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, dull and a little too sweet.
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.