by Reginald Brace
Ken Barnes, the Yorkshireman who recorded Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in London two years ago, has just finished doing a similar job with Peggy Lee.
“It took me more than two years to get Peggy,” said the Middlesbrough man who believes that rock clobbered the craft out of popular music. “All I can say is that I’m sure glad I caught up with her.”
Miss Lee beamed, and confirmed that she had enjoyed having her first British album produced by Barnes for Polydor. “We got on famously,” she said.
Around us, in a suite on the top floor of the Dorchester Hotel, boomed the Barnes remake of “Lover,” one of Miss Lee’s classic hits: a small, subtle voice fighting a winning battle against a thunderous arrangement by Pete Moore. “The original was an enormously influential record in the business in terms of percussion,” said Barnes. “We’ve revived it without destroying the essential magic. Peggy likes to keep up to date.
“I don’t know of any other singer who can play with the tempo like Peggy. She can let a bar go by and catch up. She telescopes her phrases with a finesse and authority which nobody has shown since Nat Cole and Mel Tormé.
“In an era when everyone sings smack on the beat, as if they are afraid of losing touch with it, Peggy is a wonder. She has a marvellous temperament, and the musicians loved her, which is always a good sign. I have been to Hollywood 12 or 14 times in the past two years. Each time I phoned Peggy about making an album, but she was always recording with someone else like Paul McCartney or Leiber and Stoller.
“She always said, ‘Don’t forget to call next time you come over.’ One day I phoned and she was ready to listen. It was persistence on my part: dour determination – the Yorkshireman coming out.”
Barnes kept ringing because he was pursuing one of the great popular singers of our time. In terms of style, taste and influence, Peggy Lee is in the same Olympian class as Frank Sinatra. Her voice is tiny and its range is narrow. But what she does with it represents artistry of the highest order. Peggy took off in her Benny Goodman days with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and is still in glittering vocal orbit.
The past 35 years have been sprinkled with glorious recordings: “Fever,” “Mañana,” “Black Coffee,” “I’m a Woman,” “Is That All There Is?” Her Mirrors album was one of the delights of 1976 for anyone who accepts that pop must have a place for nuance as well as noise.
So it was a coup for Barnes to lure her to London where she made an album in the studio, recorded a live performance at the Palladium, and taped a TV programme. She looked like a young Mae West as she came into the room: plump in flame silk culottes with a matching top, her blonde hair drawn back from a broad, impassive but friendly face.
Miss Lee discussed her size with cheerful candor. “I’m just a large Scandinavian lady,” said the singer who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, in May, 1920.
“It’s not overeating, because I eat very little. It’s not alcohol. I gave that up because I don’t like the headaches. Benjamin Franklin drank eight glasses of water a day, and I must do that. Whatever it is, I don’t mind being called cuddly.”
Weight and age are clearly unimportant to Peggy Lee. What is important is her voice, and this, she says, is better than ever. “I stopped smoking, although I don’t know whether that made any difference.”
“But the range has grown a little bit and it’s easier to sing. Sometimes after a tour or a spell of prolonged activity I go to see a throat doctor. He can’t get over how healthy my vocal cords are.”
She lives in Beverly Hills, where she paints, sculpts, and regards the trees in her garden as friends. Britain has been stimulating, and so has Japan. There was no time to be bored. Perhaps, she admitted, it was this devotion to work which led to the failure of her four marriages. She did not think she was a difficult woman to live with. But she did tend to work hard.
“Really I was only married once, and that was to Dave Barbour, my first husband and father of my daughter Nicki. The other marriages were not really marriages because they were of such short duration. I suppose I would marry again if I fell in love. But I like to keep an open mind on it.
“I have three grandchildren. We adore each other. Nicki has an art gallery in Sun Valley. She paints and does etchings. We are very good friends. Sometimes she acts as though she’s my mother, instead of the opposite being the case.”
Peggy Lee has learned to be happy without a husband, and to survive without Charlie. That was the name she gave to the portable oxygen tank she used after falling victim to pneumonia 16 years ago. “Charlie was my life saver, but I don’t need him anymore. I have improved, and I’m fit enough to do without him. I thought I might never sing again. Now I guess I’ve two of the cleanest lungs in the business.”
Miss Lee agrees that she is a stickler at rehearsal, but shies away from the description “perfectionist” which is often applied to her. “I like to try to get everything right, but I would never say anything I do is perfect. I just try.”
As a songwriter herself, and a brilliant interpreter of the most gifted composers of the last four decades, she is optimistic about the present state of popular music.
“Right now there is a resurgence of good songwriting. It’s different, but it’s awfully good. We have not come up with another Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern or Gershwin. But some of the new writers are so good. I’m thinking of people like David Gates, Peter Allen, Randy Newman and Paul Williams. They are excellent.”
With her 57th birthday looming, Peggy Lee looks at life with admirable serenity. “I get letters from elderly people saying, ‘We fell in love to this song,’ so I must be getting old. But it’s nice.
“Why do people make such a thing of age? What matters is that we won. I would just like to be remembered as someone nice with a sense of humor. My epitaph? She laughed a lot.”