The first time I really listened to Peggy Lee was accidental. I’d bought a Benny Goodman collection on Harmony, got it back to the dorm late, put it on and soon fell asleep. The last thing I recalled hearing was “Why Don’t You Do Right,” and I dozed off happily surprised because I didn’t expect to hear and Billie Holiday on the album. I thought about it in class the next morning, and that evening some friends came by to hear this performance I raved about. A joint was passed around, though no one inhaled. Definitely an ace record – primo Lady. Only after they left and I looked at the jacket did I discover the singer was Peggy Lee: the platinum blonde with the mole on her right cheek to whom I had never tumbled and was now ready to dismiss as yet another Billie imitator, another minstrel.
Live and learn.
I suppose it was the two-note bubble on the word “ri-ight” that girded my ignorant assumption, that and the thin voice and the legato time and the knowledge that Billie had sung early on with Goodman. Because Lee, though likely influenced by Holiday’s sense of economy, swing and ability to make the most of a small range, never sounded that much like her. They did share something profound, however, a candid vulnerability that draws you into the drama of what they sing and how they sing it. They slur notes, but their slurs have different pedigrees, even if they had tough childhoods in common. Read either of their lives and you may wonder if the slurs aren’t a kind of musical recoiling, wounded sighs. The former Norma Deloris Egstrom of North Dakota, who started singing on radio at 14 in part to escape the ministrations of a wicked stepmother, sings in the clipped cadences of the cold country, the vowels rarely indulged, the timbre cool and coy, icily sexy, giving way to an intimate vibrato as she attains high notes she only pretends to find daunting. A noted perfectionist, Lee gets it right or she doesn’t go for it at all. Yet you feel she’s at constant risk.
Holiday had her Lester Young, and Lee had her husband Dave Barbour, whose lilting guitar shadowed her with affection and clarity in the ‘40s, when just about everything she did hit the charts, especially the songs they co-composed – “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “It’s a Good Day,” “What More Can a Woman Do,” “Mañana,” even the straight blues, “Everything’s Movin’ Too Fast.” Later she’d collaborate with Sonny Burke on the score for Lady and the Tramp and write lyrics for Duke Ellington when he worked on Anatomy of a Murder. Along the way, she acted in a handful of movies, bagging an Oscar nomination for Pete Kelly’s Blues. Every performer in Hollywood ought to thank her for waging the battle against the rodents at Disney who reaped millions in Lady and the Tramp video sales yet continue to drag her through the courts rather than acknowledge the subsidiary rights clause in her prescient contract. When she finally wins in higher courts – Disney keeps appealing – a barrier to equitable profit sharing will be blown off its hinges.
Lee is a credit to her race in other ways, and it is unseemly to blame her for capitalizing on opportunities once permitted those of Scandinavian stock yet denied those of African lineage, though one suspects that is the only reason she is perennially ignored by the jazz press (even Grove Jazz lists Barbour, not Lee). Not the least considerable of her achievements is her enduring charm on songs from the blues underground – from Lil Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right,” at the very beginning of her career, to Little Willie John’s “Fever,” at its very pinnacle. Covers they may be, steals they aren’t. She found her own way in those songs, as in all the others, marrying wit and theatrics. She never embarrassed herself with them, and she doesn’t embarrass her audience today, at 72, singing “Fever” from a chair at Club 53 at the New York Hilton, where she is ensconced through the end of this month.
One of the benefits of having a career that is now of 58 years duration is that she can pick and choose, drawing on hits that still work and combining them with songs that ought to be hits. During the past 20-plus years, after the surprise bonanza of 1969’s “Is That All There Is?” and before illnesses derailed her, Lee seemed as desperate as just about every other singer to cross over to the next, pickling herself in the trappings of glamour and ill-fitting Beatles ballads. The Club 53 engagement, however, achieves contemplative elegance in its simplicity. Though currently reliant on a wheelchair, she manages to walk to the throne in front of Mike Renzi’s superbly empathic quintet. And though her voice is diminished in strength and occasionally teeters on the more extended phrasings, she has accustomed herself to those limitations, betting on her intelligence, her gift for economy, to make every sigh and slur resonate with meaning. She rivets your attention.
It is startling to see her. The platinum Cleopatra wig is in place, but the dark glasses of recent gigs are gone, and her face is much broadened and less tractable, perhaps the result of her several strokes. Yet the tender timbre of the voice is intact, the hushed phrasing, the minimalist (and North Dakotan) trust in thrift – the right note, the commanding posture, the easy wit. We are all in this together. Watch me as I guide you through this song. It isn’t much and so easy we’ll laugh about it afterward. But in fact she is often most moving when you least expect, as on the bridge to “’S Wonderful,” when her laid-back phrasing takes on increased strength and seems to quell the bossa beat that gets the song started. She and her audience could scarcely hope for a better band than the one Renzi has organized. With Steve LaSpina on bass and drummer Peter Grant, the rhythm section paces her with plush moderation, Renzi fitting the chords and periodically dressing them with a string synthesizer. Jay Berliner fleetly recalls Barbour on guitar, and Gerry Niewood (who made a splash in the ‘70s with and without Chuck Mangione) adds reeds and flute, often blending so closely with Renzi as to suggest a larger ensemble.
Sometimes she settles for a near-parlando style, as on Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’s neglected “Remind Me,” backed only by Renzi, or even on “Fever,” accompanied only by bass and drums, conducting every note with a gesturing finger, yet for all the complicit humor in the conceit making the temperature rise all the same. Everywhere she is more expansive: She has a lock on Cole Porter’s “Do I Love You?” (flute and guitar voiced as one) and “Always True to You in My Fashion,” taken with her trademark Latin bounce and spelled by a soprano sax solo. Yet perhaps the finest moments of her opening night set were those blue-colored ballads in which she seemed to suspend every phrase from the pull of LaSpina’s bass, notably Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay” (Niewood’s best solo of the night, on tenor); a thrillingly shrewd and welcome revival of Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Just for a Thrill,” phrased almost entirely in frugal sighs and expressive rests that subtly suggested Ray Charles, whose influence was also suggested in her treatment of Sy Oliver’s “Yes Indeed” and even in a new setting for “Why Don’t You Do Right,” now outfitted with a “Hit the Road, Jack” vamp.
If there was a failing to the set it was her willingness to curtail or undermine some of the obligatory hits: “I Don’t Know Enough About You” is too good to fob off in a chorus, no matter how many times she’s done it, and since the miracle of the Leiber and Stoller tearjerker “Is That All There Is?” is that she can make it work, it hardly seems appropriate to enfeeble it with jokes. On the other hand, “Mañana” deserves retirement; Mexicans didn’t dig her “my seester” accent 44 years ago when it topped the charts amid a cluster of south-of-the-border anthems – they had a point. Her closer, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” is, of course, foolproof. Not a dry eye in the house.
Club 53 is a promising room, large and moderately comfortable, with good sight lines and acoustics. But it will have to close its kitchen or start from scratch. The service was so inept people from every corner shouted at waiters not their own (you hardly ever saw the one assigned to your table) for rolls and water, much the best part of the meal; blindfolded, it would have been a challenge to distinguish between the chicken and vegetables, equally rubberized and oiled. Go for the singer and dine at home where you can hear some of her best work on a few recently issued CDs.
Lee’s entry in the Capitol Collector’s Series, The Early Years, is one of the best. Unlike others in the series, it focuses on a specific period, 1945-50, giving most of the high-points. The drawback with volumes by other singers (Kay Starr, for example) is that they are more attuned to Billboard sightings than excellence. A second volume, picking up with her return to the label in 1958, after a fruitful sojourn at Decca (ignored thus far by the powers at MCA), has yet to materialize.
But on Capitol’s 1959 Beauty and the Beat! she was teamed by producer David Cavanaugh (in those days A&R men actually gave thought to such matters as artists and repertoire) with a George Shearing Quintet. The three instrumentals don’t count for much, yet Shearing is wondrously intuitive in following Lee’s every move and making the most of all those miragelike rests. She is scintillating throughout in a characteristically savvy program that includes definitive versions of the two Cole Porter songs in her current show. One of the two previously unreleased bonus tracks, Kern’s “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” is shudderingly stark, a genuine treasure reclaimed from the vaults. Harder to find is a new British import, It’s a Good Day (Parrot), compiled from Bing Crosby’s radio shows by Geoff Milne, the former English Decca executive who recorded Crosby in his last years. Lee was a regular on the show in 1947 and 1948; this anthology collects 14 performances by her, 12 duets with Crosby (among them “Everything’s Movin’ Too Fast,” an exceedingly rare instance of Crosby singing the blues, “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis,” which she later refined for the Shearing album, and a rousing “I Got Rhythm” with violinist Joe Venuti), and a medley of 10 selections by Lee, Crosby and Fred Astaire – on “A Fine Romance,” they trade improbable bebop licks.