Jazz singer Pepi Lemer on making a Spice Girl cry

pepi lemer

pepi lemer - Credit: Archant

Having gone solo for her latest record, the former backing singer tells Bridget Galton how a passion for jazz has spiced up her life.

Pepi Lemer is brimming with energy as she says she’s been performing since the age of three.

First in pantos and musicals, then as a backing singer and later as a band member on the jazz scene with her scat singing style she calls vocalese.

“I learned my craft through training and performing from a very early age,” says the 70-year-old.

“I had no other life, I wasn’t thinking about applause or ambition, it was the only thing I knew how to do.

Urged on by her first generation Russian-Jewish mother, Hackney-raised Lemer began singing backing vocals in the early 60s for bands performing live - appearing on the same bill as The Rolling Stones and Cliff Richard.

At one show after performing on the Isle of Man, she missed seeing The Beatles because she left to see Humphrey Lyttleton at another venue.

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“I loved jazz and was such a snob about pop music I missed them!” she says ruefully.

In 1967 she recorded the demo of Puppet on a String which was given to Sandie Shaw when learning the (winning) song for the Eurovision Song Contest.

“I sang jingles, backing singing for pop groups – I went on tour with the Greats of Rock and Roll, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Duane Eddy which was wonderful.”

But recording vocals for the likes of Deniece Williams and Art of Noise was ultimately unsatisfactory.

“You always look at that person you are helping to make better and you are never ever recognised. It’s incredibly frustrating.

“In fifteen years of teaching singing I had only three wonderful singers that made your hair stand on end, but they never made it and became backing singers.

“This is this magical element of our business. There’s nothing to say why someone makes it and someone doesn’t.

“It’s taken me a musical lifetime and I still don’t know.”

As a vocal coach she was asked to help prepare the newly formed Spice Girls for their first showcase.

When Lemer first met the quintet, she told their the management: “I can’t do this in a few weeks, I need months.”

Twice weekly for four months she went to their shared house, teaching them individually, then as a group.

“I could see there was a lot of work to do. I made notes and when I left them on my chair Geri read them and burst into tears because I said her tuning wasn’t good. Geri had a pizzaz about her but she had to work hardest because singing and moving didn’t come naturally to her.

“I had a feeling about Victoria, I thought she would do something but I never knew what. I’d love to wear her clothes now but when I first knew them they were so poor I gave them a sack of my old clothes!”

Lemer is proud that the girls’ “focus and fortitude” paid off.

“I got them all collectively to sing great. I went to their first showcase and felt great that they sounded good and I thought, you never know. No-one can tell me some people can’t sing. That’s what this business is all about mental attitude, commitment, and hard work.”

Lemer’s hit DVD Yes You Can Sing is based on the premise that anyone’s voice can be trained – a claim put to the test when she prepared Graham Norton to sing a duet with Dolly Parton and Jennifer Saunders to master a song for a comedy sketch.

“They were both lovely and worked hard and when there was a note they couldn’t do I taught them how to sing round it.

A vocal chord is a wind instrument, a muscle that has to be worked, and it’s possible to take someone’s singing performance and make it a far bigger thing than ever walked through that door.”

But her first love – ever since listening to Ella Fitzgerald as a teenager - was always jazz.

“Annie Ross changed things for me, the idea of using my voice as an instrument. Not just singing standards but scatting, a kind of vocalese.”

After recording two successful albums with her band Turning Point she’s now gone solo with Back2Front, (out on Right Recordings) twelve jazz /latin fusion songs which see her singing and scatting self penned lyrics.

It’s all the more remarkable because she’s only recently recovered from oesophegal cancer.

“It was devastating, I thought I would never sing again. No-one tells you how black the physical and mental effect of drugs and radiotherapy will make you feel but I want to say, however black it is, it will pass.

“Here I am singing, finishing my album, running, and loving life, gulping in every moment.

“It’s my second chance which is why this album is so uplifting and energetic.This energy and joy is such a gift, I want to reinvent myself I don’t want to stop.”