understands the medium of recording and its requirements more subtly than she does. But it will have more meaning for me from having watched her work so often. Those who haven’t had the experience have missed a joy.
She’s one of the greats.