May 26 would have been Peggy Lee’s 91st birthday. Not a major milestone, but significant enough, it seems, to prompt a small flood of digital releases from Capitol, Lee’s musical home for about half of her five-decade career.
After departing the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Lee signed with the then-fledgling label in 1944 and quickly scored with such self-penned hits as “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day.” She remained a steady hit-maker for Capitol through 1952, just as the LP era was dawning. That year, Gordon Jenkins presented her with a dramatic arrangement of the Rodgers and Hart ballad “Lover.” Lee adored the bold treatment, complete with wildly swirling strings and pounding tempo; and, when the folks at Capitol refused to let her record it, she departed for Decca. “Lover,” with all the thunder and lighting intact, became a landmark hit. At Decca, Lee waded into the long-playing world with a trio of top-drawer releases, beginning with the classic Black Coffee (issued first as a 10″, then expanded to a 12″), Dream Street and Miss Wonderful. Also at Decca, the first glimpses of Lee’s penchant for otherworldly themes emerged with the release of the high-concept Sea Shells, beautifully realized but commercially limited.
It was, however, with her return to Capitol in 1957, that Lee fully emerged as an album-oriented artist. During the course of her 16-year reconnection with the label, she averaged two releases per year, for a total of 32 albums. Twenty-one of them are included in the recent digital deluge, along with one rare (though previous released) session.
At first glance, it seems a rather scattershot assortment. The latter portion of Lee’s second Capitol phase is covered in its near entirety, covering 15 of the 16 albums she released between 1963’s I’m A Woman and 1972’s contract-concluding Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota. All that’s missing is 1968’s infamous Two Shows Nightly, the live album, recorded at the Copa (though, like all of Lee’s purported “live” recordings, significantly sweetened in the studio), that she insisted be pulled from circulation just days after its release because she wasn’t satisfied with the sound quality. It is, however, a reasonable omission, since the album finally surfaced on CD (and through all the major digital providers) in 2009, complete with a dozen hard-to-find bonus tracks.
The early part of Lee’s Capitol return is less well covered. Only five of the 16 albums she released between 1957 and 1963 are among the digital re-releases, and some of her best, including 1959’s Things Are Swingin’, 1963’s Mink Jazz and the like-minded Latin à la Lee and Olé à la Lee, both from 1960, have been left out of the mix. Again, though, the exclusions make sense, since all but one of the 11 omitted albums were already available through iTunes and other digital sources.
In chronological order, the 21 new digital releases include:
1. I Like Men! (1959), Lee’s lively salute to the male of the species, arranged and conducted by Jack Marshall. Highlights include her sunny reading of “It’s So Nice to Have a Man Around the House,” the bouncy “I Love to Love” and a poignant reading of “When a Woman Loves a Man.”
2. Beauty and the Beat (1959) showcases Lee’s delightful pairing with George Shearing for a performance at the Miami Disc Jockey Convention (and, yes, heavily sweetened in studio after the fact). Lee and Shearing, who only recorded together this one time though both were under contract to Capitol, are wonderfully simpatico, particularly on their saucy versions of “You Came A Long Way from St. Louis” and “Always True to You In My Fashion.”
3. All Aglow Again! (1960) is the first of three compilations Capitol released during the 1960s. Since Lee’s massive 1958 hit “Fever” had only been released as a single, Capitol were eager to build an album around it, so dug into the vaults for an odd mixture of 1940s tracks like “Mañana” and various singles and unreleased tracks from the late ’50s.
4. Basin Street East Proudly Presents Peggy Lee (1961). Under the direction of Joe Harnell, Lee serves up a terrific set of recent hits, show tunes and Tin Pan Alley favorites. She is in great form throughout, charming and kittenish. The 21st of the new digital releases is an alternate version (Peggy Lee at Basin Street: The Unreleased Show, released on CD in 2002) that captures Lee’s closing night performance. It is one of the few true recordings of a Lee club date because, since it was never intended for commercial release, it has not been tidied or otherwise tampered with. In Lee’s opening number, “Day In, Day Out” you can hear her come in a couple of bars early, stop and then start again. Various other minor flaws are equally evident. Also, the playlist is substantially different from the “official” Basin Street East release.
5. If You Go (1961) marks Lee’s first session with Quincy Jones. It is a lovely, subdued set that includes stellar readings of “As Time Goes By,” “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life.”
6. Bewitching-Lee (1962) is another compilation that borrows heavily from Lee’s 1940s Capitol hits (“Why Don’t You Do Right,” “Golden Earrings, “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and, once more, “Mañana”), and again includes “Fever. “
7. I’m A Woman (1963) is worth the price of admission solely for Lee’s sassy treatment of the Lieber and Stoller title track, but also features her slinky reading of “The Alley Cat Song” and first-rate renditions of “A Taste of Honey,” “One Note Samba” and “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.”
8. In Love Again! (1964) blends several terrific swingers – “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” “I’ve Got Your Number” – with such masterfully handled ballads as “I Got Lost In His Arms” and Jobim’s “How Insensitive.”
9. In the Name of Love (1964), conducted by Lou Levy, includes some of Lee’s standout 1960s tracks, including a delectable “The Boy from Ipanema,” a masterfully sly “Talk to Me Baby” and what may be the definite version of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s delightful “When In Rome.”
10. Pass Me By (1965), is best remembered as the album in which Lee embraced both the rock era, covering Lennon and McCartney’s “A Hard Day’s Night,” and pop culture, with “Bewitched” (the TV sitcom theme, not the Rodgers and Hart masterpiece). But she also delivers an enchanting interpretation of Jobim’s “Corcovado” and a finger-snappin’ treatment of the title track, from Father Goose, the second-to-last film starring her great friend, Cary Grant.
11. That Was Then And Now Is Now (1965) is a varied assemblage of tracks, conducted by Sid Feller, that extends from haunting readings of “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over” to a less-than-effective cover of Willie Dixon’s down ‘n’ dirty “Seventh Son.”
12. Guitars à la Lee (1966). Again, a rather schizophrenic assortment, with the lilting “Sweet Happy Life” and such modern-day standards as “Nice ‘n’ Easy” and “Strangers In the Night” standing shoulder-to-shoulder with “Mohair Sam.” Best of the 11 tracks is Lee’s soft-swingin’ handling of Tony Hatch’s “Call Me.”
13. Big Spender (1966). Arguably Lee’s mid-decade best, with a great, heavily caffeinated reading of “Come Back to Me,” tender treatments of “I’ll Only Miss Him When I Think of Him” and Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” and raise-the-roof renditions of the title track and “Alright, Okay, You Win.”
14. Extra Special! (1967) isn’t that special. Just a mishmash of selections from previous albums and a few unreleased tracks.
15. Somethin’ Groovy (1967). Title notwithstanding, it’s hardly the grooviest of LPs, but there are several excellent tracks, including Lee’s wistful take on Mancini’s “Two for the Road” and, plucked from her mid-’50s screen success Pete Kelly’s Blues (for which she earned an Oscar nomination), the sweet “Sing A Rainbow.”
16. A Natural Woman (1969). Like so many of her contemporaries, Lee was experiencing a downturn in record sales amid an increasingly teen-oriented music market. Adopting an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em, she dives headlong in the current pop-rock pool, covering everyone from Otis Redding (“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”) to Blood, Sweat and Tears (an ill-advised “Spinning Wheel”). She does, however, leave room for a heart-rending “Don’t Explain” and a singularly fine reading of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today.”
17. Is That All There Is? (1969). The Lieber-Stoller title track proved one of the year’s most unexpected hits, returning Lee to the upper reaches of the hit parade for the first time in ages. The album built around the song is a bit haphazard, extending from the sublime (“Don’t Smoke In Bed”) to the ridiculous (Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show”).
18. Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970). Paul Simon’s delicate title tune is ideal Lee material, and she handles it expertly. She also delivers fine treatments of such varied selections as “The Thrill Is Gone,” Bacharach and David’s “Always Something There to Remind Me” and Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby?” The world probably could, however, have lived without her cover of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”
19. Make It With You (1970), the limpid Bread title track notwithstanding, Lee serves up some choice (and rarely covered) tunes, including Lew Spence’s “I’ve Never Been So Happy In My Life,” Paul Anka’s “That’s What Living’s About” and Neil Sedaka’s underappreciated “One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round.”
20. Where Did They Go? (1971) includes the good (Joe Raposo’s peppy “Sing,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind), the unexpected (delicate treatments of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and the unnecessary (Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”).
21. “Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota) (1972). A truly bizarre mix of tunes, with Leon Russell’s “Superstar” alongside Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s “The More I See You.” Sadly, a rather lackluster adieu, though Lee does cleverly conclude her Capitol years with a hushed “I’ll Be Seeing You.”
Remarkably, given the breath and depth of existing and new Capitol material on disc and online, there remains one elusive Lee album. It is 1961’s Blues Cross Country. Briefly available on CD in 1999, it has long sing been out of print and is currently unavailable in any format. (Used copies of the CD, on the rare occasion they surface, tend to sell for upwards of $100). It was Lee’s second union with Quincy Jones and provides, as the title promises, a coast-to-coast musical tour that travels from “New York City Blues” to “Los Angeles Blues,” with stops along the way for “Goin’ to Chicago Blues,” “Kansas City,” “St. Louis Blues” and “I Lost My Sugar (In Salt Lake City”).
Given the quality of the material and Jones’ wailing big band arrangements, it seems a strange oversight. Maybe, though, the folks at Capitol felt they had to keep something in reserve for Lee’s 92nd.
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