Peggy Lee – Ultimate Peggy Lee
Released 17 April 2020
New 22 track compilation of the best of Peggy Lee, issued in celebration of her centenary and including the unreleased song Try A Little Tenderness, which has spent 57 years languishing in the archives……LTW’s Ian Canty gets a dose of Fever…..
A native of North Dakota, Peggy Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on 26th May 1920. A precocious vocal talent, she sang on local radio in the 1930s and at one stage even had her own sponsored show on the wireless. She began to develop a laid-back vocal style that quietly demanded attention, something which went well with the big band sound of the day.
At the age of 17 she decamped to Los Angeles in search of fame, but returned home after a while to have her tonsils out. At this point fate played a hand, as when singing after her recovery from this surgery she was spotted by jazz legend Benny Goodman. She joined his band for a couple of years and during this time recorded and subsequently had her first hit singles. With Goodman’s band she scored her first number in the US in 1941 with the song Somebody Else Is Taking My Place. After a brief hiatus at the time of her marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour, she returned to recording in 1947 with gusto. Writing her own songs as well as singing them, she composed the theme for the film Johnny Guitar and appeared regularly on Bing Crosby’s wildly popular radio show.
I suppose the most familiar song in the Peggy Lee canon would be the 1958 US and UK top tenner Fever. This was originally penned by bluesman Little Willie John and has been in the repertoire of many bands and singers over the years, with a memorable 1980 take by the Cramps on their Songs The Lord Taught Us LP. Peggy used a few of her own asides on her version, which added to the tune’s allure and most subsequent covers utilised her lyrical adjustments.
But as we have seen she had a long career prior to this landmark and whilst all this was going on also completed a number of acting roles, including being nominated for an Oscar for her part as Rose Hopkins in the 1955 film Pete Kelly’s Blues. She continued to perform at concerts into the 1990s despite ill-health confining her to a wheelchair and she recorded her final studio LP Moments Like This in 1993. She died on 21st January 2020, leaving behind a large body of work which this new compilation cherry-picks.
The big band jazz of I Love Being Here With you begins things in a silky-smooth way with swishing cymbals and that unhurried vocal delivery. Obviously time has moved on since recording, but the enduring cult for all things swing means that this doesn’t sound that dated. The finger-snapping cool of Fever follows, a low-key treatment fitting this blues song perfectly. The coy I Don’t Know About You is delightfully demure with the band mugging gamely in the background and the following I’m A Woman is an understated r&b masterclass.
The attractively exotic Sweet Happy Life brings a touch of sultry samba with it and a breezy Too Close For Comfort is lounge-lizard heaven. The musicianship is of course out of the top drawer, giving the perfect environment for Peggy’s measured tones. You Deserve certainly seeks to mine the same effortless cool of Fever, but the brief Heart shines, positively swirling to rumba beat. Nothing really outstays its welcome, being short, sweet and sassy on the whole. The Shirley Bassey totem Big Spender gets a good run out and He’s A Tramp from the Disney film The Lady And The Tramp (Lee played multiple roles in the movie as well) is dam near irresistible.
I Will Be Around has that “late night” blues vibe, a lovely sad piano ballad and Black Coffee, another really sorrow-laden song, is perfectly pitched. As a contrast I’ve Got The World On A String is full of good-natured joy and the orchestral backing to The Folks Who Live On The Hill makes for a pleasing change of pace. Bringing things to a close we have the semi-spoken word/ragtime of Is That All There Is? and the previously unreleased Try A Little Tenderness. This song, first penned in the 1930s and a hit much later for Otis Redding and Three Dog Night, is given a beautiful treatment by Lee here – it is a real puzzle why it never saw release at the time of recording.
By the time that rock & roll kicked down the doors in the 1950s, Peggy Lee may have been seen as representing the “old guard”. But by reinventing herself through the Fever single she managed to stay in touch and thus managed to score minor chart hits in the US during the 60s and 70s too. Ultimate Peggy Lee is full of catchy jazz ballads tending towards the middle of the road, but high quality in performance and execution nonetheless. Though there are plenty of collections of Peggy Lee’s recordings, this one works as the ideal introduction to her sophisticated way with a song, something that she marked with real passion and taste.
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here