Louis Armstrong – The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings – Classic Music Review
How many of those who joined Benny Goodman’s swing caravan in the thirties or rocked to Chuck Berry in the fifties or savored the increased vibrato that became fashionable in the brass sections of symphony orchestras knew the extent to which they were living in a world created by the famous gravel-mouthed clown? How many appreciated what Miles Davis meant when he said, “You know you can’t play anything on the horn that Louis hasn’t played— I mean even modern,” or Bing Crosby, when he called Armstrong “the beginning and the end of music in America,” or Virgil Thompson, when he wrote that his “improvisation would seem to have combined the highest reaches of instrumental virtuosity with the most tensely disciplined melodic structure and the most spontaneous emotional expression, all of which in one man you must admit is pretty rare”?
Giddins, Gary (2009-03-05). Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong (Kindle Locations 196-202). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
The only time I come close to believing in the existence of a higher power is when I listen to Louis Armstrong.
What I hear when he plays is the purest expression of the human spirit. Music historians rave about his tonal purity, but tend to downplay those aspects of music that cannot be discerned by the five senses. The feel Louis Armstrong gives to his music, combined with his exceptional technical gifts, is what gives his sound its spiritual essence. The only writer who ever captured the essence of Louis Armstrong was a man who had died a century before the Hot Five entered the recording studio, the English poet William Blake:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Had Blake been able to hear Louis Armstrong, he would have seized upon his music as evidence for his theory of human perception beyond the sensual. He would have experienced something very similar to how he described Isaiah’s experience of talking to god in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing.”
When I hear Louis Armstrong, I hear an immense world of delight, the infinite in every thing.
Louis Armstrong influenced every form of modern popular music; he is the source for many features of music that we take for granted. Prior to Armstrong’s ascendancy, music was a highly structured and organized experience where accurate replication of a piece was all that mattered. Even early jazz sounds oddly confined within conventions. Musical excellence was defined as the ability to strictly follow a pattern, either in the form of a written score or trying to copy the song you heard played by the band at the bar down the street. Armstrong introduced the world of music to the value of improvisation, both instrumental and vocal. You can’t say he invented scat singing or the virtuoso solo, because any claim that one person invented any feature of music must be viewed with skepticism due to the fluidity of human contact and our limited ability to capture historical moments. It is more accurate to say that Louis Armstrong made improvisation a vital and viable aspect of music because he imbued his improvisations with technical brilliance and an irrepressible spirit that made the listening experience enjoyable and inspirational. Once Armstrong hit the scene, everybody wanted to play and sing like him. He gave musicians permission to do more than perform music, he gave them permission to play music—to explore, to break boundaries, to create, to have fun.
Gary Giddins’ brief biography—a good starting point for readers who want to understand Armstrong’s history and his influence—is primarily a defense of Louis Armstrong’s place in musical history. He takes on the snobs who dismiss Armstrong as an “entertainer,” people whose limited minds refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a true artist can have popular appeal. These elitists point to Armstrong’s mugging and clowning as evidence he is not to be taken seriously, and consider the sheer joy he could generate in the listening audience as damning evidence of a defect.
Since Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens and The Beatles proved conclusively that on rare occasions popular taste and artistic excellence do coincide, it is ridiculous to condemn Armstrong simply because he appealed to audiences all over the world. On the contrary, Louis Armstrong’s enduring and widespread popularity should be celebrated as evidence that there’s still hope for the human race.
The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings are a sample from the complete collection widely available today. The recordings were made in various sessions that took place during the period from 1926 to 1928 when Armstrong called Chicago home. One of many things I love about the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings is how well the music captures the tone of 1920’s America. You simply can’t find a more appropriate soundtrack for an era characterized by permissiveness and the fast buck: the music is often boozy, titillating and highly suggestive. Prohibition had made liquor even more appealing than ever, and those über-capitalists we refer to as gangsters emerged to meet burgeoning consumer demand for a good time. Women had a brief period of pseudo-liberation, getting the vote, showing off their legs, kicking their heels on the dance floor and daring to smoke in public. With alcohol going underground and women defying traditional morality, the music of the time simply had to come from those who were not part of the mainstream of American life: black musicians playing “the devil’s music.” The fact that they worked in the city of Al Capone and Bugs Moran makes their emergence even sweeter.
While the recordings are primitive, they are remarkable for the contrast between Louis Armstrong and the supporting cast of musicians. That supporting cast “seemed to be locked into an earlier style,” observed Michael Brooks in the liner notes, and despite Armstrong’s generosity in allowing those musicians to showcase themselves and his game attempts to play a supporting role, the simple fact is that Louis Armstrong was the superior musician, and his trumpet (or cornet) is distinctly noticeable even when he’s not front and center, especially in the Hot Five recordings. The clarity he achieves despite the limitations of 1920’s recording technology is stunning, especially when compared to the tones his bandmates produce. That contrast allows the listener to clearly identify the quantum leap that jazz is about to take into becoming a soloist’s art, leaving the ensemble style of jazz in the dust.
However, it’s the vocal on the opening track (“Heebie Jeebies”) that makes it a special moment, for after the typically extended musical introduction that characterized vocal performances through the Swing Era, Louis gives us a vocal display that was quite advanced for the time, borrowing on his experience working with Bessie Smith and singing the groove instead of the notes. His timing and phrasing defy meter, as he pauses and elongates his lines based on how he’s feeling it. When he moves into the scat section, his playful joy comes through as he captures the essence and spirit of early scat—that odd human impulse to attempt to replicate the sound of an instrument with our voices. When he finishes up with a return to the chorus, what happens next is truly remarkable: the first eight measures are played by the rest of the Hot Five to allow Louis to catch his breath, and when he comes in on the cornet for the next round, the clarity of his tone is like a brilliant sun breaking through the dark clouds.
“Muskrat Ramble” is further evidence of Armstrong’s exceptional musicianship, but I have to say that I find Kid Ory’s trombone work here pretty impressive as well. The trombone has become almost an afterthought in jazz over the years, and it’s quite refreshing to hear its unique capabilities here, during a time when the instrument was an essential part of a jazz combo. Armstrong’s work remains the centerpiece, though, floating effortlessly on one solo then spitting out the dissonant blue notes on the solo that follows Johnny Dodds’ clarinet piece. It’s a fun and captivating number that was Louis Armstrong’s first top 10 hit. It’s followed by “King of the Zulus,” most notable for Armstrong’s acting skills, as he responds with what sounds like genuine indignation when his mournful, bluesy solo is interrupted by a Caribbean voice demanding an order of chitlins. The “interruption” makes no difference, as Louis then proceeds to knock it out of the park with an extended solo marked by beautiful held notes perfectly suited for a New Orleans funeral or Mardi Gras parade. “Jazz Lips” is more of a running duet with Armstrong and Kid Ory, with some amazing call-and-response passages and first-class musicianship on the part of both men.
The disc then moves to some Hot Seven pieces, the first of which is “Willie the Weeper,” which Mr. Brooks says is “notable for a Johnny St. Cyr banjo solo.” Funny, what I notice most about the piece is Pete Briggs on the tuba, probably because it’s so unusual to hear a tuba in the 21st century. As for St. Cyr’s banjo, I’m thankful that he tuned it and played it like a guitar. Louis really doesn’t get warmed up until the final passage, where he soars like an eagle. He starts off strong in “Wild Man Blues” with the brief stop-time solo introduction, and continues to display his excellence as a bluesman throughout the piece, which features several longer stop-time solos designed to amaze you with their energy and command. Johnny Dodds also solos, and not only does his clarinet sound brighter, but some of the sinuous runs he produces are terribly sexy and much bolder than his Hot Five work. “Alligator Crawl” features Dodds’ fingers dancing over the bass line provided by the tuba, but Armstrong is the foundation of the piece, giving it a cohesion that overcomes the archaic-sounding banjo solo.
“Potato Head Blues” is quite deceptive in the sense that the opening sounds like early New Orleans ensemble, with everyone in on the act. Armstrong and Dodds trade solos, and I really don’t hear the angst and rage that Mr. Brooks claims to hear in Johnny Dodds’ clarinet; what I hear is a pretty smooth clarinet player swinging to the rhythm. The piece becomes truly memorable only after a blessedly brief banjo break, when Louis resumes the lead. Anyone who can listen to this solo and tell me that Louis Armstrong was not capable of art has to be certifiably deaf. Far, far ahead of its time, this extended, vibrato-enhanced stop-time solo features incredible tonal clarity and precious moments where his melody frees itself from the rhythm and the notes seem suspended in time—independent of the groove, but always resolved to the groove—a technique you do not hear too often until Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk enter the scene. Mr. Brooks remarks, “English critic and trumpeter John Chilton wrote that when this solo was transcribed to paper, musicians were enthralled, but no written record can capture the tonal beauty and expressive vibrato that distinguishes Louis’ rendition from all others.” Giddins commented, “That unique radiance heard in ‘Potato Head Blues’ now coursed through the man himself.” That is a very perceptive observation, for there are few musicians who achieved oneness with the music to the extent that Louis Armstrong did: the horn was the expressive extension of his soul.
“Weary Blues” hardly sounds weary, as all the Hot Seven get into act, driving it home like there’s no tomorrow. My god, there’s even a tuba solo! “Ory’s Creole Trombone” is a Hot Five number where Kid Ory once again displays the signature sounds of the slide trombone. Unfortunately for him, Armstrong steals the show with an exuberant display of cornet magic. This is one of his snappier solos, as the short notes and high register runs dominate until the finishing flourish. “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” is the Hot Five number that Giddins considers their masterpiece, specifically pointing to Armstrong’s solo, “a showcase for the entertainer as artist, flaunting his brilliance with mercurial rips, dazzling triplets, a glissando that seems to swallow its own tail.” In addition to the stunning display of individual virtuosity, this is probably the Hot Five’s strongest ensemble piece, for even with his extraordinary capabilities, Louis Armstrong was an unfailingly generous musician.
The inexplicable “West End Blues” comes next—inexplicable because people are still wondering how Louis Armstrong pulled off the introduction. Giddins notes, “How can one explain the large number of violinists who can play Bach’s D-minor Chaconne when no trumpeter, in or out of jazz, has convincingly replicated Armstrong’s nine-measure intro?” Those twelve seconds are packed with evidence of superhuman dexterity—with fingers, tongue and lips working in ways that cannot be explained by human evolution. All I know is this: when I hear it, I want that mouth positioned on my sweet spot, because I am absolutely certain it will give me the orgasm to end all orgasms. The song itself is a pretty run-of-the-mill blues number, exquisitely arranged by a different Hot Five lineup featuring Jimmy Strong on clarinet and Earl Hines on piano. The duet between Jimmy Strong in the lower reaches of the clarinet and Armstrong singing soft, melodic scat is simply wonderful, and Hines’ subsequent piano solo, a combination of barroom and lounge, is exquisite. When the combo returns, Louis holds a single note firmly in place for four measures before belting out some blues licks that any modern blues guitarist would be proud to replicate.
Continuing with Hot Seven tracks, Earl Hines appropriately opens the cover of Fats Waller’s “Squeeze Me,” notable for Louis’ scat vocal that pretty much tracks his trumpet solo. Backed by the willowy vocal duet of Earl Hines and Mancy Cara, Armstrong is in total command of melody and phrasing. The track is also famous for the sound of a dropped drumstick, a delightful distraction reminding us that these records were put together on a shoestring and a prayer. “Basin Street Blues” follows, and I don’t think I can come up with a better description of the staging than what you can find in Michael Brooks’ liner notes: “Hines switches to celeste and its delicate strains conjure up quiet rainy afternoons in New Orleans brothel with the girls lounging around déshabillé waiting for a prince who never came.” Louis delivers another superb scat vocal, because a.) he was so good at it and b.) there were no lyrics to the song until three years later.
As tragic as it was that Americans had to bail out the French in WWI, it was even more tragic that the returning soldiers brought fragments of French with them, which they proceeded to shred, chop and dice. The only good thing that came out of it was “Beau Koo Jack,” a title that reflects 20’s slang for a lot of dough. The track features a slinky alto sax part via Don Redman, a frantic set of piano runs from Earl Hines and Louis going positively mad with repeated bursts of arpeggiated magic. “Muggles” is an early tribute one of Louis Armstrong’s lifelong companions: marijuana. An Armstrong-Hines composition performed at a slow tempo matching the mellow mood created by the green weed, the track gives everyone plenty of time to catch their breaths and savor the notes—until Armstrong switches to double-time for his solo, then makes an amazing caesura-free transition back to the original beat. The solo itself is remarkable for what it lacks: the ripping glissandi we’ve heard in the other solos on the record. Louis plays it simple and straight, pretty much sticking to clearly-enunciated notes to accentuate the rhythm (though, as Giddins notes, he does bounce between two pitches).
“St. James Infirmary” has been recorded by hundreds of musical artists in many genres, but this is my personal favorite and my favorite Armstrong vocal of them all. The basic story involves the death of one’s sweetheart, but Louis, playing the part of grieving lover, shuffles verses and changes lyrics to craft a defiant message concerning his own mortality, delivered with breathtaking bravado. What makes his insufferable arrogance so enduringly fascinating is his ability to place himself completely in the role: he sounds like the man’s man, the stud who is absolutely confident in his ability to deliver, the gambler who knows the score and would never go out a loser:
I went down to St. James infirmary, saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold and so fair
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She can look this whole wide world over
She’ll never find a sweet man like me
When I die I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys’ll know I died standing pat
The backing arrangement is appropriately bluesy and funereal, with Louis playing in a suitably restrained and confident fashion: the epitome of the high-class gent his character believes he is.
Our journey through Armstrong’s early years ends with the blues-tinged “Tight Like This,” the last Hot Five recording. While Earl Hines provides some surprisingly arrhythmic piano runs in the build, Armstrong’s technically brilliant and anguished sixty-four bar solo is simply out of this world. This is the man in his moment, realizing his destiny. When I hear this solo, he sounds like the sculptor chipping away at the unnecessary stone that hides the underlying form. In this case, it feels like the thing he is trying to reach is some deep hurt, some pain that he needs to express through his horn. Though he downplayed the scars from his chaotic childhood, no one could have been raised the way he was with “multiple stepfathers” and an off-and-on mother without some residual effects. “Tight Like This” gives pretty strong evidence that he used music to express the joy and purge the pain. The track ends when he’s played himself out, a blessing indeed. No one could follow that solo.
Few people have ever possessed the talent of a Louis Armstrong; fewer still have had such an enduring impact on the arts. Despite his incredible gifts and worldwide fame, he was forever accessible, settling into a modest house in Queens where he would play with the neighborhood kids after returning from another long road trip. In an era dominated by ego-driven musicians whose primary goals are fame, money and adulation, Louis Armstrong stands as an eternal reminder that music is the pathway to the spirit and a proven way of bringing people of different cultures together. While I believe he was touched by the infinite, what I appreciate most is his fundamental humanity. What we hear in his work with The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens is a man who has found his mission and life and is absolutely delighted with the discovery.
If I could get reconstructive vocal chord surgery so I could sound like any singer in the history of music, I’d get them to fix me up to sing like Peggy Lee.
My father mentioned in his guest post how much he loved my singing voice. I hate it. I have no problem carrying a tune or picking up a harmony, making me a very useful participant in family singalongs. But solo, well . . . that’s a whole ‘nother story. I’m a slightly limited soprano with a range from the D above middle C (C4) to high C (C6), but due to defective genes or dumb luck, whenever I cross the F above C5, all hell breaks loose in my vocal chords and I turn into Beverly Fucking Sills. I’m too thin to be an opera singer! Even when I’m in the comfortable part of the range, I sound . . . drab and dull. Listen to me sing just one line of one song and you’ll see!
Too sweet, too sweet! Guaranteed to give you diabetes with prolonged exposure! I want my sexier speaking voice to be my sexy singing voice. I bet I could sing great when in heat. Hey! That would make for quite a show!
Peggy Lee is a far better singer and the frustrating thing about adopting her as my ideal vocalist is she makes everything sound so easy. It doesn’t matter if she’s singing swing or pop or R&B, it always sounds effortless. Her voice was the essence of subtlety, in stark contrast to the belting boomers who are the popular female vocalists of the day. Some of those loudmouth broads even have the gall to advertise themselves as sexy, but when it comes to sexy, there are few who can touch Peggy Lee.
Peggy was a multi-talented artist, an accomplished songwriter, composer and actress. Her catalog is astonishingly rich and diverse, spanning several decades and interpretations of material from an impressive array of songsmiths, from Cole Porter to Ray Davies. The compilation I’ve chosen to review is an abridged version of a 4-CD set, so consider it a sample to whet your appetite. According to Iván Santiago-Mercado, who organized the researcher’s dream website, The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography and Videography, the best collection is a 2000 EMI release called The Very Best of Peggy Lee. Her first album for Decca, Black Coffee, is another excellent choice. Whichever you choose, it’s hard to go wrong with Peggy Lee.
The Best of Peggy Lee picks up the story a couple of years after she and guitarist Dave Barbour left Benny Goodman’s band (Dave got fired for getting intimate with the singer and the singer followed him out the door). The pair got hitched and decided that Dave would earn the daily bread through studio work while Peggy would stay home with the kids. That arrangement was never going to work with a creative force like Peggy Lee, who soon found herself writing songs and popping into the studios to sing a few numbers with Bob Crosby and Dave’s orchestra. The compilation picks up the thread a few months after V-J Day, on October 30, 1945, when “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In” was released.
“Waitin’ for the Train to Come In” (1945): I love reading histories and watching documentaries of stateside life in the United States during the years of World War II and shortly thereafter, until Communists started appearing under American beds and ruined the whole thing. I find the victory gardens, the rationing, the massive hiring of women for the factories, the acceleration of the black migration from South to North, the half-assed baseball teams and the can-do propaganda endlessly fascinating. Beneath the façade of FDR’s jaunty smile, though, all kinds of tensions were building, most notably in the area of race relations. America was in denial about the Japanese internment and a model of hypocrisy for sending black soldiers to fight for freedom and democracy, benefits of American life they had yet to experience. Once the Japanese surrendered to Emperor MacArthur, there was a hue and cry from the populace and from a Congress seeking power after a dozen years of FDR to bring the boys home NOW. The American demobilization was a fucking mess, a logistical nightmare that spawned a major housing shortage and a whole lot of pissed-off voters who got back at Harry Truman and the Democrats by giving the Republicans control of Congress in 1946.
What matters here is how the average Joe and Jane experienced the demobilization, and no one captured it better than Peggy Lee in her interpretation of the Block-Skylar composition, “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In.” Peggy plays the girl who has been keeping the home fires burning for her G. I. Joe and is now waiting at the depot for his arrival. Instead of approaching the song with an “Oh, boy!” tone in her voice, Peggy sounds like a girl who has made the trek to the station many times before and always goes home empty-handed: tired, bored, trying to keep up her spirits and stay positive but hinting at the deeper frustration of a life put on hold for years (“I”m waitin’ for my life to begin”). Even when the melody rises to a crescendo, Peggy holds back, capturing the exasperated undertone, If my life ever begins. The track opens with the band mimicking the sound of an approaching train, a skill all the swing bands had to master during those civilized years when trains criss-crossed the American landscape. Unlike the building speed of the train in “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” this train never really works up a head of steam and fades to a slower tempo perfect for Peggy’s superficially laconic delivery. Americans generally accepted the many restrictions on their lives demanded by a war economy, but Peggy’s interpretation captured the sentiments of millions of American women who were by now tired of war, tired of sacrifice and tired of waiting for their men to come home.
“I Don’t Know Enough About You” (1945): A Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour composition, Capitol Records thought it was a B-side but the listening audience disagreed, sending this tune to #7 on the charts. This is as perfect a lounge jazz number as any, and the combination of Peggy Lee’s silky, flirtatious voice over a sweet jazz chord progression, soft horns, brushed cymbals and liquid guitar is heaven on earth—and this heaven has a fully-stocked bar. Great singers and instrumentalists create imagery through their music, and the image that comes up for me is Peggy having a drink with a gentleman in a secluded booth in a plush night club, singing this song to him as her carefully manicured index finger delicately circles the rim of a scotch on the rocks. I also love the 40’s vernacular (“no buttons on my shoes” means that Peggy is hip to the latest fashion trends) and the spoken-word cheekiness of “I guess I’d better get out the encyclopedia and brush up on some shmurd to shmood” that melts into the refrain. Listening to this number probably motivated millions of women to shed a few pounds so they could fit into form-fitting glitter gowns and engage in slow-dance orgies at the new swank joint in town.
“It’s All Over Now”(1946): I suppose this might qualify as a torch song, but not the way Peggy Lee delivers it. Her recounting of this tale of lost love is sung in the tone of “live and learn” rather than “it’s the end of the world,” foretelling the stance she would adopt twenty-plus years later in “Is That All There Is?” Her voice is blue silk, smooth and unafraid to bend a note every now and then, and absolutely exquisite as it rides over the nifty rhythmic shifts provided by Dave Barbour and His Orchestra. This is a superb melding of the singer and the band in the best tradition of swing.
“It’s a Good Day” (1946): Even with the problems of demobilization, growing tensions with the reds and gathering cacophony in the political arena, Americans felt pretty good once the war was over and found themselves the only economic powerhouse left on earth. Then again, some of the happiest songs you’ll ever hear came out of The Great Depression, so maybe there was something to that thing they used to call American Optimism. The liner notes call this song “relentlessly cheerful.” I’ll say! This song makes “Good Day Sunshine” sound positively depressing, what with McCartney getting his feet burned and all. What’s amazing is how thoroughly Peggy convinces you that hell, yes, it IS a good day! It’s even “a good day for paying your bills!” When the fuck has that ever happened? Peggy Lee will make you believe it! Peggy and hubby Dave wrote the song together and both of them absolutely shine on this track. Peggy sounds fresh, full of life and thrilled to experience another day, while Dave expresses his joy through some very nifty guitar runs and a superb arrangement. The video that follows is a staged “recording session” designed to plug the song, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Peggy Lee meant every word and every smile.
“Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep)” (1947): Peggy took a couple of unfortunate detours into novelty song land that were big hits in the day. Gibberish lyrics were very popular in the late swing era, whether in the form of mondegreens (“Mairzy Doats”) or foreign language mutilation (like this one). Believe it or not, there are multiple versions of this song by some of the leading singers of the day, most notably Perry Como. Peggy at least gives us a credible performance in the soothing tones of a loving mother; Perry Como sounds like he’s the cartoon character forced to swallow the giant bottle of castor oil.
“Golden Earrings” (1947): Another unfortunate detour, this time into the world of film. Marlene Dietrich, playing a gypsy no less, sings a few snatches of lyric in the movie, and if you’re wondering about the irony or incongruence of a fair-skinned German woman portraying a dark and mysterious gypsy woman, just remember that Hollywood had the power to make you believe anything (by the way, Dietrich almost pulls it off). I have a powerful aversion to “foreign-sounding” songs that have only a superficial connection to the culture of origin, so I have to take a pass on this one.
“Why Don’t You Do Right” (1947): A sass-and-spit number first recorded during her years with Goodman, Peggy’s original rendition of Lil Green’s blues hit defined her as a sultry, sexy singer. Peggy’s initial take was more a direct copy of Lil Green’s cold-edged approach to the problem of a lazy-ass man; this interpretation is smoother and breezily confident. From a purely vocal perspective, I love both versions, though I think this interpretation is more Peggy Lee and less Lil Green. On the other hand, Benny Goodman always had a great band, and the original swings harder. Benny also threw in a few clarinet licks that are to die for, but really, this is arguing over nits. Peggy made them both work.
“Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” (1947): This song has the distinction of being Peggy’s all-time number one hit. It spent nine—nine—weeks at number one on the Billboard charts in 1948. The song is about a lazy Mexican girl who spends most of her day doing nothing except avoiding work. Peggy sings the song in English, in the first-person, with a fake Mexican accent. Ya think there might be some negative stereotyping going on here? According to the liner notes, no! “Some critics objected that “Mañana” depicted Mexicans as lazy, but Peggy has always made it clear that the song’s intent is nothing less than affectionate.” Peggy insisted that she was writing a song about a specific character, not an ethnic group. I don’t think Peggy meant to offend anyone and I don’t think there was a racist bone in her body, but she had to know that the song would be released into a culture that believed in that stereotype. Since Peggy wrote the song, if she were standing here before me right now I’d say, “Peggy, I might believe you more if you had added some lyrics indicating that Americans can learn a lot from Latin American cultures and get over their unhealthy obsession with time management.” If you’d like to learn more, Mr. Santiago-Mercado offers a spirited and fact-grounded defense of the song on his The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography and Videography website.
Controversy aside, I loathe “Mañana.” It takes a lot to get me to like a novelty song, and Peggy doesn’t give me much to work with here.
“Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” (1949): I’ll never understand the American obsession with cowboys any more than I understand the modern American obsession with guns. Peggy demonstrates her versatility here, but that’s about all I can appreciate about this number. With the exception of a few cowboy yodeling songs and the movie High Noon, I find the whole Wild West thing dull, dull, dull.
There is a huge gap in the compilation at this point, as Peggy left Capitol for Decca in 1952. During those years she recorded her most acclaimed album, received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress and wrote most of the soundtrack (and did several voiceovers) for Lady and the Tramp. Capitol wooed her back in 1957, where we pick up the trail.
“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” (1957): Rescued from a curious musical called Cabin in the Sky that has been reviled as racist and celebrated for its music, this track found its way into the catalogs of such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald and Bette Midler. Peggy does a wonderful job with an understated interpretation with slight hints of purring that expresses the joy of a woman in love who focuses on that blessing rather than the poverty that surrounds her. Frank Sinatra conducted this number in splendid fashion, building a more sophisticated background than you hear on Peggy’s 1947 version.
“Fever” (1958): “Fever” became Peggy Lee’s trademark number for many reasons, but the most important is that she had a clear vision for the song from the moment she first heard Ray Peterson’s semi-R&B version back in 1957. Peterson’s version featured a somewhat frenetic vocal reflecting the over-the-top style he would bring to such dreadful numbers as “Tell Laura I Love Her,” but Peggy’s musical intuition imagined the song stripped to its bare essentials, driven by the bass line. Peggy envisioned “Fever” as an understated but dramatic torch song for her nightclub act, and all the artistic decisions that led to the re-invention of “Fever” sprung from that vision.
The original hit was penned by Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell and recorded (reluctantly) by soul singer Little Willie John. Little Willie John’s version is a pretty steamy piece of music, but Peggy considered the lyrics a bit too risqué, in the sense of “blatantly obvious.” Little Willie John’s version is the let’s-get-down-and-fuck version whereas Peggy Lee’s reflects an eroticism marked by depth and sophistication. Peggy recast the lyrics with two verses of her own creation (the Shakespearean and Pocahontas verses) to replace two from the original Cooley-Blackwell version, and reinstated the original last verse that Little Willie John had omitted. I think Peggy’s lyrics are much sexier because she felt those lyrics.
What’s so alluring about Peggy Lee’s arrangement of “Fever” isn’t so much the simplicity of the bass, drum and finger-snap accompaniment but the empty space created by the absence of the other instruments. That space creates a vision of a large, darkened, empty room with natural reverberation and a single pinhole spotlight on the singer. The lack of distraction creates an almost unbearable intimacy between you and the singer, much like that suspended moment between two lovers before the opening kiss when all that exists in the world is the energy that springs from your mutual attraction. When Peggy’s voice enters the musical space, it doesn’t fill the space but serves as a subtle method of titillation, like the slow unbuttoning of a blouse. The half-step key change turns up the heat just a tiny bit, mirroring the rhythm of a deliberate, drawn-out act of seduction. Peggy’s off-beat phrasing on that verse, combined with her witty reinterpretation of the essence of Romeo and Juliet, maintains the heat but introduces a flirtatious playfulness to the mix. Another key change brings us to the Pocahontas verse, where Peggy allows a touch more desire to escape her lips, then finishes the seduction with a fairly direct (for the time) advertisement for erotic pleasure:
Now you’ve listened to my story
Here’s the point that I have made
Chicks were born to give you fever
Be it Fahrenheit or centigrade
They give you fever when you kiss them
Fever if you live and learn
Fever till you sizzle
Oh what a lovely way to burn
The song never builds to a crescendo, but leaves the listener simmering with desire. Cigarette!
“Alright, Okay, You Win” (1958): If this sounds like a Count Basie number, well, it is! Jack Marshall gave it a good college try, but he’s no Count Basie, and I have to admit I miss the Count’s brilliant mini-splashes of piano rhythm on this version. As far as the vocalists are concerned, both Joe Williams and Peggy Lee are great singers and, as with “Fever,” I suppose which one you prefer will depend entirely on your taste. The noticeable difference for me is that Peggy rarely extends notes beyond the necessary length, and her syllabic cuts, always rhythmically-enhancing, are a feature of her singing style that I find endlessly enchanting.
“I’m a Woman” (1962): This Leiber-Stoller number (note: both men) was very popular in its day, no doubt because its message hints at the frustration of the millions of under-challenged women in American society who were stuck at home with their boxes of Duncan Hines, afternoons of As the World Turns and catty neighborhood gossip. As an expression of women’s liberation, it leaves something to be desired, but you have to appreciate that the status of women was truly barbaric at the time. Consider the opening verse:
I can wash out 44 pairs of socks and have ’em hangin out on the line
I can starch & iron 2 dozens shirts ‘fore you can count from 1 to 9
I can scoop up a great big dipper full of lard from the drippins can
Throw it in the skillet, go out & do my shopping, be back before it melts in the pan
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again
I would classify the listing of those achievements as either a set of backhanded compliments or a backhand to the face. The only line in the song indicating something more than faux appreciation of all the meaningless things the little woman can do is “I got a twenty-dollar gold piece says there ain’t nothing I can’t do/I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you.” Even that line falls flat when you consider that twenty-dollar gold pieces (double eagles) had been out of circulation in the United States since 1933 and housework was (and is) largely unpaid. Not much collateral riding on that bet! Peggy gives it her all, and perhaps it caused a few women to rethink their limited lives, but to take extraordinary pride in work that is beneath you is a classic symptom of low self-esteem. And how are you going to make a man out of a boy if you think you’re a worthless piece of shit?
“Pass Me By” (1964): Peggy takes on a pop song with a military feel from the Cary Grant film Father Goose, and does a credible job. A bit too jaunty at first, she finds her groove once that band shifts to a more comfortable backbeat rhythm at the end. Her comparative restraint is admirable here, for in the hands of a drama queen like Ethel Merman, this song would have become positively frightening.
“Big Spender” (1965): As my readers know, I am not a fan of Broadway musicals, where the songs are specifically structured for hams fond of melodramatic delivery. I appreciate Peggy’s sophisticated rendition, and would rather listen to her version than Shirley Bassey’s, but one could argue that Shirley’s habitual lust for excess is more suited to the genre. You make the call.
“Is That All There Is?” (1969): This song brings up an issue that came up repeatedly in my childhood. My excitable father always wanted to pump me up before an event by telling me how great it was going to be. He figured that if could get me excited, I would like and appreciate the event and then I wouldn’t start whining and interfering with his enjoyment of the experience. This drove my mother nuts, and after years of scolding (“Let the girl form her own opinion!”), my dad finally kicked the habit. This actually strengthened our relationship, because it allowed me to be honest instead of worrying about disappointing him and hurting his feelings.
It’s funny, but now that I’m a grownup, he has relapsed because he knows he can’t be held responsible for molding me any more. “Oh, you’re going to love this! These guys put on one of the best shows I ever saw!” he’ll exclaim. Thanks to Peggy Lee, all I have to do is start whistling the chorus of “Is That All There Is?” and I don’t have to suffer through every track of Iron Butterfly’s follow-up to In a Gadda da Vida. Dad just quickly lifts the needle, puts the record in the sleeve and mutters his regrets for having raised such a narrow-minded bitch of a daughter. Now, that’s respect!
Peggy’s second signature song gives her the opportunity to synthesize her acting, spoken word and singing experience into a compelling, moving and thought-provoking masterpiece. At the core of the song are questions that still resonate today. Do you believe the hype or what your inner voice is telling you? Do you live according to the expectations of others and think what they tell you should think, or do you try to form an original opinion? Is it really worth the stress and energy to panic over disasters or believe that the world will end because one person out of billions doesn’t want to be with you anymore? “Let’s break out the booze and have a ball!” Fuck, yes!
Peggy’s delivery is both a compelling piece of theatre and a vocal masterpiece. Randy Newman’s arrangement is very much Berlin cabaret, providing a perfect backdrop for the epicurean, carpe diem philosophy espoused by Lieber and Stoller. The unifying theme to this song is not “life is a major disappointment,” but that life is worth living and enjoying despite its constant disappointments. Peggy’s delivery of the “Oh, no, not me” response to the invitation to end it all confirms her desire to prolong the experience. “Is That All There Is” is a life-affirming song, especially in the hands of someone as fundamentally optimistic as Peggy Lee.
It is very difficult to do justice to Peggy Lee through sixteen songs. Many of her best songs are missing from this collection, including “Lover,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Baby, Baby Wait for Me,” “Blues in the Night,” oh, I could go on for pages. The consummate professional, a woman of diverse and appreciable talents, and a singer who demands your attention, Peggy Lee was a woman who took her craft seriously, worked hard to strengthen her talents and build her career, and left us with recorded performances that most singers can only wish were theirs. The greatest compliment I think I can pay any artist is one I will happily and unhesitatingly bestow on Peggy Lee right now: she was one of a kind.