Though eventually known for her compositional skill (nearly 300 songs, along with co-writes on Disney’s Lady and the Tramp originals), Peggy Lee was initially renowned as a sultry but distingué siren, a chilled interpreter who adopted subdued tones while walking down Tin Pan Alley. Just beyond the reach (and era) of the big bands, a decade after her time with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra, Lee hosted a radio program at the top side of the 1950s, covering then-new American classics with star songwriters such as Hoagy Carmichael, Matt Dennis, Frank Loesser, and Johnny Mercer as her occasional duet partners. Featuring scads of unreleased tracks from that show, many never recorded commercially, Something Wonderful is aptly titled, a surprisingly dear and primarily upbeat score to postwar America with Lee at her breeziest under the musical direction of Russ Case and Sonny Burke.
Spruced up for superior sound by engineer/archivist Michael Graves, these 40-plus songs on two discs allow the chanteuse to loll and play in front of a smallish-big jazz band with an ever-so-slight blue hue and a gently pixillating rhythm section. Teaming up with a rather soulful-sounding Mercer, Lee vamps around the groove of “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” in a fashion rarely heard from her. She allows a softly strung harp, a barroom piano, and a blowsy horn section to guide her, slowly, through the honeyed tones of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and goes from talking to Mercer about his daughter’s theme song (a lovely “Mandy Is Two”) to something more louche with a brief take on “Blues in the Night.”
While Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On” and “Just One of Those Things” give Lee license for notes showy and silken, his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is a dashing, bongo-filled blues on which she finds all the right accents to ride. The sessions featuring Carmichael find Lee taking to the quietly zig-zagging arrangement of “Skylark” with innocent bliss before hitting the chorus; once there, her voice becomes languid, a Southern-ly breeze. And her appropriation of Dennis’ lonely brand of jazz on the medley “We Belong Together/Angel Eyes/Let’s Get Away from It All” is poetic and shimmering.
Joined by Loesser, Lee slips and slides through a too-quick five-song medley, with her soft trilling vocals acting as a counterpoint to his gruff tones, all before closing out the set with a whispered baby-doll take on “Somebody Loves Me,” a carefree run at “Oh, Look at Me Now,” and a klatch of showy classics: “When You’re Smiling,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” and “All of Me.”
Something Wonderful lacks for nothing vocally or melodically, in Lee’s surprising range of character-driven studies or her diversity of rhythmic approaches. This reviewer simply wanted more.