Taken together, Let’s Love and Two Shows Nightly show both heaviness and lightness, and how they’re two sides of the same coin.
In 1920, Norma Eggstrom was born in Jamestown, North Dakota. By 1975, the year Let’s Love was released, she was 54-year-old Peggy Lee, a star who had been singing in public for over 40 years. In her career she had appeared on TV and radio, acted in films, worked with Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and other legends. She had #1 and top 10 hit records, some of which, like “Fever”, are still linked to her name. She collaborated as a songwriter with Duke Ellington, Cy Coleman, and others.
Let’s Love is a comeback launch which utilizes the old trick where an established star lends a helping hand to reintroduce the public to a potentially fading star. The title song, used to bookend the LP, was written and produced by Paul McCartney. It’s a trifle of a song. Its setup as nightclub jazz doesn’t cover up its hokiness, the hippie-ish-ness of its lyric “tonight is the flight of the butterfly / let’s love”. It’s in the final moments of the song when Lee really sings it to life, makes it a demand.
Every thing in between was co-produced by Lee and Dave Grusin. It walks a jazz/soul/gospel line, starting with the latter on “He Is the One that I call Home”, a love song with spiritual overtones. The drum break where the song picks up speed at about the 2:18 mark should be sampled by a hip-hop producer, if it hasn’t been already. The horns and gospel-choir backing singers work carefully with Lee, who sounds sophisticated and strong even as the age lines show in some places.
Let’s Love is best at its most headstrong, as on the funky struts “Sweet Talk” and “Easy Evil”, or languid, as on ballads like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”. “Always”, with hot horn and organ, and Lee sounding sultry, splits the difference. Worse are the couple places on the album where a song’s sappiness takes over, like “You Make Me Feel Brand New” or “Sweet Lov’liness”, a would-be gospel number that sounds like a tame Sunday-school singalong. Mostly, Lee is in fine form: beckoning, alluring, singing with confidence and elegance over equally confident arrangements.
Recorded seven years earlier in 1968, but never officially released, Two Shows Nightly is a live LP showcasing two nights at the Copa (the Copacabana) in New York City. Lee enters with flash, a big-band intro: “And now ladies and gentlemen, Miss Peggy Lee…” The horns fade, and there she is. “Do I hear a waltz?”, she asks. Her singing is more snazzy-jazzy, but still in moments it captures an interior feeling to match the song’s notion that she hears a waltz, even though no band is playing. This Sondheim/Rodgers showtune introduces her to the audience with pizzazz and a smile, the characteristics of the show in general.
“I came here to sing and I shall”, she declares. “Now look out.” Two Shows Nightly is Lee putting on a show, but a big part of that is still sophisticated sadness, careful arrangements of sad love songs. The second track is a spellbinding version of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”. She sings several popular songs of the time, mixed in with showtunes and her own songs. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time for You to Go” is splendid as she sings it. Yet she sings Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” a little fiercely and blustery, not as thoughtful as the original. Similarly, her version of John Sebastian’s “Didn’t Want to Have to Do It” seems slight next to the other songs. Overall, she seems most comfortable away from the era’s folk songs. The Broadway songs are often as slight, but she sings them up, like with the lively performance of “My Personal Property”, from Sweet Charity. She seems most at ease when the band is really swinging behind her.
The tone of the album is a splendid night on the town. “Something Stupid” is a great lark, with whistling in the background, something done on “Happy Feet” too. Balancing the heavy and light is what Lee does so well. Taken together, Let’s Love and Two Shows Nightly show both sides, and how they’re two sides of the same coin. They demonstrate the way a singer can convey hard-won happiness or the bittersweet escapism of a dream.
There is a dreamlike quality to much of Two Shows Nightly, especially for something so oriented towards glitz and glamour. “Make Believe” captures the desire to live in make-believe, and the way what we dream is itself the reality. “Might as well make believe I love you / ‘cause to tell the truth / I do”, she sings. The pause after “I do” is powerful, says it all.
One moment from Two Shows Nightly that really lingers is “Here’s to You”. After a series of foreign-language phrases she sings, “my friend / here’s to you”, waltzing on air. In her intro she summarizes the positive vibrations of the song, and perhaps the show itself (entertainment as well-wishing), in a serene, friendly voice. She says of the song, “It says something that I’m sure all of us, in the most idealistic part of our hearts, really hope for: to wish everyone in the whole world health, happiness, peace, friendship, and have them wish it back.”