In the world of popular singing, there is a very thin, vague borderline between what is considered by the pundits to be jazz singing (Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday) and what is dismissed as mere popular singing (Dinah Shore, Perry Como, Jo Stafford). Jazz critics, even those on the Moldy Fig side who cling so tenaciously to the old, the pure and the earthy when voting for instrumentalists, contradict themselves and one another widely when it comes to singers, sometimes even vote for a Crosby or a Sinatra where you fully expected them to root for Josh White or Leadbelly.
In the charmed circle of singers who have earned praise and respect from both sides of the fence is Peggy Lee. Everybody likes her singing because it is both jazz singing and popular singing. Everybody is happy to be able to praise her, too, because she is one of the nicest and most genuine people in show business. All of which made her the perfect choice for a vocalist to submit to the blindfold test.
In fairness it should be pointed out that the first two records were a deliberate attempt to trick Peggy. They are two masters of the same tune played by the same band, but with two different singers. Here’s what Peggy told your blindfolding reporter.
[1. Artie Shaw, “Any Old Time” (Victor). Shaw, clarinet; Tony Pastor, tenor; Helen Forrest, vocal.]
I think you’re trying to confuse me a little bit here. At first I thought it was a new release, but then I could tell it sounded dated. It’s an Artie Shaw record. Clarinet sounds slightly stiff. Vocal by Helen Forrest – I liked her better in those days. Nice, simple tenor solo. It’s a wonderful song and a good record – a pleasant, refreshing change from some of the stuff you hear now. Three stars.
[2. Artie Shaw, “Any Old Time” (Bluebird). Shaw, clarinet; Tony Pastor, tenor; Billie Holiday, vocal.]
Billie! … It’s not too easy for a singer to sing with a band like that – but she sings! Too many things going on in the background. Benny Goodman on clarinet – he’s playing better nowadays, doesn’t sound as flexible here. Both these records have the same sort of sound – arrangement and voicing similar. Play that again! … Did I say this was Benny? You know, it doesn’t even sound like Benny! … Now I’m all mixed up … Play it again … Now they both sound like Artie Shaw! … Both the vocals are good in their own field, but I don’t like the band as well on this one. For different reasons, and not judging it by modern standards, I give it three stars.
[3. Tommy Dorsey, “The Sky Fell Down” (Victor). Frank Sinatra, vocal.]
Dorsey? And Frank? Now there’s a guy that’s really improved – one of my favorites, by the way. Play the beginning again … I like the first part much better than the last; solo better than the arrangement. Vocal just fair. Two stars.
[4. Lee Wiley, “Easy to Love” (Liberty). Paul Weston’s Orchestra.]
Lee Wiley – I like her. She’s one of those singers that a lot of people don’t like at first, then when they get to know her they really like her. This isn’t a new record – vocal backgrounds have improved a lot since then. You get the feeling that this was a new arrangement, played adequately but without enthusiasm. Nowadays musicians really strive for good phrasing, try to make it jump when it’s needed, and take a real interest in what’s going on. Three stars.
[5. Slim Gaillard, “School Kids’ Hop” (Majestic). Marshall Royal, clarinet; Lucky Thompson, tenor; Howard McGhee, trumpet.]
That’s Slim’s bunch, with a few men added… shades of Pee-Wee! … You know, at first I got a kick out of Slim. Solos here are not my style. I’m influenced by being so tired of this sort of thing – we’ve had so much more of it out on the Coast than you did in the East. I like the tenor man better than the others, but I’m influenced by the all-over sound. One star.
[6. Bessie Smith, “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” (Columbia). Clarence Williams, piano; Ed Allen, trumpet; Cyrus St. Clair, tuba.]
That’s Bessie, isn’t it? … I’d like to hear her sing just that way with a modern group accompanying. Art Hodes probably won’t like me for this, but I don’t like the background here. It’s hard to judge whether this rates by today’s standards, but she still sounds wonderful to me, she gets a big, strong sound; and I like the number. Three stars – but all for Bessie.
[7. Gatemouth Moore, “It Ain’t None of Me” (National). Dallas Bartley’s Orchestra.]
I have no idea who this is… at the start I was interested, but it gets tiresome after a while. Background sometimes good, sometimes dragging and anemic. I could have done with more instrumental and less vocal. Two stars.
[8. Xavier Cugat, “The Thrill of a New Romance” (Victor). Dinah Shore, vocal.]
This girl sounds a little like Dinah Shore and Maxine Sullivan, but I know it isn’t either. I’m not well versed in Latin music. Not bad for what it is, but I could have stood more vocal – it should have been her vocal. Two stars.
[9. Sarah Vaughan, “It Might As Well Be Spring” (Crown). John Kirby’s Orchestra.]
Sarah Vaughan! You know, she has an unusual combination of a very young girl and a mature woman in her style … Those things she does with the melody are very interesting. Very good record. Background? I hardly noticed it, I was so interested in the singing.
[10. Benny Goodman, “Blue Moon” (Columbia). Jack Lacey, trombone; Helen Ward, vocal.]
Nothing much to this … Vocal not so hot; trombone the only good thing. Recording wasn’t fair to singers in those days; it was distorted, sounded as though they were singing into a tin can. One star.
[11. Julia Lee, “Lies” (Capitol). Hank Bridges, tenor.]
I like her, but she sounds as though she’s singing into a very small mike or something. Sounds like Pearl Bailey. Like this record very much; the performance more than the tune, but the tune’s okay. Liked that tenor, too. Three stars.
[12. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, “You Won’t Be Satisfied” (Decca).]
Two of my favorite singers on one record – Louis and Ella. Wonderful! What more can I say? Four stars.
[13. Bob Chester, “When I Leave the World Behind” (Bluebird). Dolores O’Neil, vocal.]
Is that Glenn Miller’s band? … I like the girl; don’t know who it is … Whosever band this is was imitating Miller. Now let’s see, who imitated Miller? Or should I say who didn’t? Vocal is the only part I cared for. Two stars.
[14. Eddie Vinson, “Juicehead Baby” (Mercury). Vinson, alto and vocal.]
Why does this alto man remind me of Barnet? I kinda like it… these lyrics, the theme – you have to be in the mood for it. Two stars.
[15. Woody Herman, “Love Me” (Columbia). Frances Wayne, vocal.]
Frances Wayne. This is good, but she set a very high standard for herself with “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” and she hasn’t topped it yet. I like that little brass effect on the end. Two stars.
[16. Benny Goodman, “Gotta Be This or That” (Columbia). Goodman, vocal.]
Benny! … I have an affectionate feeling for him when I hear him sing, so, good, bad, or indifferent, I like to hear him. No, I don’t want to rave this one. It would be like trying to rate Billie Holiday as a clarinet player!
Afterthoughts by Peggy
You know, I’d never make a good critic. I just like to relax and enjoy music, but when it comes to criticizing, I’m afraid to hurt people’s feelings. Please take out that record by [name deleted]. He’s a nice guy.
[It’s out! – Leonard Feather.]