by Vernon Scott (United Press International)
Hollywood – There is Sinatra, of course, but how many other pop vocalists of 40 years ago can still fill a music hall?
One of them, and maybe the only other one, is Peggy Lee, one of the superstar big band singers of the 1940s. She is still going strong.
Peggy sang with Benny Goodman at the height of his popularity. And, oh, could she sing – “My Old Flame,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place,” “Blues in the Night” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
Her own compositions became hit standards too: “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day” and “Johnny Guitar.”
She was part and parcel of a brief golden era in the history of pop music which produced a bouquet of brilliant female vocalists, among them Doris Day, Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, Sarah Vaughan and Bea Wain.
There were others: Martha Tilton, Kay Starr, Helen O’Connell, Marion Hutton, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Connie Haines, Mildred Bailey and the list goes on.
They sat up front on the bandstands bobbing their heads to the beat of Benny Goodman, the Dorsey Brothers, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet and the rest of the swing musicians.
Peggy was perhaps the most famous of them all, torchy, sexy and with a superlative voice.
Aside from Doris Day, who went on to become a movie star, Peggy has managed to continue her vocal career with more success than the others.
She was desperately ill last year, hospitalized for 10 days and then in bed for several months in her Bel Air mansion. Earlier this year, she went to Australia to “try my sea legs.” She played to capacity houses in 10 concerts.
Peggy, 60, recently completed 27 appearances in Chicago and Toronto – her first performances in the United States in three years – and will head for London and a command performance at the Palladium next month.
Her repertoire includes many favorites along with contemporary songs. But it’s the oldies like “Witchcraft” that bring audiences to their feet with nostalgia on their faces.
“Whenever I hear a good new song, I grab it,” Peggy said. “But I also give new treatments to the old standards – ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘Love for Sale’ – and audiences roar their approval.
“I treat the standards as ‘now’ songs when I perform. I eliminate the area of pure nostalgia except for two or three arrangements which are exactly as I did them 30 years or more ago – ‘Fever’ and ‘Is That All There Is?’
“There are still an awful lot of people out there who love to hear romantic ballads. I get a big kick out of watching couples hold hands or cry when I’m singing a love song. It’s very touching.
“They come backstage wide-eyed and with mascara running down their faces. They can’t thank me enough for singing the oldies – even young people and kids born long after the tunes were in the top 10.
“I don’t know why, but composers aren’t writing good material for female vocalists like they did back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. For that reason I suppose there just aren’t as many really good women singers around these days.”
Peggy said that aside from Anne Murray, Bette Midler, Melissa Manchester, Barbra Streisand and Linda Ronstadt, there are few successful women in the pop music field today.
Of contemporary songwriters, she likes Paul Williams, Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester and Carol Bayer Sager. She suggested that most of the big hits are beign written for groups, adding that she does not lament the demise of disco.
Peggy is forced to pass up many new songs because of sexually explicit lyrics or veiled reference to drugs.
“I’m still writing songs,” Peggy said. “Right now I’m involved in writing a Broadway musical based on highlights of my own life. I’m writing the lyrics and Paul Horner is writing the music. I hope to star in it myself.
“I’m very careful with lyrics. There are a lot of romantic words and phrases that have gone out of style. You don’t use ‘darling’ or ‘honey’ in contemporary music because they have a dated quality.
“I guess I’m still going strong because I’ve kept up with the times and styles in music. And I plan to keep it up as long as people want to hear me.”