by Max Jones
Peggy Lee, cool and collected in person as in song, is one of those elegant, controlled singers who is destined to be referred to as a musician’s musician.
She is, she admits, something of a perfectionist who believes in having everything right before taking her act onto the bandstand or stage. A poised performance does not come by chance.
Among other things, she is a hard judge of an arranger, accompanist or record producer. When she gets people round her in whom she has faith, then she is prepared to rehearse thoroughly and plan every detail.
Peggy Lee runs, as Leonard Feather once wrote in his paper, a tight ship. And the results of that effciency can be seen as soon as she appears in person or on television screen.
Since the end of February, the blonde singer, who was raised in North Dakota, has been living and working in Britain, preparing for her first-ever London Palladium engagement and also recording the first of two albums for her new label, Polydor.
Ken Barnes, who made very successful records with Johnny Mercer and Bing Crosby in the recent past, is producing Peggy’s British recordings. And he’s the one who really enticed her over here.
“I’ve been after her for two-and-a-half years,” he told me at a Polydor party for Peggy in the Dorchester last week. “It took that long to get her away from Beverly Hills and over to London; but it’s been worth it.
The studio album, which has conductor-arranger Peter Moore in charge of musical backgrounds, meets Ms. Lee’s approval, too.
“I’m very, very happy about the record,” she said purringly. “Ken and Pete and Steve the engineer, well, everyone there has been absolutely marvellous to me. I’m so happy with it. There is a nice mixture of standards and contemporary things. Oh, we do a version of ‘Lover’ which they are bringing out as a single. I think you’ll like that.”
Polydor obliged with “Lover” at top volume and the hotel’s head man hastily closed the door of the suite, murmuring apologetically about losing the rest of his customers. It was certainly a dashing arrangement, spiced with Latin rhythms, and the vocal was swung in Lee’s most knowing fashion.
I liked it and said so. Peggy smiled and told me that the Latin treatment of “Lover” had been her own idea. She had always kept close eye on what arrangers were up to and musicians were playing, just as she took a keen interest in songwriting and was soon into making up lyrics herself.
She spoke feelingly of Johnny Mercer’s death. An old buddy from Capitol Records, Mercer was a man she admired. She confirmed what I’d read somewhere, that Johnny first inspired her to write songs.
Peggy Lee has a ready smile and the look of a woman who takes many matters humorously or half-mockingly, as I believe she does. For some reason or other, not unconnected with David Wigg, she spoke suddenly of flying somewhere with man-of-mystery Howard Hughes.
“I once told Howard Hughes I didn’t like his ‘plane, and he said ‘Why don’t you like it?’ I said I didn’t like the way it takes off and I didn’t like the way it lands. And as a matter of fact that plane was grounded, that’s some consolation. Yes, he was a strange man.”
The singer keenly looked forward to her Palladium debut, having always nourished an ambition to appear in what was widely known to be England’s number one variety spot. Her delight was doubled by the fact that Polydor was recording the concert live for Peggy’s second LP for the label, which may be released first.
“I think the studio album worked out very nicely and I’m hoping the concert one will, too. I have planned a programme to make everyone as happy as possible; it will include a selection of Rodgers and Hart songs, also certain requests.”
Anything from the Mirrors LP, I asked, such as the groovy “Some Cats Know,” my particular favourite from an up-and-down sort of set?
She said not, and there was no smile this time. The A&M album received some wonderfully complimentary reviews and was cited by one or two of our savants as among the best records of the year. It was not, I admitted, an opinion I agreed with.
As it happened, she said, she agreed with me. She listened to it once and thought: “I’m not going to get that sad again. Oh, yes, it won an award and got some good reviews. But I didn’t really think it was right to depress people that much. I think it’s terrible. I’m of the same opinion as you.”
We spoke of some of the weird Leiber and Stoller numbers on the album, especially the opening “depresser” titled “Ready to Begin Again.” Peggy explained that it was meant to be amusing.
“Actually that was funny, but they didn’t quite allow me to express myself fully on that one. But when I performed it, I made it the comedy that it should be, and it got very big laughs because it’s really a funny song.”
And “Professor Hauptmann’s Performing Dogs,” which didn’t do much to my funny bone? “Oh, that,” she replied. “Can you imagine what it was to learn all those lyrics? Every kind of dog in the world; but I did it.”
“And then there’s the lady that went mad, you know. ‘Mary Jane.’ You remember her? No, it was too depressing.”
And out of character, perhaps, for someone who has an affinity with humour? Another bright smile.
“Humour?” she echoed. “I don’t know how I’d live without it, and I automatically like anyone who has a sense of humour.”
Although Peggy Lee has been in Britain for more than two weeks, she is playing only one concert date, which seems short rations in view of the length of time which separates her occasional visits.
“I know, but I’m doing two shows so you might as well say I’m doing two nights, plus the television of course. And I do very much want to come back to Europe late this year, in May or June. When I leave here I’m going to Amsterdam where we do a simulcast – on radio and television and it’s a live concert.”
Several people mentioned Peggy’s old “Black Coffee” Lp and how popular it still was. The singer said how complimented she felt, particularly when artists such as Joni Mitchell praised it and said they’d listened to it.
“What higher compliment can you have than that?” she asked.
These references to a jazz-slanted album prompted me to ask whether Peggy would now like to be more involved with jazz accompaniments than she generally is. Not especially, it seemed. Some jazz backings, yes, but what she sought and appreciated was variety.
“I was speaking to Count Basie just a while ago and he said he couldn’t understand, and we both said how we couldn’t understand, why we hadn’t recorded together. I’d love that, and when we get home I’m going to pick it up. How was he? Well, just a little weak when I saw him, but, you know, just the same old Basie.”
And on the subject of jazz, did Peggy feel that she could apply the same kind of jazz expressiveness and swing phrasing to modern rock and popular songs as she was able to do with older standards? She thought it possible, mentioning that Beatles songs were some that could be successfully swung.
When I suggested that most Beatles compositions did not possess an innate swing, she flashed a provocative Lee smile. “Perhaps they swing in a new way,” she said. I thought it best to agree.
by Ray Coleman
Tampering with idyllic memories is a dangerous game. When an artist has woven herself for more than 20 years into the affections of an audience, disappointment could be just around the corner when she steps out on to the concert platform for a long overdue performance.
But such was the overall poise and beauty of Peggy Lee’s concert at the London Palladium on Sunday that she scored a queen-sized triumph over her flirtation with the years.
The lady who had quietly risen to the height through the Forties (with Benny Goodman) and the Fifties as a soloist might have been forgiven for coasting a little on the reputation of a velvet voice which has been often emulated but never matched.
But from the first and second songs, she wove a mesmerising personal magic with a delightful programme of wistful tracks, old and new.
To see Peggy Lee, picked out in a single spotlight on the Palladium stage, whispering “Very Glad To Be Unhappy” or “It Never Entered My Mind” was to be transformed to a hopelessly romantic plateau, far from the aggressive or groovy Seventies, but totally valid and acceptable on its own terms. She exuded quality.
The impersonal Palladium was transformed into a hall of nightclub intimacy as the singer caressed her songs of lost love and forlorn hopes, unique and brilliantly sung: “I’m Not In Love,” “Love for Sale” and a carefully chosen Paul Simon composition, “Have A Good Time.”
Peggy Lee is an essentially elegant singer to whom words are all-important, and it was particularly interesting to observe that not once through the show did she let rip. In her handling of warm ballads, she was the epitome of cool and her physical mannerisms were finely economical, a lesson in the art of aware hipness.
She is scarcely a total jazz singer – near jazz is a more accurate description – and yet there could be no denying her affinity with swing on “Lover,” “Mack the Knife” (the least successful vocal of the night) and the raunchy Latin-based “Rio.” “Folks Who Live On The Hill” was poignantly read.
Her innate artistry was clinched, however, by a magnificent reading of “Touch Me In The Morning.” The golden voice, unimpaired by the passage of time, met head-on a remarkable lyric and simple melody, and the result was a magic moment of sheer poetry.
Jack Parnell’s Orchestra, featuring such established musicians as Bob Burns (alto), Don Lusher (trombone), Kenny Baker (trumpet), Tommy Whittle (tenor) and Ronnie Verrell (drums), augmented by strings, performed capably if occasionally stiltedly.
But for Peggy Lee fans, it was all there. From her beguiling delivery of “Bewitched” to her favorite shortie, “I Don’t Want to Play In Your Yard,” the lady was charm and taste and understatement and her important characteristic – the unhurried delivery.
It was a peerless performance from a singer with a load of charisma.