by Len Epand
Los Angeles – What do you do when Peggy Lee asks you to dinner? Well, if you’re Paul McCartney, you just don’t buy a bottle of rare champagne to show your appreciation. You sit at your piano and compose her a song. That’s what Paul did when the McCartneys were to meet Miss Lee in London earlier this year. And that’s why he and a most flattered Peggy – one of the greatest pop vocalists of the era, whose name is certainly known to as many people as the Beatles – were at the Record Plant studios one day the first week in June: McCartney was producing his song, “Let’s Love,” for the title track to what must be Peggy Lee’s fortieth album.
After a hard day’s work, Paul, unmustachioed and dressed sharply in a black satin shirt and washed-out blue jeans, and Peg, looking trim in a tan suede suit (having recently taken off some weight) and youthful, though at 54 years of age she could be Paul’s mother, held a mini press conference/photo session around Studio C’s grand piano. In high spirits, they casually sang a couple of songs together, elaborated on their surprising collaboration and then took the small mob into the control room to hear the finished track.
“Well, of course,” said Peggy to Paul, “I was a fan of yours before you knew about me.”
“No, that’s not right,” answered McCartney. “No. I was a fan of yours before you knew about me, Peggy.”
“Yeah, I used to have records of Peggy. I did ‘Til There Was You’ because I had Peggy’s record of it [see Latin a la Lee]… So I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time, you know. And she came to London and she invited us for dinner over at her hotel. So I thought ‘I’m going along to dinner. Well, I’m either gonna take a bottle of champagne or a song…’”
“I’d rather have a song anytime,” added Peggy. “I can always get some champagne, but it would be very difficult to get a Paul McCartney song – written especially for me.”
“So I took a song along and Peggy said, ‘Great. Let’s do it.’ So we got a hold of Dave Grusin (who with Peggy is producing the rest of the album). And really that’s all there is to it.” The logistics were no problem.
“I was delighted, naturally,” said Peggy. “And Linda didn’t mind.”
“Let’s Love,” recorded with Paul on piano, is a simple romantic tune with characteristic McCartney production. From the lone piano introduction, strings and woodwinds enter in stages as Peggy sings in her rich, becalming tones: “Lover, let’s be in love with each other / Tonight is the night of the butterflies / Let’s love…”
When the new album (her first on the Atlantic label) – and “Let’s Love” in particular – are released sometime in August Peggy Lee may very well have another hit in the Hot 100 charts. “I hope so,” she said, speaking in her lavish – but not opulent – Beverly Hills home. “I am so thrilled about the whole thing. The material is strong and I love the one Paul wrote. And to think that he would go to all that trouble. He said it was his way of returning an inspiration… You know I met him and Linda in London an it was instant friendship. And somehow I feel that with all the great things Paul has done, his talent is just growing and growing.”
Coming from Peggy Lee, that’s quite a compliment. Since her first smash recording “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” with the Benny Goodman band in 1943, Peggy has recorded over 500 songs including hits like “Mañana” and “It’s a Good Day,” which she wrote with Dave Barbour, and “I’m a Woman,” “Lover,” “Fever,” “Heart” and “Hallelujah, I Love Him So.” Her recent hit, “Is That All There Is?,” conducted and arranged by Randy Newman, won her a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Female Vocalist of 1970.
Furthermore, she has collaborated with some of the top songwriters of this century. With Victor Young she wrote “Where Can I Go without You?” and themes for the films Johnny Guitar and About Mrs. Leslie; with Sonny Burke, the complete musical score for Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp; with Quincy Jones, “Happy Feet” and “Stay with Me;” with Cy Coleman, “Then Was Then and Now Is Now” and “I’m in Love Again;” with Johnny Mandel, “The Shining Sea;” with John Pisano, “So What’s New;” with Dick Hazard, “Here’s to You;” and with Dave Grusin, the theme from the film The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, “Nickel Ride,” which McCartney may record. She also composed songs for the film Tom Thumb. In a closet she says she has piles of music which she wants to write lyrics for.
In critic Henry Pleasants’ new book The Great American Popular Singers, Peggy Lee is given a chapter, as are Al Jolson, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand. And she has been endlessly acclaimed. Noted jazz critic-author Leonard Feather describes her as being “about as close to perfection as any singer who lovingly fashioned a performance for an audience.” Rex Reed, writing in Stereo Review, said she is “just about the best singer in the business today, and, like brandy, getting better every year, one of the greatest magicians a good song could ever wish for.”
Not only has Peggy been known for her meticulous attention to every nuance of her performance – from her makeup, lighting and dress to her backup orchestration and careful selection of material (her black notebook detailing these for every performance is famous) – but for her unforced, evocative and precise use of her gentle yet hardy vocal cords. Within the bounds of a surprisingly limited tonal range, she makes her songs, regardless of idiom – swing, blues, jazz, Latin, show music and rock – arrestingly convincing. The individual needs of each song are first in her mind.
Her recordings have always been state-of-the-art. In fact, the night before we spoke, she re-recorded six of her vocals because she wanted to experiment with her own custom-made microphone. “It’s a Shure mike but it’s tuned to my voice,” she explained. “There are only three of them. One for Tony Bennett, one for Frank Sinatra and one for me.”
Talking with Peggy, one feels her natural dignity, great modesty and graciousness. And, though, she carefully guards details of her quite tumultuous life, which saw her married and divorced four times, she is open, feeling and trusting, and speaks with a calmness that would belie her mental acuity. (This might be related to the fact that she has been practicing Transcendental Meditation for the last six years.) And she’s a good hostess who, if asked, shows visitors her house, art collection and rare books. An artist herself, one of her oils, entitled “Gabby,” was snatched up for a cool $13,500. Among her treasures are gifts from Aldous Huxley, Albert Schweitzer and Jonas Salk, and she has a genuine Tibetan Lhasa Apso dog which was given to her by the Dalai Lama.
But above all of that, one witnesses her discipline immediately. The white-jacketed houseboy brought drinks in long-stem crystal: white wine for me, distilled water for Peggy. A few years ago she quit smoking and even social drinking to prevent her voice from going the way of Frank Sinatra’s. And she has overcome her overweightness, the bulk of which many who have seen Peggy throughout the late-60s still recall when they hear her name. That condition, which also had the effect of inhibiting her vocal cords, was the result of a glandular problem, she said. “My doctor says it was my willpower that reversed it. I followed his orders to the letter.” In a black notebook every day she listed what she ate and how many calories she was getting.
Peggy was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. It was her rough childhood that heightened her sensitivity, prepared her for hard work, gave her determination and taught her not to take success and life for granted. “My mother died when I was four. And I had my first job away from home when I was eleven. I worked on a farm and I did just about everything – milking cows, housekeeping, taking care of a newborn baby – I pretended it was a doll. These people were terribly poor, they really couldn’t afford me. But the lady was quite ill. And so I was sort of a nurse too.”
By the time she was fourteen, she decided to become a singer – though her only vocal training was high school glee club. Her teacher, she recalls, had her hold in the air a stool or light chair while sustaining notes. She believed that it strengthened the diaphragm muscles which control breathing. “So I used to do that all the time. I must have looked rather silly. But it helped me sing more correctly without knowing it.” A few years later she landed a job singing for radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota.
Then, to see more of the world, she went to Hollywood where she worked as a waitress and even a “very shy” barker at an amusement park. One singing job she landed in a Palm Springs club proved fateful: She met one of the owners of the Ambassador Hotels and he hired her to sing in the Ambassador West’s nightclub. It was then that friends persuaded Benny Goodman to hear Peggy Lee. He called her the following day – but Peggy refused the call believing it was someone’s bad joke. Finally, convinced it might be legitimate, she came to join Goodman. Though some critics have said that his band for a time slowed her development, for Peggy it was an invaluable experience.
“I would say that it was hard schooling, but after you graduate, you really appreciate it.” She was paying her dues. “It was hard to pay the rent. We rode in buses and trains and occasionally planes – oh, I would rather’ve walked. And for some reason, until I had my daughter (her only child, by her first marriage), I was fearless. I think I must have been a little bit insane.
“We rehearsed a great deal. Actually, my part of the rehearsal wasn’t that important. But I was always there. And I might have waited three hours before they got to a song with a vocal in it. But that taught me patience and humility and the value of rehearsing, of being prepared.”
It was during her second year with Goodman, in 1943, that she recorded the now classic “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Again, Peggy rarely speaks of her personal life. It’s been something of a mystery why she suddenly retired after having such a smash hit. “I fell in love with David Barbour,” she explains. (Barbour was Goodman’s guitarist par excellence). “But ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ was such a giant hit that I kept getting offers and kept turning them down. And at that time it was a lot of money. But it really didn’t matter to me at all. I was very happy. All I wanted was to have a family and cling to the children. Well, they kept talking to me and finally David joined them and said ‘You really have too much talent to stay at home and someday you might regret it.’” She still didn’t buy it. “As a matter of fact, I recall crying, ‘I don’t want to. I just don’t want to.’” Movie offers were refused. (And, except for making The Jazz Singer in 1953 with Danny Thomas and Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955 – for which she was nominated to receive an Academy Award – those opportunities haven’t reappeared.) But she finally wound up doing a little singing work, and that little bit’s success led to more and more. “I see now,” she said, “I guess I was fated to.”
So Peggy Lee and David Barbour toured. “We were like the Sonny and Cher of our day,” she said. They played as a quartet, with a tenor sax, bass, drums and guitar, sometimes augmenting with a local theater’s orchestra. They had more than a few giant hits, but something made Peggy retire a second time. “It’s a touchy area.” When did she reemerge? “Oh. Dates and time don’t mean anything to me. Agents just wanted me to work again. There’s no problem with that. There’s always been a market and I’m grateful for that.
From then to the present, when not debilitated with several bouts of pneumonia (which she attributes to overwork), Peggy appeared on virtually every major TV variety show. And that means Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, Judy Garland, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Hollywood Palace, Kraft Music Hall, two of her own specials for Four Star, her own ninety minutes on David Frost, specials with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Harold Arlen and the Grammy show. She was also the subject of her own 90-minute NET special.
As for nightclubs, she appeared in most major cities in the U.S. and Europe. One particularly memorable engagement was at Basin Street East early in the sixties when the nightclub business was struggling to make a comeback in New York. Fouled with the worst blizzards in fifty years, and with an emergency declared in the city, the fans turned out anyway. “It was absolutely jammed – some people even rented sleds and horses to get there. And it was funny. The management didn’t think there would be any business. But they had reservations just piling in. And they were actually, in New York City, that sophisticated and beautiful city, they were calling around to buy chickens from markets and other restaurants and anyplace they could buy them so they could feed the people. I helped them order a few chickens.”
Among the singers who’ve influenced her, Peggy names Maxine Sullivan, a black singer in the thirties who “had a soft tone and marvelous sense of time,” Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Bessie Smith and “of course” Ella Fitzgerald. “But I always feel that the biggest influence on my work has been listening to musicians,” she said. She used to lie on her bedroom floor in North Dakota listening to Count Basie broadcasts from faraway Kansas City. “It always thrills me to think that I’d still lie on the floor and listen to Count Basie. His music and Duke’s is really classic.”
Peggy’s attention to the music – rhythm in particular – increased audience appreciation of percussion, one of her major contributions to popular music. Her unorthodox arrangement of Richard Rodgers’ waltz classic “Lover,” for example, was a new blend of American pop and Latin rhythms. Peggy said that she had realized the music being written approached a timeless quality while the rhythm section was merely being counted upon to keep time. “The thing that I always notice that dates a record is the rhythm section. Now with a good arranger, the music can be timeless. But rhythm can change, because, heaven knows, we didn’t know rock was going to come in, did we. And in the older records, if you separate the two in your mind, you’d notice the rhythm section might be sounding like thump, thump, thump, thump. And now there’s more thought given to it. [Listen to ‘Golden Earrings’ or Latin a la Lee.] In popular music it’s so important. It sets the pose – there can be a sensuous quality, there can be a martial quality…”
Her version of “Fever” is the best and will certainly prove timeless with its charged percussive simplicity. To Peggy, that song’s production is like a fine line drawing. “You know, that art is extremely subtle. And the idea just came to me to do it with bass, drums and finger snapping.”
Beyond her innovations, talent and artistry, the most amazing, indeed essential, thing about Peggy Lee – why this part of red-brick forties, fifties and sixties Americana is not an anachronism or an object of nostalgia in the glass and steel world of the seventies – is that she is as responsive as ever to changing styles and trends. She sang Randy Newman songs (“Have You Seen My Baby?,” “Johnny” and “Love Story”) even before Newman was well known. And she has covered songs by Kris Kristofferson, George Harrison (“Something” and “My Sweet Lord”), with whom she converses by telephone, Otis Redding (“Dock of the Bay”), Sly Stone (“Everyday People”) and Leon Russell (“A Song for You”).
“This is a musical house,” she said, explaining how she stays on top of things. Every room has built-in stereo speakers. “We rehearse in here and in the studio (with tape machines) in there. Then musician friends bring me things that are new. A lot of them are in on the recording sessions and they say, ‘hey, I heard a song, it’s marvelous…’ And they bring it over and I feel like it’s a special gift. And then, of course, I keep in touch with the record stores.”
Suddenly, she blurted out: “And it’s nice to see there are a lot of women writers…uh – I’m not a – I’ve always been liberated.” And it’s true. Beside her self-reliance, her consciousness recorded in Leiber and Stoller’s “I’m a Woman” (not to be confused with Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman”) a decade ago is right there. But she adds that it can be a “drag” to be ahead of your time. “You’re less commercial.”
Like her silence on all things personal, she doesn’t talk about politics other than to express faith that the country is improving and express despair for the men who fought in Vietnam. “I’ve always been very politically aware. But I’m very private about it. I feel that a singer particularly can influence people’s emotions a great deal and sway them in a certain direction. Now I personally don’t feel that I know enough about the workings of politics. So I think my opinion on that should just remain my opinion.”
She will tell how a matured pop singer reacted to the sixties’ British rock invasion. “Well, it wasn’t the British rock that scared me, because first the Beatles fascinated me and then I developed a taste. But it was the acid-rock that scared me. I couldn’t get with that, I couldn’t identify with drug-oriented music. Well, first I couldn’t understand those secret words that were in there. I understand,” she asked blushing, “there were secret words?
“But I couldn’t sing them because I didn’t know what they meant. I felt lost. And I am extremely sensitive. I have to know and believe what I am singing or I don’t sing it. And it is of no credit to me (she believes a true pro should be able to sing anything), it’s just that my Self won’t let me.”
Peggy mentioned incidentally that she’s talking with another pop star on the level of McCartney about a possible collaboration. She could not yet say who. She enjoyed working with McCartney on “Let’s Love” because of his know-how and genuine enthusiasm. And she was surprised to find with McCartney, as with Elton John – who she met at Hollywood’s Les Restaurant after a recording session – that “there’s really no generation gap at all. It’s sort of a family feeling.” Indeed, for Peggy, pop music is the only family she has ever really had.
“Yes. And my audience has been changing,” Peggy added, reflecting over a stretch of experience few people could even contemplate. “And it’s all age groups… But by the end of a night’s program,” she concluded, “they’re all getting along just fine.”