In January 1988, record producer Bill Rudman called Peggy Lee at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where she was performing. He told her he had a concept for an album. She didn’t know him from Adam, and it seemed she didn’t want to.
“I said, ‘Just let me tell you what the idea is,'” Rudman recalled recently over lunch. “‘The idea is, these are all unpublished songs by Harold Arlen.’ And there was this pause. And she said, ‘Oh. Yes, I — would be interested in talking to you.'”
They talked, Lee recorded, and on Tuesday, Angel Records will release a Valentine for all Lee fans: “Love Held Lightly,” the singer’s 64th album in a career that spans more than five decades. She performs 14 Arlen songs written between 1937 and ’73, with lyrics by such collaborators as Johnny Mercer, Truman Capote, Ted Koehler, and Lee herself.
Lee is backed by an octet led by New York pianist Keith Ingham, who arranged the songs and co-produced the album with Rudman and Ken Bloom, a New York writer. The group includes Ken Peplowski, a native Clevelander, on tenor sax.
The decision to use a small group of musicians — no orchestra, no strings — was essential to both the repertoire and the singer, Rudman said.
“From the beginning, we saw it as a jazz album,” said Rudman, who works full time as an associate director with the Great Lakes Theater festival. “Arlen, we feel, is rooted in jazz and the blues and needs to be presented that way. And we certainly consider [Lee] a jazz singer.”
This marks the fifth outing as co-producers for Rudman and Bloom, whose album “Maxine Sullivan: The Great Songs from the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler,” received a 1985 Grammy nomination for best jazz vocal performance. Ingham has collaborated on all but the first.
“Love Held Lightly” originated in Harold Arlen’s Manhattan apartment, where his biographer, Edward Jablonski, was cataloging material after the composer’s death in April 1986.
“The task unearthed a bonanza, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, home recordings and a profusion of songs, many unknown,” writes Jablonski in the liner notes to “Love Held Lightly.”
“From this treasure trove comes a significant portion of this album.” Jablonski, who had dug up the Cotton Club songs for Rudman, Bloom and Ingham, contacted them about his finds. Everyone agreed they wanted to make an album of rare Arlen tunes. The question was who would sing them. “Ken and I went to the singers’ section in Tower Records in New York and went through all the bins from A to Z,” Rudman said. “We got to Z, and said, ‘It’s Peggy Lee or nobody.'”
When Lee agreed to discuss the project, the producers chose 14 songs — most written for stage, television or film musicals — and flew out to present them to the singer in her home in Bel Air, Calif. As Rudman recalls it, Lee swept in, everyone chatted for a bit, and the producers offered to perform the songs.
“She said, ‘Let’s go to it,'” Rudman said. “So Keith went to the piano, and I sang these songs for Peggy Lee. When we were finished, she said, ‘Do you know how hard it is to find songs of this quality?'”
Interviewed recently by telephone at her home in Bel Air, Lee spoke of her respect for the lyricists represented; she is “honored to be in the midst of them,” she said. And her attraction to Arlen’s tunes always has been the undercurrent of the blues.
“You hear a show tune, and they’re wonderful, but his work was so unique,” Lee said. “It always moved me emotionally.”
“Love Held Lightly” was recorded in a New York studio at the end of August 1988. During that week, Lee’s home-away-from-home was Cole Porter’s suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
The producers went to work mixing the album. Lee, an accomplished musician and composer, contributed valuable ideas. But the course of “Love Held Lightly,” like true love, wasn’t always an easy one: During the final mix, Lee put the brake on the project.
She now says it had nothing to do with her relationship with the producers, whom she called “very thoughtful and supportive and enthusiastic.”
“I’ve never had more fun with anyone — and I’ve had great producers,” she said.
The problem, she said, was in the mix, which affected the way her voice — which she describes as “a center core with rings of overtones” — is heard. “If they don’t record it properly, it just picks up the center core, and it shaves off the layers of overtones,” she explained.
Lee, whose meticulous attention to detail is widely known, said it’s also true that she was very sensitive to the tunes so soon after the recording. She said that when she listened to the tape some time later, she was pleasantly surprised.
So it was that last spring, out of the blue, Rudman got a call from Peggy Lee at his Lakewood condominium. “She said, “You know, dear, I’ve been listening to this tape, and it’s really pretty good,” Rudman recalled. ” ‘I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t put this out if you want to.’ And that was that.”
On with the show meant both raising more money and finding a label. Most of the money has come from Cleveland investors. Rudman declined to name them, but said he finds this “very gratifying, because this is my community.”
Finding a label was also a challenge, he said.
“We sent tapes all over the place, and we kept getting told, ‘Peggy sounds terrific, but why did you record all these songs that nobody knows?'” he said. “Which was very discouraging.”
Enter, on golden wings, Angel Records, which specializes in classic American music, and classical music with an American twist, according to vice president of marketing Linda Sterling. “Love Held Lightly” was a natural for the label, she said.
“It was really exciting to be able to bring this to the American consumer — to say, ‘Here’s something that you don’t have already,'” Sterling said. “It really casts a spell over you. Everyone loves Peggy Lee.”
The 14 songs in “Love Held Lightly” range from the slinky “Bad for Each Other” to the achingly tender title tune to the bluesy “Got to Wear You Off My Weary Mind” to the final track (and the collection’s only standard), Lee’s singular interpretation of “My Shining Hour,” accompanied only by John Chiodini on guitar.
According to Rudman, the work is intended as a concept album in the vein of Frank Sinatra’s classic “In the Wee Small Hours” — best listened to as a whole.
“Intimacy is at the heart of this,” he said. “This should be a very intimate and private experience between the singer and the listener.”
Rudman said he and his co-producers have begun to discuss other projects with the singer, including the possibility of what he calls “the definitive Peggy Lee interview.” But for now, he’s only looking ahead to Tuesday, when “Love Held Lightly” is released: “One of the greatest days of my life,” he said.
Lee said she’s excited about it, too: “I’m especially happy that it’s coming out during the season of Valentine’s Day,” she said. “It’s a nice Valentine.”