Canaries: Peggy Lee and Anita O'Day Reissues

David Rickert By

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Peggy Lee
Black Coffee
2004 (1956)

"A Woman Alone With the Blues" features sparse piano, whispering drums, and a mournful trumpet lurking in the background. But it's the vocals that really push it over the edge. Peggy Lee doesn't sing this song; she crawls into it and huddles in the dark spaces as she does on virtually all of the songs on Black Coffee.

Lee got her start with Benny Goodman churning out hits like "Why Don't You Do Right." She used her superior vocal ability to strike out on her own like many of the big band singers of the time, who quickly emerged as the real attraction. But nobody was really prepared for Black Coffee , a statement that easily stands up next to the best work of Ella, Sarah, and Billie.

The title song is the typical blue flame ballad that one always associates with smoky jazz clubs and perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the album. The original ten-inch release had Lee backed by a quartet on a handful of torch songs and blues. Lee jumps into the river that goes all the way back to Ethel Waters, showing an ability to live through the lyrics normally associated with Billie Holiday. Through the tales of love lost, only "I've Got You Under My Skin" breaks through the clouds, but whoever this fellow may be she's singing about, he didn't last for long.

Four tracks pad out the original release to plump it up to a full length LP. A harp, guitar, and vibes provide a gossamer texture, used to good effect on the virtually tempoless "You're My Thrill" and the music box introduction to "There's A Small Hotel." Like any good album, the strength is in the details, and the group has fashioned clever twists to familiar songs that are strung together as an album that deserves to be heard as a complete statement.

"I'd rather be lonely than happy with somebody else," Lee sings. The melancholy ballads here may make one believe otherwise. Black Coffee proves that thoughtful song selection, intelligent accompaniment, and brilliant singing can combine to create a work of art. Although known more for her pop efforts, Lee has created one of the best examples of jazz singing ever recorded.

Anita O'Day and Billy May
Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart
2004 (1960)

Unlike Black Coffee , Anita O'Day's Rodgers and Hart album is mostly songs about falling in love, being in love, and longing for love. This is as it should be, for no one does sexy and sultry like O'Day. In her hands "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered" takes on a steaminess that is borderline risqué, and when she sings of her man being the devil in "Lover," we suspect that that was the kind of fellow she was after all along.

Of course O'Day excels at the up-tempo numbers like "Johnny One Note" that allow her the rhythmic playfulness she excels at, and while the gender reversal of "Have You Met Miss (Sir) Jones" doesn't quite work, she takes a scat solo that saves the day. This isn't to say that O'Day can't do melancholy, for she handles "It Never Entered My Mind" superbly. It's just that we'd rather see her up to mischief rather than home alone.

Billy May provides his typical outstanding backing, providing brassy punch and syrupy strings to fit any occasion. O'Day isn't at her most freewheeling here—this is a pretty subdued album for her. And despite a few standout tracks, this is merely a great album of songs and nothing more. But in other hands, Rodgers and Hart tunes can become overly sentimental. O'Day and May knew how to treat the material, respecting the humanity portrayed without becoming mawkish.

O'Day is a wonderfully jazzy singer who riffs like a saxophonist and croons like a violin and still is hard at work today. A worthy reissue to add to her outstanding work.

Peggy Lee-Black Coffee
Tracks: 1. Black Coffee 2. I've Got You Under My Skin 3. Easy Living 4. My Heart Belongs To Daddy 5. It Ain't Necessarily So 6. Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good To You? 7. A Woman Alone With the Blues 8. I Didn't Know What Time It Was 9. When The World Was Young 10. Love Me Or Leave Me 11. You're My Thrill 12. There's A Small Hotel.
Personnel: Peggy Lee - vocals; with (on 1-4 and 7-10) Pete Condoli - trumpet; Jimmy Rowles - piano; Max Wayne - bass; Ed Shaugnessy - drums; (on 5, 6, 11, and 12) Stella Castellucci - harp; Lou Levy - piano; Bill Pittman - guitar; Buddy Clark - bass; Larry Bunker - drums, vibraphone, percussion.

Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Rodgers and Hart
Tracks: 1. Johnny One Note 2. Little Girl Blues 3. Falling In Love With Love 4. Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered 5. I Could Write A Book 6. Have You Met Miss Jones? 7. Lover 8. It Never Entered My Mind 9. Ten Cents A Dance 10. I've Got Five Dollars 11. To Keep My Love Alive 12. Spring Is Here.
Personnel: Anita O'Day - vocals; with Billy May's Orchestra.


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