Peggy Lee: Basin Street and Beyond

Samuel Chell By

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Six classic albums from the vocalist Peggy Lee catch her at the height of her powers. One or two of these discs may be hard to find in 2009, but the effort of tracking them down, if successful, will be amply repaid.

Peggy Lee
Basin Street East

Blue Note

Like the LPs Ellington at Newport 1956 and Beauty and the Beat (in reference to singer Peggy Lee and pianist George Shearing), Basin Street East was a simulation of the live event and, moreover, a flagrant misrepresentation. Only two of the tunes on the LP and on this 1995 CD reissue were actually recorded at Basin Street East on February 9, 1961. Lee had a cold, and either at the insistence of the Capitol execs or the perfectionist Lee herself, the entire cast reconvened in a New York studio on March 8, 1961 to re-record the entire session. Hence, this pseudo or quasi "live" recording. But wait—there's good news!

It was assumed the original tape from February 9 had been lost, but through one man's dogged perseverance and plenty of serendipity the original master was discovered in the vaults, listed "No Applause Added" and dated February 16 (actually a fortunate mistake, which most likely saved the tape from destruction). So like "Ellington at Newport 1956" the newest remastered version represents a dramatic improvement in both audio quality and content, not to mention a restoration of the unmistakable electricity and communicative magic of of the "non-simulated" live event.

Curiously this 1995 edition remains in print and even occasionally outsells the recent, authentic release, perhaps because some listeners have a sentimental attachment to the original LP cover, with its overexposed, reddish cast. But the 2002 release of Peggy at Basin Street East, with the Diva appearing in black and white profile, is the only complete live recording of a Peggy Lee performance that has ever appeared (we can only hope that the original tape of the Lee-Shearing concert will somehow materialize). Of course, Lee did have a cold, and there's a tendency these days to favor "timeless" collections of MP3-files existing somewhere in cyberspace over "albums" that are complete and whole—not to mention of historic importance. In the case of this recording, it's good to know you've got a choice—which may not necessarily require hauling out the old turntable.

Peggy Lee
Love Held Lightly: Rare Songs by Harold Arlen

Harbinger Records

Even someone who's fairly well-versed in the Great American Songbook, may be put to shame by this playlist. Even though, with the exception of the relatively familiar "My Shining Hour," you may not recognize any of the titles of the remaining 13 songs, you might assume you''d recognize several melodies upon hearing them.

It'll take more listens to determine whether any of the 13 deserves a place in the same Arlen pantheon as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "The Man That Got Away," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Blues in the Night," or "Last Night When We Were Young." But certainly none is a bad song, and each carries some of the familiar Arlen trademarks—his affinity with the blues and the blues scale as well as with minor modalities and languorous moods—along with some swinging sounds evocative of his extended stay at Harlem's Cotton Club in the 1920s (George Masso's spirited trombone solo on "Love's a Necessary Thing" is one of the album's highlights).

This is not a recording to be recommended to anyone unfamiliar with Peggy Lee, the artist supreme throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In the 1970s it was her material, producers, and audiences that failed her as much as her voice. In the 1980s, it's probably fair to say that she doesn't fail the material, even on this, her next-to-last recording. The voice is simply sounding "tired," its once urgent, vibrant and personal breathiness replaced by a flaccid, wearying (and admittedly somewhat wearing), "disembodied" sound. For much of this material—meditative, elegiac, resigned and dispirited—the fit between the artist and her material is "right," even if not as impressive and memorable as when the Diva was at full strength.

Practitioners of Eastern philosophies never weary of proclaiming that everything comes back to the "breath." Simply comparing Lee's voice as it sounded in the 1980s with any of her recordings from the 1950s and 1960s should be sufficient to demonstrate the point. Is it possible to "whisper" melody? It's a feat requiring enormous breath reserves, focus, discipline and control. But on "Love Held Lightly" the breath isn't there: it's been replaced by a mere tone.

Peggy Lee
Peggy at Basin Street East

Collector's Choice

This 2002 release is literally the only complete live performance by Lee on record. Disregard Beauty and the Beat, the Lee-Shearing meeting that was reconstructed in a recording studio after the event (at least the most recent edition has removed the gratuitous if not hokey effects that were originally added to the LP to manufacture a "concert-like" atmosphere). At Basin Street East came closest to capturing Peggy in live concert. But Lee had a cold on February 9, and whether it was Capitol's idea or Lee's, the star agreed to recreate the performance of February 9, re-recording all but two of the songs on March 8 in a New York City studio for what was clearly a simulation and misrepresentation of the advertised occasion. Curiously, earlier editions remain in print and still sell relatively well (perhaps because listeners are nostalgic about the original LP cover with its overexposed redness).

But not to have a single complete, live, concert recording by one of America's leading, most beloved and personally communicative performers would have been tantamount to tragedy, not to mention a "cheating" of future generations for whom "timeless" MP3 files existing in cyberspace would replace complete and whole performances of historic moment and significance. In the 1960s Peggy Lee was among the hottest acts in town, a pop singer who could turn a night club into an art salon while appealing to the ultra sophisticates from all genres of music, classical as well as pop and jazz. Consequently, it's all the more disappointing there are so few opportunities to catch a show exactly as it went down. If this recording isn't Lee at her best, it's even better. (Just make sure you get the copy with the gray-scale photo of Lee in profile.)

As for the performance, anyone familiar with Lee's singing will have no trouble recognizing that she indeed has a cold. And there are fluffs—from Lee's missing her entrance on the opener ("Day In-Day Out") to fizzling out on the high note concluding the next song ("Call Me Darling"). Mic placement is occasionally a problem, and the audio balance—between Lee and the audience, Lee and the band—is inconsistent. No matter. It simply makes even more apparent Lee's command of her material and hold on her audience. Her "presence" is electrifying if not palpable. The venerable Nat Hentoff uses the liner notes in part to answer those who characterize Peggy Lee as a minimalist or as an emotionally "contained" singer. Rather than indulge in grandiose emoting for the sake of "impressing" an audience, Lee invites her listener to "share" her experience, which is anything but contained. She's seen, heard, and lived it all, and the attentive listener will find in her quiet intensity the kind of storytelling that touches the deepest, most complex emotions and triggers the most personal memories, both cherished and forgotten. Whatever she "contains" is more than compensated for by the powerful and ineffable feelings she evokes in her listener.

Finally, it should not go unobserved that on this snowbound and frozen night on which everything else in NYC came to a complete standstill, Peggy Lee swung up a storm.

Peggy Lee/George Shearing
Beauty and the Beat!

Blue Note

Note that the front-cover caption of this 2003 reissue promises a restoration of the "studio session" recording. Unlike the Ellington at Newport 1956 LP that was essentially a studio reconstruction of the live event until receiving a superb digital remastering, it appears that no authentic recording of the Lee-Shearing concert exists. A pity, because Lee was such an insistent perfectionist that it would be especially gratifying to hear her performing "without a net." The remastered studio recordings sound better than ever and some of the "phoniness" of the earlier release has been reduced or eliminated, but it's still distracting to have three instrumentals arbitrarily inserted at various points during the "concert" (at the live event, Shearing would have opened with a set before bringing on the featured singing attraction). Moreover, the Shearing pieces are reflective of the perfunctory "mood music" with which he was associated through much of the 1950s. They're time-extenders rather than top-shelf Shearing.

All the same, Lee has become neglected to such an alarming degree that these recordings of first-rate material (the inclusion of Lorenz Hart's "Nobody's Heart" is a happy inspiration) can be warmly recommended. Even if you have an earlier edition, it's nice to hear her sounding as though she weren't singing in an airport hanger, especially during a time (1950-1970) when her voice retained all of its compelling breathy vibrancy.

In the meantime, we can only hope that Capitol discovers in its vaults the original concert tape. And there's at least one complete on-location recording: At Basin Street East (but make sure you pick up the 2002 edition—with a cover of Lee's face in B&W profile—rather than the earlier reconstructed edition, which still rings up better sales (possibly because it's cheaper and bears the same cover as the LP).

Peggy Lee
Beauty and the Beat!


It may not exactly be ominous, but it's far from encouraging to see that this "two-fer" of blue ribbon Peggy Lee LPs is not only an import but ranks no higher than #26 in sales among the Peggy Lee recordings currently on Amazon. Granted, there are a few worthy items ahead of it, but for the most part, your choices among the 25 posted in front of this double-album come down to just two: a "Best of" collection of Peggy's "hit" singles, which are primarily pop ephemera made for Capitol; and, Black Coffee, her undeniably satisfying if not indispensable jazz session with a quartet led by pianist Jimmy Rowles and trumpeter Pete Candoli. But to the extent people are still buying Peggy Lee, it comes down to "Manana," "Fever," "Big Spender," "Is That All There Is?," "Alley Cat Song," "I'm a Woman," etc.—palatable tunes, certainly, but so narrow and limiting that, far from a good representation, they frankly do a disservice to Peggy Lee, the artist. (Duke Ellington suffers a similar fate, his compositional genius and even band ignored in favor of his pop tunes and a "quickie" date with saxophonist John Coltrane.)

Appreciating Peggy Lee's place among the giants (Peter Richmond, in his recent biography, calls her the greatest female jazz/pop singer of the 20th century) requires attending to her interpretations of the classic and timeless repertory that she laid down on LPs for both Decca and Capitol. These two Capitol albums—the first with orchestrations tended to by Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra; the second, with Quincy Jones responsible for the settings—represent a good start on a project of collecting that, providing the recording companies cooperate, will require a few years to complete. But the reward is considerable. There are few, if any other, singers one can listen to for four or more hours without the least bit of "listener fatigue."

None of the giants among American singers is as "economical" as Lee. Pick out a standard that's been done by several or more vocalists and just compare. Lee's is bound to be the briefest, yet there's never a sense of incompleteness, of anything missed or left undone. She gets the story told without an extra chorus of Gordon Jenkins' strings or needless reprises of the same lyric. And she's not afraid of fast tempos (her mental drummer is closer to Art Blakey than to Sinatra's "in the pocket" Basie-style time-keeper). And apparently she had no use for the "3-minute rule" of most commercial recordings: if the final result is less than 2 minutes, so be it. No fat or meat-extenders, just the protein.

In collecting Lee, it's good to remember that the intimate, "breathy" Lee sound required focus, strength and control. The sound is practically unfailingly perfect from 1950-1970, after which Lee doesn't have the breath support and physical reserves to sustain it consistently (though some of her recordings from the 1980s still pay dividends despite the undeniably tired sound of the voice and the critical sniping). And despite the presence of Quincy Jones on the second half of this double feature, this package does not include what for some of us is Lee's single most beautiful recording, a song written by Lee with Johnny Mandel: "The Shining Sea."

Peggy Lee
Mink Jazz

Blue Note

Not a compilation of her greatest "hits," this album from a musician's point of view ranks with Lee's two mid-1950s Deccas, Black Coffee and Dream Street as one of her three most indispensable sessions (though no Peggy Lee collection is complete without the elusive but sublime "The Shining Sea," a tune Lee penned with help from Johnny Mandel).

The truth of the matter is that practically anything by Peggy Lee from the early 1950s to the late 1970s is "can't miss." The exceptions are those recordings on which, like Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and others, she tried to reach a larger audience by going to inferior material (hits of the day) or ephemeral-sounding instrumentation (electric bass, electric keyboards, Motown back-up singers, etc.). Otherwise, it's not that difficult to agree with (though some of us may choose not to) Peter Richmond who, in his recent biography of Norma Delores Engstrom, tries to make the case that she is the single greatest female interpreter of American popular song. And it really wasn't until the 1950s that she cultivated that breathy, kittenish, exquisitely intimate sound that some find all but irresistible. (After 1980 her voice would lose its light and airy quality, sounding limpid and weak but demonstrating all the more the artistry required to "shape" the earlier sound we had become spoiled by.)

Special highlights on Mink Jazz are the tracks incorporating Jack Sheldon's inimitable trumpet, which is the instrumental equivalent of Lee's voice. "Where Can I Go Without You" comes not only as a musical revelation—an underrated, overlooked treasure—but as a perfect vehicle for Sheldon's trumpet artistry and the complementary pairing of both musicians. The reason for the "Jazz" in the title is that the arrangements (half by the legendary Benny Carter) eschew strings and big orchestrations in favor of "jazz-instrumentation" ensembles of no more than 6-8 musicians. As usual, Lee "cuts to the chase" of each song, with most of the improvisation delegated to Jack (the only musician common to the two supporting ensembles).

Some sources are dismissive of Mink Jazz and similar Lee sessions for not being more adventurous, extemporaneous, and "creative." It's true that Lee was an absolute perfectionist, but the result of that insistence on tightness and rightness was some of the freshest, most scintillating performances of American song ever committed to record.

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