Billie Holiday, never overly generous with her praise of other singers, told Metronome magazine in 1950, “I’ve loved Peggy, ever since she started.” Then Lady Day added, “And she’s been very fortunate. She’s always had the kind of setting every singer needs.”
But for Peggy Lee, who opens a JVC Jazz Festival New York concert featuring Mel Torme at Carnegie Hall on June 24, getting things right has always been more than a matter of good fortune. Lee was a pioneer among jazz-pop vocal artists in taking control of her own music. Consequently, for more than 50 years – since she left Benny Goodman’s orchestra in 1943 – Lee has been both a premier voice of American culture and one of our great performance auteurs. Upon joining Goodman’s orchestra in 1941, she won acclaim and renown for exalting the tradition of show-born ballads and swing songs.
Yet Tin Pan Alley was a starting point for Lee, rather than a final destination. Establishing her identity with the true blues “Why Don’t You Do Right (Get Me Some Money, Too!),” she moved on to Latin rhythms (with “Mañana” and her later Latin a la Lee series) long before examples from that genre were accepted in the musical mainstream.
She championed “uncommercial” composers like the late Alec Wilder, and ventured as far from convention as reciting Asian love poems in their original languages. An early believer in tradition- and culture-spanning, Lee has tested the boundaries of pop and expanded the vocabulary of jazz when and wherever she’s performed.
Lee developed her material and accompaniments to frame her intimate whisper that’s all smoke and pixie dust. She’s a rarity, a jazz singer capable of communicating vulnerability even when she’s ripping through an uproariously fast-tempo (for instance, on “Come Back to Me”).
Typically, Lee commands something more than detached listening from her audiences; she draws them into an emotional involvement. Her personality is both sublimely surreal and super real in its honesty.
She swings like nobody’s business, and no one’s better than she with torch songs. Yet Lee is at her best in a genre she virtually invented: the song of seduction. In such numbers as “Fever,” with its undulating underpinning of bass and finger snaps, and Lieber and Stoller’s “I’m a Woman,” Lee sold flat-out eroticism long before the ‘60s sexual revolution.
At age 73, Miss Peggy Lee is still singing to make us sizzle. What a lovely way to burn!