PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Peggy Lee: The Best of Peggy Lee (Millennium Collection)

Stephen B. Armstrong

Peggy Lee

The Best of Peggy Lee (Millennium Collection)

Label: Millennium Collection
US Release Date: 2002-06-04
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.