By Roger Crane, the Song Scout
“I knew I couldn’t sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me . . . they began to look at me. They began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘softly, with feeling.” The noise dropped to a hum, the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience – -softly, with feeling.” These are the words of singer-composer Peggy Lee discussing a 1941 performance at a Palm Springs club, the Doll House. As writer F. Scott Fitzgerald described his famous character, Daisy Buchanan, Lee brings others close to her with the softness of her voice. Many singers confuse melisma and shouting with emotion. Peggy Lee knows that whispers work better.
Lee made a surprising 59 albums comprising 631 different songs. Those numbers of course don’t even include air-checks, transcriptions, et al. I favor her 1950 and 60 period and, for this latest Aural Back Rub article, have selected four songs from those decades. Listening to Lee’s recordings, three sparkling ingredients shine through. One is the singer of course, she with the soft sultry, sexy voice, innate swing and magnificent phrasing. Another is the varied and well-chosen song selections and the third is the stellar arrangements. Lee’s subtle voice has a creamy warmth and, like the great Lester Young, she deliberately floats over the beat. She can dig into the emotional marrow of a slow ballad and she is convincing with the blues, with Latin numbers and even pop fluff. Unlike some singers who simply throw a few random standards into a bag mixed with newer songs and originals, Lee has a knack for assembling a show or a recording from many worthy sources often selecting songs that deserve more exposure.
To whet your appetite, I thoroughly recommend the following. Light a candle, pour a favorite libation and enjoy.
1) “THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL” – Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein
This song could have been written for Peggy alone. It can easily sound corny in an average singer’s hands. To be convincing it takes a vocalist with a talent for language, prosody and pacing. Lee is an Oscar-nominated actress and a born storyteller and she caresses Hammerstein’s homespun lyrics. This is from her 1957 The Man I Love CD which has Nelson Riddle charts. Pianist George Shearing once said that this was his favorite Peggy Lee track, adding “I could listen to it at least six times in a row without getting tired of it.” Vocalist-pianist Shirley Horn also identified it as her favorite Lee recording.
2) “THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES” – Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer
This exquisite cut is from Lee’s 1963 Mink Jazz CD and was arranged by jazz icon, gentleman Benny Carter. She is complemented by the dark, woody alto flute of Justin Gordon and the graceful brushes of Stan Levey.
3) “NOBODY’S HEART (BELONGS TO ME) “– Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart
This lovely ballad is from Lee’s 1958 Beauty and the Beat recording with the George Shearing. Quintet but features just piano, bass and drums on this cut. Although promoted as live, it was actually recorded in a studio with overdubbed applause and background ambience added. But that fact takes nothing away from the quality. Shearing’s charts are spare, graceful pieces of architecture and Lee’s voice is at her most vulnerable.
4) “BLACK COFFEE” – Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster
Writer James Gavin correctly labels this classic song “a portrait of addiction – to a man, to illusion, to the past.” It is the title song of what is arguably Lee’s best recording. “Black Coffee,” which belongs on any list of the great jazz-pop recordings. The original eight tracks were taped in 1953 with additional songs added three years later. The noirish “Black Coffee” is a perfect song for Lee, both Webster’s text and the blues feeling of Burke’s melody. Just as Billie Holiday partnered with saxophonist Lester Young, similarly, Lee had the muted trumpet of Pete Candoli. Gavin, a painter with words, observed that “Candoli’s wailing horn helps conjure up a seedy apartment in half light.” The subdued, almost imperceptible, but perfect piano is by Jimmy Rowles.
Jazz is one of the last outposts of the vanishing elegance of this world and Miss Peggy Lee added much elegance to this music. Her gift for bringing songs vividly to life with no apparent effort was magical. The great Duke Ellington once said, “If I’m Duke man, Peggy Lee is Queen.” Mike Melvoin, her conductor-pianist in the 1960s, gave her this praise “There was no way you could escape her spell. There was no way you couldn’t believe every word she said.”
In addition to the above four cited albums, I heartily recommend the 1960 Pretty Eyes which has rhythmic charts by Billy May, the 1955 Sea Shells, a harp and harpsichord based recording and Miss Wonderful, an excellent 1958 big band project with Sy Oliver. The earlier 1957 Dream Street, also with arrangements by Oliver, is also worthy.