Peggy Lee

Song Stylists: The Triumph of Malady over Melody

Theatre Arts, December, 1952

Song Stylists: The Triumph of Malady over Melody

by Sigmund Spaeth

One of the pet abominations of this reviewer is the so-called “song stylists,” a title which seems to be applied nowadays to almost anyone lacking either the courage or the ability to sing a popular number exactly as it was written. The “styling” of songs takes the form of deliberate distortions of the rhythm, the melody and sometimes even the words.

Such maltreatment is comparatively unimportant when applied to the average product of the Tin Pan Alley factory, as most of this material sounds exactly the same, no matter what you do with it. But when the work of such masters as George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers is subjected to the modern “styling,” at the whim of an interpreter or arranger, a protest seems in order. The protest increases in volume and intensity when the distortions of the song stylist are given the permanence of recordings.

It has long been a rule with popular singers to stay off the beat as much as possible, slowing up one phrase and hurrying another so as to keep up a running fight with the basic time marked by the instruments of percussion. Distortions of melodic line are also a fairly old story, with classic models in the “breaks” and “hot licks” of jazz.

But today the song stylist seems to go much further. There seems to be an unwritten agreement among popular singers that every interpretation of a popular song must be completely individual, preferably as far removed as possible from the obvious intentions of its creators.

In This Corner: Richard Rodgers

The last word in this direction seems to have been uttered by the charming and successful Peggy Lee in her Decca recording of Richard Rodgers’ “Lover,” reputedly the biggest seller of all her flying discs. Now what Mr. Rodgers composed was a lilting waltz melody, effectively syncopated, following the pattern of the chromatic scale downward. It is an immensely clever composition, worthy of such a master of the waltz as Franz Lehar or even Johann Strauss himself.

Peggy Lee sings the lovely and logical waltz in a top-speed duple time (it has been described as a “three-way mambo”), completely removing every trace of its original character. The fact that it is done with fiendish skill makes it all the more objectionable. Peggy’s “Lover” may be something unrestrainably Latin-American, but it is certainly not Richard Rodgers. The worst of it is that the composer cannot possibly object if such a fantastic interpretation sells a lot of records, which it unquestionably does.

Rodgers Down for Decision

Miss Lee does a few more things to Mr. Rodgers in a Capitol album called, with straight-faced innocence, Songs from South Pacific. Here she starts in conventionally enough with “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair,” although the middle part wanders into strange experiments of a semi-conversational type. But when the blonde Peggy tackles “Bali Ha’i,” Dick Rodgers definitely loses the decision. Not only does she manage to keep consistently off the beat, even when there is a strongly rhythmic drum accompaniment, but the lisping baby voice destroys every vestige of the song’s original significance, as chanted on the stage by the full-throated, exultantly savage Juanita Hall.