Peggy Lee


The Talk of the Town: Miss Peggy Lee

author unknown

Our enthusiasm for show business is such that we still like to watch TV reruns of The Glenn Miller Story and of movies in which Dan Dailey quits the act so that he won’t keep his girlfriend-partner from making it big as single, and even of movies in which someone like Donald O’Connor jumps up on a tabletop and persuades the other guys in the Army band that after they get out of service they’ve just gotta stay together and try their luck in New York. We still like the sort of show-biz slickness that has gone out of style with many people because of their accurate (but irrelevant) judgment that it’s brittle and phony. When we’re hanging out backstage with musicians and singers, and the lights are dimmed, and a voice with no visible source says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Sahara proudly presents…” our pulse begins to race. It’s no wonder that we love Peggy Lee, whose performances are so glittering and polished. Last week, we had the pleasure of attending a Peggy Lee opening night and also the rehearsal that preceded that afternoon. Both events took place in the Empire Room of the Waldorf. When we arrived for the rehearsal, a few minutes before one o’clock, several musicians were warming up, a handyman was draping some gold cloth over one end of the bandstand, a technician was checking the sound system, another technician was checking the lighting, and waiters and public-relations men and friends of Peggy Lee were milling around in the middle of the room.

A dark-haired young man came up to us and introduced himself as Brian Panella, Miss Lee’s manager. “We rehearsed for three and a half hours yesterday, but we still have a long way to go,” Mr. Panella told us. “More than half the show is new – new tunes, or new arrangements of tunes that Peggy has done before.

Musicians seemed to be everywhere, and we remarked that Miss Lee must be using a large orchestra these days.

“She is,” Mr. Panella said. “Twenty-one pieces. Three trumpets, three trombones, two French horns, two reeds, two guitars, four strings, piano, organ, Fender bass, drums, and percussion. Most of them are local players. She carries four players with her on the road, and I travel with her, and so do her hairdresser, her wardrobe mistress, and her lighting director.”

He pointed to a partly bald middle-aged man across the room. “That’s Peggy’s lighting director, Hugo Granata,” he said. “Hugo has worked with Peggy for years. He used to be a musician, and he really knows what he’s doing when it comes to fitting the lighting to the mood of the music. He’ll stay with us for a few days, until the local guys have the lighting down, and then he’ll have to leave, because he works with a lot of the stars. There probably isn’t a major star that Hugo hasn’t lit.”

The only musician we had recognized was the Good Gray Fox, as Miss Lee calls him – Lou Levy, a slim, handsome man who has long, prematurely gray hair. Mr. Levy, an excellent jazz pianist, has been Miss Lee’s pianist and conductor on and off since about 1955. Then we saw Snooky Young, the great lead trumpet player, who played with Count Basie for years and is now a New York studio musician. We went over to ask Mr. Young how it was going. He told us that Miss Lee was a perfectionist – one of the most demanding singers in the business. “Some singers don’t go to rehearsals – they leave it to the conductor, and then come in after everything is ready,” Mr. Young said. “But Peggy is always there. She knows just what she wants. We’re supposed to be here for three or four hours today, but you watch. We won’t be out of here before six.”

Miss Lee entered the room right on the dot at one, wearing a black pants suit with a brown suede vest, and sat down at a table on the bandstand, beside the piano. She put a coke and a small black notebook on the table, and began looking through the notebook. Mr. Levy got the band’s attention and called up the name of several tunes – “I Love Being Here with You,” “Fire and Rain,” “Just in Time,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” and “I Love to Love,” among others. We pulled up a chair and sat down in front of the bandstand, about ten feet from Miss Lee. We hadn’t heard her in person for some time, and we wondered if all the quadruple-forte rock we had absorbed in the intervening years had rendered us immune to her singing. As soon as we heard the first few bars of “I Love Being Here with You,” we knew that we were still under her spell. We don’t know how to explain just why.

Miss Lee’s natural vocal endowment is modest compared to that of Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, who all have voices of almost operatic dimensions. She isn’t exactly a jazz singer, but she isn’t an ordinary pop singer, either. What she has is a good voice, a good ear, good time, great taste, a wonderful way with ballads, a sure feeling for jazz-oriented and blues-oriented material, and an actress’s ability with lyrics.

Throughout the rehearsal, Miss Lee spoke to the musicians in a gentle, friendly way, but she spoke to them often. She stopped “Fire and Rain” because a guitar figure didn’t sound right, and she hummed what she wanted until she got it. In a new tune called “It Changes” she heard a wrong note form the cellist. Though the cellist was playing what was written, Lou Levy agreed with Miss Lee that it sounded wrong, so it was changed. She stopped the tune twice more because the French horns were having intonation problems. In another tune, she asked the drummer to switch from sticks to brushes, and in another she ordered elimination of a bass-clarinet passage.

When Mr. Levy told the band to take a twenty-minute break, we introduced ourself to Miss Lee and asked her what was in her black notebook.

“That’s my show book,” Miss Lee said. “It has my lyrics, a list of my arrangements, the instrumentation of the orchestra, telephone numbers of people in New York who are pertinent to the show, and notes about the tunes – like I’ll mark down something about the bass, or more guitar here, or less of the French horn here – and, uh, it’s a very organized little book. In fact, I’m going to teach it to sing.”

We asked about her reputation as a perfectionist.

“Well, it’s true that I’m interested in the whole process of the show,” Miss Lee said. “The gowns, the lighting, and especially the music. Now, you don’t have an audience of musicians, but the music still have to be just right. Because I think the overall effect is the result of working on things, ironing out the little creases. I think the audience enjoys it more if it comes off well, simply because I enjoy it more, which gives me a sense of well-being and relaxes me, and enables me to do a better job. I think preparation is the key to the whole thing.”

We asked Miss Lee if she thought her sort of elaborate presentation was likely to survive, given the informality of the younger singers and musicians.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “Rock music is suited to informality. But I’d be scared to death of that approach. . I guess I take the whole thing too seriously. We treat our show as a performance rather than as an evening of music. It has to be exciting. A woman always has to create all the excitement and mystery that she can. And, besides that, I don’t look good in blue jeans.”

We asked Miss Lee what kind of music she is listening to these days.

“In addition to loving people like Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Carmen McRae, I love to hear Carole King and Carly Simon and Leon Russell,” she said. “I like variety. I listen to Feliciano, Creedence Clearwater, Sergio Mendes, Bread, the Carpenters, Chicago, Cannonball Adderley. A lot of different people.”

The rest of the rehearsal went slowly, and Snooky Young’s prediction was accurate. At ten minutes to six, Miss Lee and the orchestra were in the midst of what was supposed to be a straight run-trough of the show, with no pauses for changes, but Miss Lee couldn’t resist tinkering. She was still interrupting every second tune. “I’m afraid to ask what time it is, but I better know,” she said.

“It’s ten to six,” Mr. Levy told her.

“Oh my God!,” Miss Lee said.

She finally let the orchestra go at six twenty, having cut several numbers of the show. She still wasn’t satisfied with the order of the tunes, two hours away from the opening performance, and she looked worried as she headed for her suite.

We didn’t see Miss Lee again after a couple of minutes before show time. Her expression was grim. She was standing just offstage, dressed in a long, flowing white chiffon dress with long, ruffled sleeves. We asked if everything was all set. She said that she guessed so, that her good-luck-token Cary Grant had called a few minutes earlier to wish her well.

As soon as we sat down out front, the orchestra played a sort of overture, the lights were dimmed, and a voice said “Ladies and gentlemen – Miss Peggy Lee!” Miss Lee came sweeping up the ramp that led up to the stage. She was transformed. Her eyes were flashing, and she looked happy, relaxed, and full of herself. Halfway up the ramp, she caught the eye of a moonstruck male fan, paused for a second, and made a mischievous, catlike gesture at him with her long fingernails. Then she was before the mike and into her first tune. We knew instantly that everything that had looked ragged a few hours before would be made smooth, and it was. Hugo did his stuff, the orchestra did its, and Miss Lee did hers. The audience were knocked out, and so were we.