by Calvin Ahlgren
She has been slammed in print occasionally, taken to task for real or imagined violations of The Legend. Experimentation sometimes passes for heresy in the career of an established singer.
But criticism of Peggy Lee has been the exception to an overwhelming general rule of admiration, even near-reverence among those who have watched (and listened to) her development over the years. The building of her status among critics and public has been an affair of steady expansion, with a few notable jolts – such as Chronicle columnist Jon Hendricks’ panning of a performance in 1973. Miss Lee responded icily to that one, in a letter of painstaking rebuttal against Hendricks’ charges.
Her reputation for excellence in performance had some of the other dimensions of a star, too – the inquisitiveness about the style of her personal life, for example. An intelligent, industrious professional, she was reported as cool, distant, even phony at times by those who could have been rebuffed in their attempts to penetrate her personal seclusion.
Years ago, she moved to a mountaintop overlooking the Los Angeles area, where she could work (the list of songs which she has written or co-written numbers now in the 70s), garden, entertain her friends, and recuperate from a series of respiratory illnesses and unsuccessful marriages. From there, she emerges periodically to take on singing engagements, such as her upcoming, annual return to the Fairmont’s Venetian Room, Thursday though February 18.
She also gives telephone interviews, and during last week’s she was relaxed to the point of “confusion… everything is in a state of mild chaos here today. And I’m an organized person.” She talked about her gardens, the weather, a dinner party, told a shaggy bee joke, mentioned her songwriting.
She was working up for rehearsals that day for the Venetian Room: the new, electronic Yamaha double keyboard to be under charge of pianist Dave Grusin was being set up, and a technician was on call to explain its range and functions. Grusin is one of five musician-friends who will make the date with her. Others are John Pisano, guitarist who co-wrote “So What’s New?” with Miss Lee; Tod Clark, bass; Jack Ranelli, drums; and Byron Olson, the talented conductor with whom, she said, she is currently writing a score for “an art film” – not meaning The Roxie. Her imported friends will join the musical impetus of the Ernie Hecksher in-house band.
Of her songs, she expected to bow to the continuing demand for standards – “Fever,” and the still-current “Is That All There Is?” (“Sometimes I have an overwhelming urge to do a comedy version of that…”) and also to field some new pieces. “Well, I do get wrapped up, immersed in my work, and I can’t sing things that I don’t like or can’t feel. We go through a process of culling out the ones I can’t relate to… Basically, I like anyone (songwriter) that’s good. I have great respect for musicians.”
Other projects include an ongoing interest in a film script based on the life of French impressionist composer, Claude Debussy, album work, a series of concerts that might include a European tour. Her health is good, her interests strong.
She is also working on a book “about the funny parts” of her life. Even if it violates the canon of the Serious Singer. “I’ve probably experienced almost all the emotions – except that I haven’t wanted to do anyone in and I’ve never experienced hate, outside of hating violence.”