Friday, May 15, 2020

Peggy Lee: The Incomparable

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The work with Goodman was grueling. The Paramount theater in New York is notorious in the memory of everyone who played it. They hated it, and those who survive still do. They played seven or eight shows a day, between movies, starting at 10 a.m. And at one point, Peg remembered, the band was adding to that schedule a set at the Terrace Room of the New Yorker Hotel. There was never time for a meal: the musicians survived on sandwiches brought to them by Popsy Randolph, the band boy, later a well-known photographer. Yet the experience was invaluable. She was absorbing lessons no school can teach, things that go deep into the subconscious, into the viscera, even into muscle memory.

"Johnny said something someplace," Peg said to me in one of our con­versations. There was no need to specify who Johnny was. To both of us, there was one Johnny: Mercer. "It had to do with sudden fame being so dangerous. So many people have sudden fame and they can't handle that. If you have to pay your dues, you have to do it.

"I used to call Benny Goodman's band boot camp. A finishing school.
"Time has to pass. You need a lot of experience. You learn as you go. You crawl before you walk before you run. You know how to handle a situ­ation on the stage when some crisis comes up. If it's early in your career someplace, it doesn't matter because very few people are going to see it or hear about it, and it won’t be in the trades the next day: So-and-so bombed.

That’s the heavy advantage of learning how to handle your stage presence by the experience you’ve had. If you do even a high-school play and the butler doesn’t come in when he’s supposed to, you learn to improvise. Or if you’re gown gets caught on the heel of your shoe, you learn to lean on the piano while somebody crawls under there and unfastens it. ” [pp. 136-37]

“Pianist Lou Levy, her accompanist and conductor over a longer period of time than any other, said, "Norman Granz, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, and I went to hear her at Basin Street East in New York. We were all leaving for Europe with Jazz at the Philharmonic. I had just worked with her, and we all knew her. She did her tribute to Billie Holiday. By the time she was halfway through it, Norman, Ella, and Oscar were all in tears. It was that accurate. It was eerie. I guess I was the only one who didn't cry because I was dumbstruck by what was going on. She scared Count Basie to death with it."
‘I used to do it,’ Peg said. ‘But it brought so many people to tears that I stopped.’" [p. 141]

[I was] … watching videos of two of her television shows at her home in Belair. She wore a tight, stark black gown in one, an equally tight white one in the other, and she had a gorgeous, voluptuous figure. I noticed in these shows something I had first paid attention to when she would play the Copacabana in New York: the min­imal use of motion. Such, however, was the effectiveness of the focus she established that if she cocked an eyebrow, the whole audience would laugh at the minute expression.

So, watching her stand almost motionless, singing, on television, I said, "Peg, where the hell do you get the courage to do absolutely nothing?"
There was a long pause. Then she said, "There is power in stillness."
[p. 141]

There is little I could write on these pages that would do justice to the storied career of vocalist and song writer, Peggy Lee, or, as she was often introduced – “Miss Peggy Lee.”

Then, as I was searching through my Peggy Lee recordings while working on a video project, I came across the following insert notes by the late, eminent Jazz author, Gene Lees, which I thought provided a succinct look at what made Peggy such a great artist.

And thus, this brief profile of one of Jazz’s most unique, song stylists came into being.

Gene also devoted an entire chapter to Peggy entitled In from the Cold: Peggy Lee which you can find in his book, Singers and the Song II, New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1998.

The quotations and related pagination that I used to open this piece are excerpted from the chapter on Peggy from Gene’s book.

© -  Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“There have been few careers in American music to compare to Peggy Lee's. Miss Lee evolved into our greatest singing actress, producing in her performances of songs—many of which she wrote—indelible character sketches of women in all walks of life. Her work has never flagged, the quality of it has never faltered, and she is still at it.

She is the most deceptive of artists, because she does what all great artists do: makes it look easy. She never shouts. I think of her work as Stanislavskian, because instead of projecting a song "at" you, she illuminates it from within. The closest parallel to her way of performing that I have ever found is the acting of Montgomery Clift. It is as if her songs are not so much heard as overheard.

This album is a return to the blues for her. Blues is a term that has two levels of mean­ing. Strictly speaking, it is a form of song 12 bars long with a specific harmonic structure. But the word has been used in a broader sense to mean any sad song. This album em­braces both meanings.

Six of the 12 songs are in true blues form: See See Rider, You Don't Know, Fine and Mellow, Kansas City, Love Me, and Beale Street. And Taint Nobody's Bizness, which is in eight-bar form, is assuredly a bluesy tune, and one that has long been associated with blues singers.

Singing the blues is a separate art. The great blues singers have tended to stay within the form, eschewing the classic American popular song. And the finest singers of the popular song have as a rule avoided the blues. Peggy Lee is one of those rare people-indeed, I can think of only one or two others—who are comfortable and convincing in both. Sometimes I get the feeling she can sing anything—and always with that deceptive ease.

The richness of the blues form is illustrated by the variety of the six songs named above; the form is the same but the flavor in each case is different. The richness of Peggy Lee's gift is illustrated in the way in which she brings out the differences.

Two of the songs are strongly associated with Billie Holiday. The influence of Billie Holiday in American music was, for a long time, enormous. And critical writings have often cited Peggy as one of the singers influenced by Billie. For myself, I was always more aware of the differences between them than the similarities. Those differences came sharply into focus one day when we were discussing singing, and to illustrate a point, she sang a phrase exactly—and I mean exactly—as Billie would have done it. It was uncanny. But it served to show how far apart they were in sound and style, though not in essential inspiration.

It has long been a tradition among jazz players to make reference in solos to the great source figures of the tradition—trumpet players quoting Louis Armstrong's opening passage of West End Blues, for example, or saxophone players quoting parts of Lester Young solos. I have never heard a singer do this until now. It's clever and subtle and you might miss it.

Peggy does two songs that were among those most closely associated with Billie Holi­day, the haunting and disturbing God Bless the Child and Fine and Mellow. The lyrics in both cases are by Billie. The music of God Bless the Child is by Arthur Herzog, but that of the blues Fine and Mellow is Billie's. Notice how Peggy pronounces some words in Fine and Mellow, for example the long I in the rhyming words yellow and mellow. It's a subtle, gentle, loving tribute to Billie Holiday, a reminder of a source. And it's charming.

Furthermore, if you remember his recording of the song, you may hear a smiling little tribute to Jack Teagarden in Basin Street Blues (which is not, by the way, a true blues, despite the title).

There is another way in which this album has a sense of return. Her performances on New American Jazz were accompanied only by a small jazz group. Later recordings involved large orchestras and some marvelous arrangements by gifted writers. Here she returns to a small-group context and some superb accompanists.

Some of the best accompanists to singers are players who themselves like to sing. Pianist Mike Renzi sings well—I've heard him—and drummer Grady Tate has recorded albums as a singer. The rest of this superb quintet consists of John Chiodini, guitar, Mark Sher­man, percussion (including vibes), and Jay Leonhart, bass.

It is little understood, except by singers themselves, that extremely soft performances are more difficult than bravura belting. The way Peggy sings high notes softly has always amazed me. Hers is the gentlest of voices, but there has always been power in reserve behind it, and she does amazing things with it. She has remarkable control. Notice how in See See Rider—done in three-four time—she comes into the first note low on the pitch and slips up into it, to suspenseful and bluesy effect, and then echoes it when the phrase recurs in the fourth chorus. Her singing is filled with shading of that kind.

The blues form is an American national treasure.

But then, so is Peggy Lee.

Gene Lees

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