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Thursday, December 24, 2020

A Peggy for my thoughts

The December issue of JazzTimes features an in depth article on Peggy Lee's iconic Album Black Coffee also pointing out that, had she still been with us, May 26 would have marked her 100th birthday - a fact that seems to have bypassed most of the jazz media, BSH included.

This apparent indifference may be due to Ms Lee, like Sinatra, Nat Cole, Lena Horne and others straddling the ever narrowing line that separates jazz singer from entertainer as if it's not possible to be both. For my money it's essential.

So, although I never saw her live, her recordings are never far from my turntable and I'd like to mention a few. Because her output was so prolific I'm sure other readers will have their own choices.

First a question? What did Peggy Lee and Lonnie Donegan have in common?*

Peggy recorded 34 sides with  Benny Goodman including, in 1942, her first big hit Why Don't You Do Right? A minor key blues recorded previously by Lil Green.

She left Goodman, married guitarist Dave Barbour, signed with Capitol and together they had another hit with  Mañana.

I got hooked on Peggy in 1952 when I first heard her recording of Lover. She took Rodgers and Hart's sedate waltz and turned it inside out. It was electric! I'd never heard anything like it before - Jeanette McDonald it wasn't! This was recorded by Decca after Capitol refused to let her commit such sacrilege probably fearing a lawsuit from the composer.

It was during her sojourn  at Decca that the aforementioned Black Coffee album was recorded. One of the greatest vocal albums ever not least for Pete Candoli's trumpet insertions, The title track is but one of 12 masterpieces.

My Old Flame, initially recorded with Goodman and again when she returned to Capitol is given its best outing on the Decca album Dream Street.               

The film Pete Kelly's Blues had Ella singing Hard Hearted Hannah but for me the highlight was Peggy singing Sugar with a Bobcats' style band.

Differences healed, Peggy returned to Capitol for the bulk of the remainder of her career which included Fever - fantastic recording that has somehow become devalued owing to every wannabee jazz singer adding it to their repertoire and failing to come within a mile of the original.

The Folk Who Live on the Hill is one of the all-time classics, first sung by Bing back in 1937. Twenty years later Peggy made it her own. When Bing sang the line Darby and Joan who used to be Jack and Jill he sounded like a "Darby" whereas as Peggy's husky, sensuous voice sounds nothing like Darby's Joan so she wisely substitutes Baby and Joe!

You Came A Long Way From St. Louis from the album with George Shearing - Beauty and the Beat - is almost a throw back to Why Don't You Do Right? The same cynical approach but this time with a more hardboiled edge. 

Mirrors saw her recording an album of songs by Leiber and Stoller for A & M records in 1975. Some Cats Know made ripples and, even aged 55, Peggy could still turn you on with the suggestive lyrics. I recall Zoë Gilby featuring the song in her set a few years back.

So there we are, my thoughts on Peggy Lee.

Lance

*Both Peggy and Lonnie had million sellers without receiving any royalties. Benny Goodman picked up the loot for Why Don't You Do Right? and Chris Barber rode the Rock Island Line all the way to the bank. In fairness though it must be said that these early hits did pave the way for their future, successful, careers.

2 comments :

Miles said...

Jack Jackson's record show on a Saturday night often featured Peggy Lee, Don't Smoke In Bed sent me to bed with dreams an adolescent shouldn't have. Miles
.

Liz said...

Like you Lance,I was a huge Peggy Lee fan. "Fever" was probably how I first came to be aware of her. However my late Dad was in awe of her. I often thought about her " Baby & Joe", and wondered about the original Darby & Joan. I just assumed the latter was British , but Peggy's was more Stateside. She was part of our young years, but seemed to have an air of mystery about her. like so many, gone but never forgotten.

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