Beauty, Brains, and the Beat
In 1941, Benny Goodman discovered Peggy Lee in a Chicago club. Impressed as much by her silver-coated voice as her elegant stage demeanor, he hired the 21-year-old North Dakotan on the spot, and within a year, the partnership produced the hit “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”. In fact, before Lee left the band in 1943 and joined Johnny Mercer at Capitol, she and Goodman placed eight songs in the Top 25 together.
As a solo act, Lee continued to crack the charts regularly throughout the ‘40s with knockout pop singles like “Mañana”, “Golden Earrings”, and “Don’t Smoke in Bed”. During these years, as well, the blonde chanteuse and her songs started to appear in Hollywood films. She also began to write her own lyrics, a move that separated her from contemporaries like Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. And as her stardom—and her confidence—solidified, she grew increasingly interested in and creatively involved with the musical arrangements that supported her voice. But as David Torresen, the author of the liner notes for The Best of Peggy Lee, explains: “When Capitol bosses refused to let Lee record a frenzied Latin recasting of Rodgers and Hart’s waltz “Lover”, a proven hit for her in the nightclubs, she let her contract expire and moved to [Decca,] the longtime home of Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald.”
The 12 cuts on this collection—all recorded at Decca between 1952 and 1956—reveal clearly that the label switch didn’t hurt Lee a bit. Ranging from ballads and jazz numbers to dirges and showtunes, in fact, each number showcases the same soft vocal swagger that made her earlier work so emotive and entertaining. Most of the tracks, however, steer clear of the big band swing sound. “Black Coffee”, for instance, is a blues-soaked torch song about unrequited love. Accompanied by a muted trumpet and a drowsy bass, Lee’s voice curls like cigarette smoke in a still room as she laments, “I walk the floor / And watch the door / And drink black coffee / Love’s a hand-me-down broom”. Similarly, the bluesy influence of Lady Day seeps through “Sans Souci”, too. Swept in on a wave of jabbing strings and bossa nova beats, that is, Lee lowers the pitch of her voice to the floor and stretches out her vowels as she castigates hypocrites and cliques: “Sans Souci / They got no room here / For someone like me”.
During her years at Decca, Lee continued to contribute to movie scores, as well. With composer Victor Young, for example, she co-wrote the theme for Nicholas Ray’s western soap opera Johnny Guitar. Like many of the tracks on this collection, anger and melancholy permeate the piece. Using a minimalist arrangement, Young lays down the harmony line with strings and guitar as Lee introduces (and dominates the song with) the melody, making the words ache: “What if you go? / What if you stay? / I love you”. She also penned the lyrics for “The Siamese Cat Song”, which appeared in Disney’s 1955 feature Lady and the Tramp. And here, she inflects her voice with a pseudo-Asian dialect as syncopated winds, chimes and purring noises pounce along in the background. Harsh and shrill, the song espouses yet another jaundiced (albeit comic) point of view: “Do you seeing that thing swimming ‘round and ‘round? / Maybe we could reaching in and make it drown / If we sneaking up upon it carefully / There will be some fish for you, and some for me”.
Several ‘pure’ pop compositions turn up, too. On Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things”, for instance, after an onslaught of horns and strings, Lee’s voice glides in, sounding coy and cool. And on the ballad “Let Me Go Lover”, as male voices and an electric guitar jingle and jangle behind her, she generates the same bandstand grandeur that distinguished Doris Day. By and large, though, the most interesting songs on The Best of Peggy Lee are the ones in which musical styles blend together and the great singer sinks her voice into the blue note range. That is, when she sounds down, she sounds best.
Why? During the ‘50s, Lee experienced several personal upheavals—like rocky marriages, poor health, and mental exhaustion. And though she was honored with an Academy Award nomination in 1955 for her role in Pete Kelly’s Blues, her career as an actress failed to take-off. (“It was never my choice not to act again,” she told an interviewer in 1974.) It seems possible, perhaps, that Lee—like Holiday—had a tragic muse, and melancholy songs suited her temperament better than up ones. Of course, she is best known for the easy-listening standard “Fever”, which she recorded shortly after her return to Capitol in 1958. And it’s likely that many people probably associate her with Andy Williams and Patti Page and other white-bread singers who prospered during the Eisenhower years. As this collection reveals, however, Lee’s ability to render and generate forceful emotion with her voice set her high above the other members of that mildewed hit parade. That is, like Bessie Smith, Lotte Lenya, June Carter, and Nico, she was always one of the best.