Peggy Lee’s reputation as a nonpareil singer and mesmerizing performer must seem perplexing to anyone under 30. Her recordings of the past two decades have been listless and unfocused, and her infrequent television, concert and club appearances have offered only dim echoes of a once-vibrant talent. On rare occasions, she has managed to summon up traces of her erstwhile magic. During a late-80s gig at DC’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, her rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” left the redoubtable Shirley Horn teary-eyed. But most of Lee’s 90s performances have been more like séances – a diaphanous blur in a wheelchair, wanly intoning her hits and whispering canned patter.
Lee’s calamitous health problems, rivaled only by Elizabeth Taylor’s, have sapped her powers. Given the chronic ailments she suffers and the battery of operations she’s survived, it’s surprising that she did not retire long ago. Her gutsy determination to press on has been undermined by her increasingly ineffective efforts to defy time. Although she turns 78 next month, she unwisely struggles to sustain the glamour-girl facade of her salad days. Now portly, swaddled in ermine and white satin, and sporting a cotton-candy wig and rhinestone-studded glasses, she’s come to resemble the female impersonators who imitate her. The late Jim Henson’s revelation that Miss Piggy’s last name is “Lee” was cruel but apt.
Miss Peggy Lee, Capitol’s just-released four-disc retrospective, vividly illustrates why she is so revered and continues to influence contemporary singers, including k.d. lang, Madonna and Carly Simon. One hundred thirteen tracks recorded between 1944 and 1972 capture the singer at her artistic apogee. Although Lee aficionados may fault the conservatism of the repertoire, and hardly anyone will be satisfied by the long, lame essay that constitutes the bulk of the accompanying booklet, this generous boxed set confirms Lee’s status as a peerless interpreter of American popular music.
Lee’s first recordings with Benny Goodman’s band – she got the job in 1941 – reveal a competent but rather colorless vocalist. Two years later, she persuaded Goodman to let her cover “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” an R&B tune popularized by blues singer Lil Green. The resulting hit record not only won Lee national recognition, it demonstrated how quickly and impressively her singing had developed. She had forged a distinctive style by combining some of the most appealing qualities of other singers – Billie Holiday’s bent tones, Mildred Bailey’s lilting swing, Lee Wiley’s supple timing. Leaving Goodman in 1943, she briefly withdrew from music following her daughter’s birth, then joined Capitol as a solo artist. Her association with the label lasted from 1944 to 1972, interrupted only by a five-year stint with Decca in the early-50s.
Miss Peggy Lee chronicles nearly four decades of Lee’s artistic evolution from a vivacious, open-throated, jazz-inflected vocalist to a breathy minimalist singing actress of rare expressive complexity. As The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music observes, “Her smoky, laid-back sexuality had something teasingly neurotic about it, vulnerable but also untouchable in the end.” Like her label-mates Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, she achieved and sustained vast popularity without compromising her refined musical principles. She assembled a wide-ranging repertoire – ballads, swing and Latin tunes, novelty numbers – and was one of the few white singers capable of interpreting black music without condescension, introducing bluesy songs previously recorded by Little Willie John, Joe Williams and Ray Charles to mainstream listeners. Her infallible rhythmic instincts served her well at all tempos, and her chameleonlike ability to shift character from song to song enabled her to communicate a rainbow of emotions.
Producer Brad Benedict selected the material for Miss Peggy Lee. Hard-core Lee fans are certain to raise questions about his choices and how he has organized them. The first disc contains material stemming from 1945 to 1969 and includes many of Lee’s signature pieces – “Mañana,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Fever,” “I’m a Woman,” and the Grammy-winning “Is That All There Is?” The second disc jumps back to Lee’s 1944 Capitol debut recording, and the remainder of the package proceeds more or less chronologically through her final sessions for the label, but with some confusing detours. (On Disc 4, tracks dating from 1960, 1972 and 1959 are programmed in succession.)
Benedict tends to confine his selections to familiar standards, thereby excluding many lesser-known but, to my mind, superior Lee performances, among them “My Silent Love,” “Release Me,” “Two for the Road,” “I’ll Only Miss Him When I Think of Him,” and the haunting “The Shining Sea,” which she wrote with composer Johnny Mandel. (Several of these could have replaced the collection’s oddly redundant inclusion of two versions of “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” and “Them There Eyes.”) He also ignores Lee’s late-60s and early-70s covers of pop hits, which proved that she, more than any of her mainstream peers, was capable of embracing changes in American music. By omitting “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay,” “Superstar,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and “The Long and Winding Road,” Benedict fails to represent an important facet of her remarkable versatility.
But Lee’s gossamer singing transcends the anthology’s shortcomings, even on ephemera like “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “The Old Master Painter” (contemptuously dubbed by musicians “The Old Masturbator”). The second disc, containing previously unreissued and hitherto unreleased singles from the 40s and early 50s, is a gold mine for Lee devotees. The remaining discs offer 57 gems from Lee’s 1957-1972 LPs, backed by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, George Shearing, Benny Carter and Quincy Jones. If there’s a sour note or unfelt lyric reading on any of these tracks, I failed to hear it.
An anthology of such scope deserves to be accompanied by a detailed, insightful analysis of Lee’s life and art. Gene Lees, who is a lyricist, biographer of Oscar Peterson and Woody Herman, and publisher of the mail-order insider’s Jazzletter, fails to deliver. Lees is no dummy, but he’s often lazy and nearly always self-absorbed. The monograph that he’s cobbled together for this auspicious occasion recycles chunks of a two-part profile of Lee that previously appeared in both Jazzletter and “Peg,” a chapter from Lees’ 1987 book Singers and the Song.
He gets off on the wrong foot with a portentous opening paragraph of what he apparently considers fine writing. “The roads of North Dakota, like those of other prairie states and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba that lie just across its northern border, run in straight lines, north to south, east to west. Even in the western part of the state, where the Missouri River, long ago the highway of discovery of the Lewis and Clark expedition, is in the early stage of its long journey to the Mississippi, the roads just cross it in those never-ending straight lines. Their occasional jogs are arbitrary, made by man, who wrote all these straight lines on the map.”
Lees follows this grandiose geography lesson with a 15-page transcription of an interview with Lee (née Norma Deloris Egstrom) about her Dickensian North Dakota childhood – she was abused by a sadistic stepmother – punctuated by his own intrusive interjections. (“I remember Fels Naptha,” I said. “Did you use a scrubbing board?”) Much of this material might charitably have been excised, such as young Peggy’s fondness for root beer and black jelly beans, and her cloying recollections of playing with imaginary chickens, searching clouds for her dead mother’s face, and conversing with God. (Lee was New Age a half-century before that term was coined.)
Lees rallies with an informative account of his subject’s early career, notably her tenure with the Goodman band and her marriage to Goodman’s gifted, troubled guitarist, Dave Barbour, who served as arranger, performer, and co-writer of her early solo hits “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “Mañana.” Lees’ profile inexplicably stops in the mid-60s, leaving nearly a third of Lee’s story, including her unexpected, Randy Newman-conducted rock era comeback “Is That All There Is?,” untold. He does, however, find time to remind us that he once edited Down Beat and has hung with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and to share nuggets of his fatuously ostentatious erudition (“Parlor,” we’re told, is “a word descended from the French verb to speak and meaning a place for conversation.”) He devotes considerable space to analyzing “Lover” and “Black Coffee,” Decca singles that do not appear in this retrospective, and predictably includes a lengthy paragraph about her 1964 recording “The Right to Love,” composed by Lalo Schifrin with lyrics by, you guessed it, Gene Lees. The scent of insecurity wafting from these pages would be pitiable if it weren’t so irritating. The essay is supplemented by archivist Jim Pierson’s skimpily annotated list of the box’s contents, which names the conductor of each session (a relatively unimportant detail) but fails to identify arrangers and personnel of the backing groups – information that has become mandatory in projects of this scale.
Despite its inadequate liner notes, overly cautious song selection, and haphazard organization, Miss Peggy Lee is a treasure – five hours of sublime singing that can serve as a master course for aspiring non-rock vocalists. Nearly every track justifies the accolades paid to her by the giants of American music – Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett – and validates Benny Goodman’s observation, “There’s no one else like her, and I presume there never will be.”