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An Examination of Black Coffee by Peggy Lee

In honor of her centennial, we present—an exclusive excerpt from Tish Oney’s recent book Peggy Lee: A Century of Song

Peggy Lee in 1953 (photo: Ormond Gigli)
Peggy Lee in 1953 (photo: Ormond Gigli)

In April of 1953, Peggy Lee embarked upon a recording project that would produce a top-ten jazz vocal album of all time—her peerless and legendary collection Black Coffee. This album represented the crowning achievement of her Decca years, the most acclaimed album of her entire career, and one of the very first concept albums ever produced. Initially it appeared in a 10-inch, long-play record format with only eight songs. The enormous success of this modest recording compelled Decca executives to propose an expansion and rerelease of the album a few years later to include a total of 12 songs. The augmented album was crafted in the new 12-inch disc medium that remained prevalent in fans’ living rooms for nearly three more decades. Songs subsequently added to this project in 1956 included “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “You’re My Thrill,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” and “Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You.”

Black Coffee began with the title track, an artistically unparalleled version of a classic standard whose origins hailed from a traditional blues phrase spun into a song by W. C. Handy, then passed along to Mary Lou Williams in her song “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?” before being presented as a Sonny Burke composition on this album. The song’s repetitive melody and harmonic motion reflected the mundane, cyclical daily routine expressed by the lyrics. Lee’s casual delivery of these rightly supplied the appropriate mood and angle through which listeners peered to find a story that resonated with daily living. Lee put on no pretensions. Her raw, unapologetic, matter-of-fact attitude displayed in this housewife’s lament placed her in the living rooms of her listeners, speaking directly into their hearts with realism and sober sincerity. The song aptly introduced the rest of the album’s tracks by giving listeners an indication that this album represented something completely different than any they had previously heard. This concept album was bittersweet—it personified a woman’s experience of loving a man whose reliability and trust remained in question. It was to jazz what verismo was to opera—dream-burning realism. The progression of songs relayed the heartbreak, bliss, and pain of authentic, vulnerable love as well as the awareness and acceptance that this love was no paradise.

Peggy Lee: A Century of Song by Tish Oney
The cover of Peggy Lee: A Century of Song by Tish Oney

Track two fell to a Cole Porter standard, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a brisk and energetic swing rendition that Lee shaped in new and interesting ways. Her timing and phrasing played with the rhythms. She explored the expressive compass of text setting to achieve original ways of emphasizing important words. Lee balanced her natural, conversational approach of pronouncing sentences with an aurally artistic paintbrush that presented the lyric as a beautiful work of art.

“Easy Living” involved a delightful give-and-take between crooning Lee and the swooping muted trumpet lines of Pete Candoli, who responded to Lee’s every phrase during the first half of the song and then again to her last few phrases. Their rubato (out of time) approach at the bridge created a lush effect of hypnotism, during which the audience hung on Lee’s every word. In this way, the recording beautifully captured one of the signature qualities that characterized so many of Lee’s live performances.

Track four on Black Coffee revealed a super-fast arrangement of another Cole Porter standard, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The piece opened in a samba feel and moved into a fast swing style after the first chorus—a combination of styles unlike those appearing on prior recordings of this traditionally easygoing swing tune. Lee’s timing of her lyrical phrases was amazingly conversational and not lined up exactly with the musical phrases the band was playing. The freedom she displayed in her timing choices revealed her total command of the energy and mood that enveloped the whole band’s performance. The outstanding solo commentary by Candoli greatly intensified the sizzling effect. The piece showcased two performers in constant musical dialogue with one another. During the break, throughout which the band performed the refrain again in a fast swing style, both Candoli and Lee performed simultaneously in a corporate improvisational style reminiscent of Dixieland. The soloists matched the band’s gradually building exuberance and intensification of energy. This rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” was what modern jazz performers would call a “barn burner,” to indicate the intensely fast tempo and intricate musical precision required to execute the music cleanly. By this point in Lee’s career, her fans knew they could expect at least one of these burning songs on her albums. Her immense success with “Lover” (which also could be called “burning”) set the stage for her victories over other unusually fast, intense arrangements. “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” though only two minutes long, created a peak of intensity halfway through the record that left her audience begging for more.

In stark contrast, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from George Gershwin’s masterpiece opera Porgy and Bess, served as a stylistically sophisticated fifth track. Beginning as a slow ballad with a heavy sense of swing, the song periodically broke into an abrupt fast swing and just as suddenly returned to the original slow tempo. Lee was even successful in pronouncing the Gullah dialect-inflected “Ain’t Nessa . . . Ain’t Nessa” series of four repeated lyric motives at the end of the piece as authentically as anyone who had ever sung them. Her use of bluesy pentatonic descending runs (common for blues and pop singers of that period and still used today) were indicative of the wide range of stylistic tools at her disposal. This brand of ornamentation was never previously part of Lee’s style, a completely uncharacteristic adornment of her musical lines that may have prompted bandleader Raymond Scott, when hearing a blindfold test featuring this album in a DownBeat interview, to comment: “It must be Billie Holiday, but it is so accurate, precise, and artistic, that I can’t believe it.”

“This concept album was bittersweet—it personified a woman’s experience of loving a man whose reliability and trust remained in question. It was to jazz what verismo was to opera—dream-burning realism.”
—Excerpted from Peggy Lee: A Century of Song by Tish Oney, Foreword by John Chiodini. Used by permission of the publisher Rowman & Littlefield. All rights reserved.

“Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good to You,” in the author’s estimation, represents the first track on this album that actually does resemble the voice of Billie Holiday. However, rather than portraying Peggy Lee as a copycat, this track may have simply displayed yet another extreme in her many talents so evident on this album. The fast, almost out-of-control vibrato at the ends of words and phrases, the occasional upward-scooping note that has no place in the melody but rather functions as an exclamation, and the heavy blues with a lyric soaked in sorrow and self-pity all strongly suggested the vocal, musical, and lyric-interpreting approach of Lee’s contemporary Holiday. Framed as a tribute rather than an imitation, this song’s inclusion on Black Coffee may have been Lee’s way to honor a fellow singer known throughout the world for her own unique contributions to the singing of jazz and popular music, and certainly an important direct influence upon Lee herself.

Composer Willard Robison wrote the next song on Black Coffee specifically for Lee to sing. His “A Woman Alone with the Blues” appropriately fit among the other songs and provided another node of rest from the frenzy of some of the faster jazz selections. This easygoing ballad was not truly a blues song but was composed in the form and style of a contemporary jazz or pop ballad from the 1940s or early ’50s. The powerful lyrics beautifully suited both Lee’s mood for the album and her life story. This piece served the album as the song that tied all the others together in its unifying theme of a woman’s lot in a flawed love relationship. Sounding more like herself here than in the previous track, Lee approached the lyrics with honesty and tenderness as well as with an earnest passion that spoke more of sincerity than of impressive technical skill. Ever the consummate translator of music into pure emotion, Lee successfully brought her authentic sentiments to the forefront in this humble outpouring of the feminine heart.

For the next song, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” Lee wisely chose to include the seldom-performed introductory verse, which gently and innocently provided a backdrop for the storyline concept of the album. She conceded in this verse that when she was young, she exhibited naïve idealism in regard to love. The song began as an out-of-time (rubato) ballad, facilitating for Lee the opportunity to ebb and flow her lyrics word-by-word at a pace she extemporaneously decided. It then moved into a medium-fast swing style during which Lee demonstrated confidence in delivering this decisive, self-assured lyric. The beauty of the text lay in its ambiguity—nothing was actually stated, only insinuated. In the context of the other songs on the album, however, the song presented a point of view of one who had learned from her mistakes and would no longer be hesitant in making decisions to look after her best interests. “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” effectively illustrated a woman’s coming of age and entering a state of revelation toward self-empowerment.

Lee’s devastating introduction to “(Ah, the Apple Trees) When the World Was Young” (no less than two full minutes in length) created an entrancing backdrop for the comparatively brief core of the song, which lasted only a minute. In this noteworthy case, Lee heightened the importance of a song’s introduction as its own set piece and relegated the rest of the song to function as a denouement, a tapering-down ending. Having no repeated sections, it offered recitative-like ruminations on the loss of innocence and the transformation of an inexperienced child into a wiser state of being. Pete Candoli’s clever muted trumpet quips, especially when depicting the text about a hive of bees, provided slices of comic relief within this otherwise serious soliloquy.

“Love Me or Leave Me,” track 10 on the album, offered a necessary release of tension created by the previous songs’ expostulations about dashed hopes and maturity gained through heartbreak. This lightly swinging tune was deftly swung by Lee and the band. Candoli again contributed adorable backtalk, taking turns with pianist Jimmy Rowles on the second time through the form, while Lee presented the lyrics in a freer, extemporaneous manner that rivaled the improvisational skills of the finest jazz vocalists of the time. This brief track was an upbeat moment of carefree grace that arrived just in time to rescue the album’s light/dark scale balance from excessive melancholy.

Black Coffee by Peggy Lee
The cover of Black Coffee by Peggy Lee

Lee then draped her mysterious spell over “You’re My Thrill.” Using an extreme sense of rubato, the song was so out of time during the introductory verse that listeners were forced to hang on every syllable. Taking full advantage of words like “strange,” Lee capitalized on her ability to weave the full meaning of a word into a picturesque spectrum, assisted by the otherworldly timbres of harp and vibraphone, enveloping the essence of the song in a reverie.

Presenting “There’s a Small Hotel” as a lighthearted waltz with harp, xylophone, piano, and bass accompaniment, then moving into a straight-ahead swing before returning to the original instrumentation of the opening waltz, Lee and her entourage brought refreshing touches to this beloved Rodgers and Hart standard. The back-and-forth playfulness of the waltz appearing in alternation with swing and the continuing ping-pong match between the styles through the end of the piece created a delightful and unpredictable finish to this stunning album.

The charm of Black Coffee stemmed from many factors, not the least of which was the sheer breadth of Lee’s interpretive and vocal powers. She whispered and soared, moaned and swung, purred, pleaded, and phrased poetry with equal skill. Just when it seemed that flawless swing must be her strongest suit, that theory was dashed in the shattering poignancy of her ballads, the joy of a waltz, and the sizzling drive of a samba. Lee’s unsurpassed powers to shape a phrase, to inhabit a song’s essence, and to meaningfully time silences between words, filling them to overflowing with poignancy, were never exhibited to a more impressive degree than they were in Black Coffee

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Tish Oney

Tish Oney is a vocalist, composer, arranger, conductor, educator, and author. She has recorded five albums as a leader; her most recent, The Best Part, was released in 2019 and features three songs with previously unused lyrics by Peggy Lee.