by Sinclair Traill
Britain these past few weeks became a kind of haven for American vocalists. Although most of them were of the glamorous variety, we did hang out the welcome sign to two men, namely Bing Crosby and a blues man from Chicago, Jimmy Cotton. Bing didn’t sing, not in public, that is, but Cotton joined the Chris Barber Band for a short tour. The pretty ones were seen on our TV screens. Eydie Gormé, Frances Faye and Jo Stafford all made our Sundays more spectacular, whilst Anita O’Day and Peggy Lee were to be seen in the flesh, as it were.
Now Miss Peggy Lee, ever since I listened some while back to her LP Black Coffee, has always struck me as being something very special in jazz singers. Maybe she hasn’t had as much publicity as some of the coloured girls, but I have always considered her up amongst the top ones for genuine aptitude. Like the greatest of all jazz singers – I refer of course to Billie Holiday – Peggy has the ability to improvise in such a distinctly musical manner that she becomes as much a part of jazz as any of the instrumentalists accompanying her. Playing the night spots as she does, her programme is of necessity a varied one, ranging from the ultra-sophisticated ballad to forthright swingers and husky-toned blues. But it doesn’t matter what she sings, for even her “pop” performances show her deep feeling for jazz, a feeling displayed in her every movement and in every cadence of that warm-toned voice.
Like all great singers, Peggy Lee is also something of an actress. Adept at really putting a song over to the best advantage, she changes her personality to suit her material. The roguish glance, the quizzical lift of the eyebrow, the gamin grin, the snapping finger on the offbeat, all are used to emphasize the point. She also has an unusual ability to pace her songs to the best advantage, whilst her timing is well night perfect. I hope some day she will make an album of blues. Her “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” for which she wrote the lyrics at Duke’s request, is a real swinging blues and the high spot of her programme as I heard it.
A word here for the really excellent accompanying band led by Jack Nathan, with particular reference to the trumpet playing of Stan Roderick. Miss Lee’s book is not an easy one, but when such a great authority as John Hammond praises the Nathan Orchestra as being one of the best accompanying bands he has ever heard, then you know they did a good job. Her own small group led by Victor Feldman also did splendidly, although I must admit I found Stan Levey’s drumming rather too forceful.
What a pity it was that Peggy Lee couldn’t have performed at the Beaulieu, or somewhere where the jazz public could really have had a chance to hear her. She would have had a terrific success.