by John Lissner
The musically-motivated singer, jazz or otherwise, is all about passe in our contemporary musical climate. The meticulous musicianship of Jo Stafford, Helen O’Connell or Anita O’Day in their swing band or post-Big Band days is, unhappily, an anachronism. To capture the public’s attention today, a gal singer must come on with an affected style, a bag full of vocal tricks, or phony and irritating mannerisms.
Miss Peggy Lee, an ex-band singer, an entertainer for almost three decades, has successfully survived in show business without abandoning the musical ground rules she learned as a vocalist with Benny Goodman. Traveling and working with a big band, she learned much about instruments and instrumentation, about tempos, phrasing, and dynamics. In an interview with author-musicologist Henry Pleasants, Miss Lee once stated: “Band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians. We had to work close to the arrangement…I learned more from the men I worked with in the bands than I’ve learned anywhere else. They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and how to train. Even if the interpretation of a song wasn’t exactly what we wanted, we had to make the best of it.”
Today, though, she is a splendid visual entertainer on television and nightclubs. Miss Lee’s performances are without the contrived theatrics of a Streisand, Shirley Bassey or Nancy Wilson. Her ears are basic to her presentation, they are her musical radar, as finely tuned to her instrumental accompaniment as in the days when she sang with the Goodman band. Some of the best moments of that early Goodman-Lee collaboration are now available on a recent re-issue, Miss Peggy Lee (Harmony H 30024). The electronic re-editing of the original Columbia and Okeh 78s is first-rate, the album has bright, crisp sonics, showing the extreme care taken by Columbia’s engineers even when they worked with their Harmony budget label.
That sexy, cashmere-like quality Miss Lee has developed over the years is already apparent in embryonic form on such numbers as “All I Need Is You,” “My Old Flame,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Here and there are other singers’ influences – a bit of Holiday phrasing, some smoky strains a la Lee Wiley on “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” But it is the bright up-tempo numbers that are the big kick as Peggy sings and swings with a natural, easy gait on “We’ll Meet Again,” “Elmer’s Tune,” “Not a Care in the World,” and her big moment with Goodman, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
Ironically, as she has matured as a performer, Miss Lee’s voice seems to have grown smaller and thinner. Indeed, as the years go by, she has become downright miserly about her vocal resources, hoarding them increasingly relying on a breathy, dramatic alchemy with which to seduce her listeners. Perhaps that’s why on Miss Peggy Lee, it’s good to hear the Peggy Lee of yesteryear, the 17-year-old Norma Deloris Egstrom, right out of North Dakota, fresh and full-toned, headed for the big time with a big, swinging band. On this “nostalgic” collection she already shows her mettle – with a gift for phrasing, an expressive handling of lyrics, excellent intonation, and a musician’s ear and control – attributes all too rare in this era of rock and schlock.