Peggy Lee


This Gal Goes by the Book

by Robert Salmaggi

We’re gonna throw the book at Peggy Lee.

When this gold-topped gal is being caressed with a baby-blue spot, and lofting the inimitable Lee sound, you find yourself admiring the letter perfect precision of her act. The lead-in cues, the accord between vocalist and band, the split-second timing of the sound man, and the click lighting liaison, are the constant envy of Peggy’s songbird contemporaries.

It’s because Peggy goes strictly by the book. Literally. It’s a large, black-leather-bound looseleaf affair, jammed with neatly typed-and-mimeo’d notes and data, all lovingly compiled and looked after by Peggy’s gal Friday, Phoebe Jacobs. If Peggy were to lose her “show-book” (and she did, for a few harrowing hours, just before a Copacabana stint last year), things wouldn’t be half so sweet on stage. Peggy knows it: “That book is half of me – the better half.”

Even a cursory flip-through of the show-book bears Peggy out. Every show she’s done for the past two decades, right down to each song she sang and what she wore, is carefully recorded so she can refer to the notes for a multitude of reasons (“Sometimes I want to revive a song or medley I did that went over with the crowd”).

For any upcoming shows (her current engagement at the Copacabana, for instance) Peggy’s book outlines, even to hand gestures, what is to happen on stage for her 90 minutes. She lists what sidemen she’ll add to the house orchestra (half a dozen crack musicmakers always accompany her on tours), what numbers she’ll do (with detailed side comments on treatment, etc.). There are specific instructions for lighting director Hugo Granata, the Copa producer Doug Cowty (“Diminish side lights at end of the song,” etc.), conductor Lou Levy (“‘Pass Me By’ gets a frisky beat,” etc.).

The entire contents of Peggy’s 30-some-odd trunks are spelled out (Trunk Number One: Three pairs white kid gloves, etc.). There is no room for error, or miscalculation. Peggy goes about her profitable business with a shrewd, get-things-done-right attitude that has kept her sailing on the top of the vocal seas through thick and thin.

One of the “thin” spots might have been the advent of the hard-driving rock and roll, a la Beatles, but not for Peggy (“I was worried – for about two weeks”).

For her three weeks at the Copa, Peggy, ever the perfectionist, has “packed” Joe Mele’s band with a rare bass flute (“The only item I carry personally”), a Hammond electronic organ (“For that wild, eerie sound”), four guitars, and a harmonica (“You can’t beat the Beatles, you join ‘em”).

The band was put through seven full rehearsals before Peggy was satisfied, but not a bleat of protest was heard. Musicians dig playing for Peggy (“When she hits New York,” said Phoebe, “all the great sidemen call her and want to sit in for her gig.”).

It is that way with anyone connected with the scene. When Peggy played the Basin St. East, the manager would close the place for five to seven days so Peggy could be free to change things around to her liking. She even got things she didn’t ask for – two new wings on the stage, an enlarged, luxury dressing room, etc. “It’s the same everywhere she goes,” said Phoebe. “Like at the Copa now, where everybody from Jules Podell on down bends over backwards to please Peggy.”

What’s in store for Peggy Lee? “I want to write more” – she’s written over 500 pop songs, including “Mañana,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” etc. – and even more important step up my charity work.”