by John S. Wilson
Peggy Lee is making a rare appearance at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, where she is performing tonight and tomorrow evening with Tony Bennett. As might be expected, her program includes some of her hit songs: “Fever,” “Is That All There Is?,” “Why Don’t You Do Right” and a little taste of “Mañana.”
But one hit that she will not do, although it left a strong mark on popular music styles, on recording techniques and on the direction of Miss Lee’s career, is “Lover.” To be done right, according to Miss Lee, her Latinized version of Richard Rodgers’ waltz requires eight percussionists, and the rhythm section that appears with her consists of only Byron Olson, her pianist and conductor, John Basile, guitarist, Fred Stone, bassist, and Tony Tedesco, the drummer.
“Mañana,” which she wrote and recorded in 1947, was her first venture into Latin rhythms, but “Lover,” she feels, best exemplifies her feeling for the style.
“I always equate Latin rhythm with the gait of a horse,” she said the other day. “I hear it as a trot, a canter, a gallop. ‘Lover’ was the best example of it.”
When Richard Rodgers, who was noted for his unwillingness to allow any liberties to be taken with his music, first heard Miss Lee’s trotting, cantering, galloping treatment of “Lover,” he moaned: “Oh, my little waltz! My little waltz!”
“But he must have liked it,” Miss Lee said, “because he made it the subject of a lecture in which he made the point that without different interpretations, a song won’t last as long as it otherwise might. And he gave me permission to do any of his songs.”
She worked on “Lover” for a year before she was able to record it in 1952. She had been recording for Capitol for siz years by then and was one of the new stars, along with Nat “King” Cole and Stan Kenton, who had helped establish the label. But Capitol refused to let her record “Lover” because the company already had a hit record of the tune by Les Paul and Mary Ford.
“That was why I left Capitol,” Miss Lee said. “Then Sonny Burke of Decca heard me sing ‘Lover’ at the Copacabana in New York and signed me with Decca for five years.”
But her problems with “Lover” were not over yet. She recorded it with a large orchestra in Liederkranz Hall.
“The orchestra sounded great,” she said, “but with all the Latin percussion going, you couldn’t hear me at all. We spent three hours working on one song that didn’t work. I decided it was another dream gone wrong. But at midnight, Morty Palitz, who was producing the session, said, ‘I think we have your problem solved.’ The next day I went back to the studio, and they put me in an isolation booth, which was rarely done in those days. I think that may have been the source of the total isolation that is used in recording now.”
Miss Lee’s first hits were songs that she borrowed from black singers.
“I was a big fan of Lil Green,” she recalled. “When I joined Benny Goodman, I traveled with a wind-up phonograph and some records by Lil Green and some Debussy records. What a mixture! My dressing room was next to Benny’s. He heard me play Lil Green’s ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ over and over. ‘Do you like that?’ he asked me. I told him I did. ‘Would you like to sing it with the band?’ he asked. I told him I’d love to.
The success of her version of “Why Don’t You Do Right” overshadowed an earlier hit she had with the Goodman band, “Let’s Do It.”
“When the band was in Chicago,” Miss Lee recalled, “I used to go to Rush Street to hear Laura Rucker sing with Baby Dodds, the drummer. One of the songs she did was ‘Let’s Do It,’ and when Benny recorded the Cole Porter song, I got my style for the piece from her.”
Her singing roots go back to Maxine Sullivan, who, she said, “had a happy talent for knowing where to draw the line, having the good taste to cut some things.” Her other influences included Billie Holiday, “for her soul,” and Ella Fitzgerald, “for her technical ability.”
“I loved the way Louis Armstrong sang,” Miss Lee added, “but he had no influence on me.”
Today Miss Lee has won distinction as a lyric writer as well as a singer. Her songs include “Mañana,” “It’s a Good Day,” “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” Her collaborators have included Victor Young, Duke Ellington, Cy Coleman and Michel Legrand, but her teacher was Johnny Mercer.
Miss Lee’s songwriting began as a hobby in the early 1940s, when she tried writing songs with Dave Barbour, her late husband, who was Benny Goodman’s guitarist when she was with the band. After she left the Goodman band and began recording on her own, Mr. Barbour became the leader of the groups that accompanied her.
“When David and I were going to record and needed material,” Miss Lee said, “Johnny Mercer suggested that we use some of our own songs. He liked the earthiness of some of my lyrics. And he taught me valuable things. After he heard us do ‘I Don’t Know Enough About You,’ he made me go back and rework the whole thing. I got an A from him.”
She feels that if a lyric does not say something, “it doesn’t help you to love the music.”
“People today want to feel and hear the sense of a lyric,” she said. “It’s getting to be like it used to be. People in their teens, 20s and 30s want a lyric to have a deep meaning. And the melodies that I hear now have a quality of classical music in them.”
Miss Lee’s program with Tony Bennett made its debut in Florida last February. After their shows at the Garden State Arts Center, they will go to Indianapolis, and, after a break, they will pick up again in November in Cleveland and Minneapolis.