There are a handful of artists who were major influences on me. Way up on the top of that list was Peggy Lee. She had it all. Style, wit, she was sensuous, she had a great sense of swing and she also mastered the art of economy. She only sang what was necessary. No frills. She had a way of seducing a lyric that made her the one of a kind star that she was. I recall the many afternoons I would sneak into the Copa or Basin Street East in New York and give the guy setting up the tables ten dollars just to let me sit in the back and watch her rehearsals. It was my enchanted forest. Her orchestra had all the colors of the musical rainbow. Strings, french horns, a harp, brass, woodwinds, percussion and of course rhythm. When they played it created a magical mood right there on the stage. Then Peggy would begin to sing and she’d take that magic to an entirely different level. She always had the best musicians because she was one of the best, and they all wanted to work with her.
I was living in Los Angeles a few years when I got a call from Tom Catallano, a producer I had known from my New York days. He asked me if I would like to work on an album with Peggy Lee. I was so excited. We set up a meeting to discuss the songs for the project. We met and set the dates for the recording sessions. I got Peggy’s keys for the songs from her piano player and started writing the arrangements. This was not the usual procedure, but that’s the way this project was being done because Peggy was on the road and unavailable for meetings.
About three weeks later I finished all the charts. I remember Tom and I were like kids in a candy store. We were so excited about going into the studio with Peggy that we stayed up until three in the morning talking about the project. The session was the next night at seven PM at Western Studios in Hollywood. That afternoon Peggy’s assistant called and said that we should rehearse the orchestra and Peggy would come in at nine and sing. I rehearsed the orchestra on the three songs and recorded just the orchestral tracks in case of an emergency. I will never ever forget what happened next.
Peggy came in at nine PM sharp and introduced herself and went right into the vocal booth, put on the earphones and said “Okay Artie, let’s hear the first arrangement.” I counted off the tempo and the orchestra started to play and Peggy began singing. She sounded great. Now you have to understand this lady is really one of my all time influences and musical heroes so I was a little nervous to say the least. When we finished playing the arrangement there was this five or six second silence that felt like eternity. All of a sudden Peggy says into the microphone, “Artie Butler … where have you been hiding? I love you. What a magnificent arrangement.” At that moment I gave the orchestra a coffee break and they applauded. I didn’t know if they applauded for me or the coffee break.
Peggy came out into the studio and wrapped her arms around me and gave me a huge hug and kiss. I told her about the times I would sneak into the Copa or Basin Street East and how much tonight had meant to me. She hugged me again and said “It means a lot to me too Artie.” Somewhere that tape exists. I would love to get a copy of her saying those things to me.
That album was the last album she made for Capitol Records. I wrote a bunch of arrangements for her after that, and I traveled with her as her conductor. We also became good friends. She would call when she needed a good joke or wanted some company, and I would do the same. I sat up with her many nights at her house until four in the morning. She would tell me great stories about traveling with the Benny Goodman Band. She had a lot of photos with famous bandleaders and singers that I loved looking at.
The interesting thing about artists like Peggy is that as a kid they influence you, and as an adult you realize what their greatness was and why they were such an influence on you. I remember at times she was tough, and at times she was the diva of divas, but those memories are greatly outnumbered by the times the music started to play … and she was elegantly … Miss Peggy Lee.