Is that all there is, Mr. Richmond?
In a new biography of singer Peggy Lee, sad to say, the fever dies out pretty quickly
MARK STEYN | Apr 17, 2006
Writing about music is, as they say, like dancing about architecture. To be honest, I'd like to see more of the latter, as I'd find it hard to believe Dame Margot Fonteyn interpreting the CN Tower could be worse than the average music biography. What's perplexing is how bland most of them are, especially the pop ones. Indeed, as a rough guide, the more anti-social the celebrity, the more vapidly inoffensive his biographer. In another decade or so, they'll be working their leaden charms on the golden age of gangsta rap: "Tupac recalled working on 'I F--ked Your Bitch, You Fat Muthaf--ka' as one of his most rewarding experiences in show business . . ."
One of my favourite music writers is, as it happens, a Canadian: Gene Lees, the jazz critic and lyricist(Quiet Night of Quiet Stars and a ton of other Antonio Carlos Jobim bossa novas). Lees is highly opinionated, as anybody who really digs music surely is. He was furious with Sinatra for recording Old MacDonald. Yes, that Old MacDonald, the nursery rhyme:
Old MacDonald had a farm
And on that farm he had a chick . . .
You can pretty much guess how things go from there. I happen to like that record very much. It's got a terrific Nelson Riddle arrangement that builds and builds, and the modified lyrics, by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, are a lot neater than Gene Lees's texts for all those Bill Evans jazz instrumentals that would have been better left without words. The Bergmans kept the with-a-little-this-here-and-a-little-this-there form of the nursery song, and that meant boxing themselves into a lot of rhymes for "there," which they manage to top in verse after verse:
. . . with a promenade here and a promenade there
At a square dance, boy, this chick was no square . . .
If only Frank had done Row, Row, Row Your Boat Gently Down the Stream or Incey Wincey Spider and driven Gene Lees to despair. Still, you have to admire a guy who gets steamed over a nursery rhyme. His wonderfully idiosyncratic book Singers and the Song begins thus:
"In the autumn of 911, the Frankish king Charles III, known as Charles the Simple, unable to halt the bloody Viking incursions on his northwestern coast -- indeed, the longships had gone up the Seine as far as Paris -- made the best of a bad situation by coming to an agreement with the marauders. This was the so-called treaty of St Clair-sur-Epte."
Love it! What a fantastically pretentious opening for a book about Peggy Lee, Johnny Mercer and Ella Fitzgerald. Get a grip, man, it's supposed to be about Frankish Sinatras, not Frankish kings. But, in his heavily worn erudition, Lees reminds us that the point of songs is to connect with the wider world. His chapter on Peggy Lee is typical, starting with a disquisition on the North Dakota highway system, and proceeding to an interview with Peg about trains of the era, the windows thereof, and sootiness thereof, and the propensity of root beer to fall out the windows thereof. And, round about the time I thought this is really more detail on the North Dakota railroad system in the 1920s than I need to know, one of Miss Lee's most plaintive early hits -- Waiting For The Train To Come In -- began cranking up in my head, and Gene Lees had succeeded in doing what so few pop portraits manage to do: make the songs the soundtrack to the life.
We now have the first full-length biography of the singer, Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, by Peter Richmond. And, sad to say, the fever dies out pretty quickly. By page 217, he's opening chapters like this:
"Lee's next house in Los Angeles was perched high above the city, on Kimridge Avenue, in Beverly Hills: 'a low-slung house on top of a hill with an Oriental look and a view of seven mountain ranges,' she recalled. She bought it in 1954 for $40,000."
"Is That All There Is?" as Miss Lee famously remarked in another context. Well, no. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the writers of that piece of sub-basement Brecht, offer this insight:
Leiber: "I loved her. I even loved her big ass."
Stoller: "She had much narrower hips at that time."
Actually, that's a not un-useful insight. The other female vocalists who emerged from the big bands of the forties -- Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney -- were, as Rosie liked to say, "girl singers." Peggy Lee was a woman singer, and not just because she was shoehorned into gowns that exaggerated that hourglass figure: in the fifties, the poise, the cool, the raised eyebrow and the beauty spot made her as defining an emblem of mid-century pop culture style for the distaff side as Sinatra was for men. She got nearer to him than anybody else did, male or female, in her command of the standard repertoire, and she roamed much further than him from the Broadway/Tin Pan Alley core, recording Chinese poetry and Japanese music(in Japanese).
Some years ago, I spent a couple of days interviewing Miss Lee for a BBC series about her songwriting that never got made, and, in the course of it, she recalled an observation made by the composer and musicologist Alec Wilder: he compared her voice to a streetwalker you'd pass by, but, if you ever stopped, you'd never leave. She doesn't have as much of an instrument as, say, Barbra Streisand, but, after 10 minutes of the latter's self-conscious emoting, you're grateful to get back to Peg. She's the Count Basie of singers: Lee's is more. And, when she'd chosen her material, she sang it like she'd lived it.
Richmond doesn't include the Alec Wilder insight, and in hundreds of pages he doesn't produce anything as good himself. You'll get more, particularly in the early section, from her own take on her life, written in 1989. Without benefit of a ghostwriter, Miss Peggy Lee has a goofily authentic voice, half droll and detached, half introspective and pseudo-spiritual(she was very prematurely New Agey). In North Dakota, her mother died when she was a young child, and her stepmother booted Norma(as Peggy was then)in the stomach, opening up her recent appendix scar. Later, the stepmom "hit me over the head with a cast-iron skillet [and] beat me with a heavy leather razor strop with a metal end, which made a scar on one side of my face that even now tries to show up in a photograph."
I saw the trace of that scar, and, when I read that sentence, I can hear Peggy Lee's voice saying it, dryly rueful. As with Gene Lees and the railroad, it evoked a song. Back in the 1890s, there was a big hit that's a children's tune, but kind of something more:
I Don't Want To Play In Your Yard
I don't like you anymore
You'll be sorry when you see me
Sliding down our cellar door . . .
It was the favourite song of James Cagney's dad, which is why he sings it in The Oklahoma Kid. There are only 16 bars of it, but Miss Lee chose to do it on the 1958 album Sea Shells -- the one with the Chinese love poems -- and it's very eerie:
You can't holler down our rain barrel
You can't climb our apple tree
I Don't Want To Play In Your Yard
If you won't be good to me.
With a very spare accompaniment, the childlike quality is transformed into something very grown-up and rather unsettling. Peter Richmond's book doesn't mention the song, so presumably it's no big deal to him. But, on the other hand, he doesn't seem able to communicate what he likes about the ones he does mention. There's an exhaustive slog through The Folks Who Live on the Hill that takes forever but never swims into focus. By contrast, in his study Jazz Singing, Will Friedwald gets to her album of opportunist R&B-ish covers, Guitars alà Lee, and marvels:
"On Call Me, especially, the difference between the wishy-washy soft rock in which the piece starts out and the high swing it modulates to is in itself invigorating; you can almost hear [arranger Billy] May shouting, 'Screw the guitars! This clambake is going to swing!' "
There's more sense of the music in that line than in pages of Richmond.
One day someone will do justice to Peggy Lee's story, if only because she is, after all, one of the great storytellers herself. There's a whole lifetime's experience in the 32 bars of her best ballads, and especially in what I think of as the cigarette songs, like Black Coffee -- or this one, with the wedding ring on the dresser and a parting note:
Don't look for me
I'll get ahead
Don't Smoke in Bed.
A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke, said Kipling. But he never heard a woman smoke like Peggy Lee.
To comment, email email@example.com