by Ralph J. Gleason
Don’t for a moment think those stories are true you’ve heard about Peggy Lee wanting to retire from singing and just write songs. The blonde Decca record star emphatically denies it.
This week at the Fairmont Hotel, where she opened Tuesday for a three-week engagement at the Venetian Room, Peggy put it like this:
“Retire? Not on your life. I have no plans to stop singing. What are you going to do when you love music? It’s a terrible disease. You can’t stop. Of course, I’d like to get off the road.”
That latter complaint, which goes with the franchise to work in music, may be taken care of this fall if current plans for a TV series go through.
Peggy, whom an entire generation of American youth came to love for her vocals with the Benny Goodman orchestra, is currently riding the crest of a result of her appearance in Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer and a succession of hit records for Decca.
In the course of our interview in her Fairmont suite (with a phonograph in the background playing LPs by Claude Thornhill, Jerry Fielding and John Grass), Peggy explained that she herself has learned a great deal from working with good musicians, “starting with Benny Goodman.” She is convinced that a popular singer can utilize good jazz musicians in her act and to prove this “she has assembled some of the best in the country to accompany her. Jimmy Rowles, her pianist and the man who contributes most of her arrangements, is one of the leading pianists in the jazz field. Others in her group who are jazz musicians of stature include guitarist Laurindo Almeida, formerly with Stan Kenton, and Jack Constanza, bongo drummer featured for years with Peggy Lee.
Peggy, whose vocal of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” is a jazz classic, was born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, in 1920. She flopped in her Hollywood debut, a $2-a-night singing job at a now defunct night club, went back to North Dakota and later got a job with Will Osborne’s band. A job at Palm Springs followed and then one at the Ambassador West in Chicago where Goodman heard her and hired her as the band’s vocalist.
She was with Benny for two years but it was a golden 24 months. Her records with him are still played every day on the radio all over the country. Peggy married the guitar player in the band, Dave Barbour, and retired to raise a family and write songs. She and Barbour (the marriage has since been dissolved by divorce) wrote a number of hit tunes together including “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “Mañana,” and their record of the latter sold over 2,000,000 copies.
A couple of years ago she left Capitol for Decca and one of her first discs for that firm, “Lover,” was on the hit parade for weeks.
Peggy is very serious about music, loves all the swinging bands and almost any good vocalist you can name. Her favorite Peggy Lee record is the sexy, moody “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” which was a Rhythm Section “Record of the Week” some time back, and she thinks about music in two distinct ways. When she is listening, she thinks of lines and figures that move with the structure and the mood of the music. When she is singing, she thinks of all kinds of things. “Lately, I’ve been seeing mountains and scenes from life with me in them,” she says. When she recorded “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” she thought of a great crystal chandelier with lights shining on it and the whole spectrum of color spectrum of color refracted through a prism.