Peggy Lee was one of the 20th century’s most popular, influential, and important American singers. She sang with the Benny Goodman band during the Second World War and had her first number one record with the winsome “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” in 1942, followed by the snappy million-selling “Why Don’t You Do Right” in 1943. She left Goodman’s band to get married, and in 1951 starred on her own radio show that was broadcast over the CBS network and the Armed Forces Radio Service. This new two-CD release on Real Gone Music contains 44 tracks from Lee’s radio show that she never recorded later and have, for the most part, not been heard since they originally aired.
Lee puts her individual stamp on popular material from the shows, movies, and records from the era. Even back in 1951-52, Lee was well-known for her distinctive personality. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, think of her as the person who later wrote and sang the “Siamese Cat Song” (“We are Siamese if you please / We are Siamese if you don’t please”) from Lady and the Tramp, the jaded narrator of the Leiber/Stoller’s world-weary “Is That All There Is” and the direct inspiration for Miss Piggy from the Muppet Show. So when Lee covers songs that were hits for singers such as Doris Dee, Jo Safford, and Rosemary Clooney, she sounds like herself instead of a clone of the original.
So when Lee croons her rendition of Johnny Mercer/Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark”, which had already been recorded by fine singers like Anita O’Day, Helen Forrest, and Maxine Sullivan, Lee concentrates on the phrasing. This allows her to slow down and speed up a verse to create a feeling of increasing desire. She turns Johnnie Ray’s “Little White Cloud That Cried” into a somewhat happy tune by keeping the pace unhurried and dawdling so that the weeping comes off as a gentle and relaxed release.
That said, there is a sense of anxiety looming behind the gentle themes of the material. Lee’s radio show emerged during the height of Cold War fears and a hot war in Korea. It’s as if behind the songs there is a message that says, “Calm down, for your own sake, stay calm.” No wonder a whole new generation revolted against the popular music represented here just a few years later and made rock ‘n’ roll the new standard. For those like Lee, who was born in 1920, lived through the Great Depression and World War II and was eventually confronted by the thought of nuclear annihilation by the Soviet Union, music was appreciated for its sedative and seductive qualities. Lee herself soon rejected the music on this album as seen by her later hits during the ‘50s, like the ultra-caffeinated “Black Coffee” and her steamy version of Little Willie John’s “Fever”.
The 44 tracks on this collection came from the Library of Congress and Lee’s personal stash. The sound quality is remarkably good and the orchestral arrangements crisp and uncluttered. Lee’s voice is clearly the featured instrument. Fans of post-war American music will find this conforms to the highest standards. That’s also the anthology’s greatest problem: it conforms rather than rebels, which goes against what Lee did for most of her career. No one can blame her for wanting commercial success during a time when iconoclasts were suspect, but this helps explain why Lee later never tried to resurrect the music that appears here for the first time.
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