CD review

Peggy Lee – “The Capitol Transcriptions 1946-1949”

Peggy Lee – The Capitol Transcriptions 1946-1949
(Capitol/Universal. Download review by Leonard Weinreich)

72 restricted Capitol Transcriptions from the 40s constitute a lavish banquet for Peggy Lee admirers. However, if you’re the kind of purist who dismisses her as a middle-of-the-road pop singer, it’s worth a detour to watch this video where a Nordic ice princess from North Dakota upbraids her no-goodnik lover, while simultaneously upstaging her boss, the all-powerful swing king Benny Goodman, with her jazz reading of Why Don’t You Do Right? The video is a masterclass in feline eroticism and, no surprise, the associated single sold a million copies. Need I remind you that this sales phenomenon happened during wartime?

Peggy LeeNorma Deloris Egstrom (alcoholic dad was of Norwegian extraction, mum of Swedish origin and died young) was born in 1920 and survived a miserable childhood, tormented by a wicked stepmother. By age 17, Norma Deloris metamorphosed into Peggy Lee, a bluesy singer with a ‘sultry purr’ (an apt description I stole from Wikipedia), heavily influenced by Billie Holiday.

In 1941, she replaced Helen Forrest in the Goodman organisation, but departed in 1943, owing to her relationship with guitarist Dave Barbour (Goodman frowned on fraternisation) whom she married (and divorced). Moving on, she became a successful solo artist, bridging the world of jazz and pop in a series of striking albums (predominantly for the Capitol label), a Hollywood movie star and the composer of over 500 songs (including the frequently covered Fever). Her restrained style and manner prepared the ground for singers like the ultra-hip Anita O’Day and supercool June Christy.

Here, as promised, we have 72 tracks, transferred from 16-inch transcription discs faithfully captured in crystalline studio sound by Capitol’s skilled engineers at 331/3 (well before the advent of the LP) for the exclusive use of radio stations. On the majority of tracks, Miss Lee is backed by a crisp quartet (sometimes quintet) that includes her husband Dave Barbour on guitar and some fleet studio pianists (Arnold Ross, Fred Zito, Buddy Cole, Hal Schaefer). On nine of the selections, she’s accompanied by a string-laden orchestra directed by Hollywood composer, Frank DeVol.

Most transcription recordings had slightly shorter time-lengths than discs made for commercial release, but, during an era when singers were expected to record dross, the remarkable choice of titles embraces a goodly percentage of future standards. The lyrical elite is handsomely represented with George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘S Wonderful, Sometimes I’m Happy, Somebody Loves Me, How Long Has This Been Going On; Rogers and Hart’s Blue Moon, This Can’t Be Love; Jerome Kern’s The Way You Look Tonight, Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man; Duke Ellington’s In My Solitude, I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart; Hoagy Carmichael’s Rockin’ Chair, Georgia On My Mind; Benny Carter’s Melancholy Lullaby; and the list extends to include Berlin, Porter, Arlen, Fields and McHugh, Burke and van Heusen, Dubin and Warren among others and, of course, Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour: Don’t Be So Mean To Baby (‘Cause Baby’s Good To You) and I Don’t Know Enough About You.

There are 56 (!) more tracks including Come Rain or Come Shine, If You Were The Only Boy, Them There Eyes, You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me, I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me, A Cottage For Sale, Mean To Me, I’m Confessin’, I Only Have Eyes For You, Back In Your Own Back Yard, Aren’t You Glad You’re You, Trav’lin’ Light, I Only Have Eyes For YouImagination, You’re Driving Me Crazy, Goody Goody, I Ain’t Got Nobody, Lover Come Back To Me, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone and, a personal favourite, Joe Bushkin’s Oh, Look At Me Now. On each song, Lee’s ‘sultry purr’ fuses emotional intensity with unflustered delivery. Her vibrato is tightly controlled. Her intonation and enunciation are precise. Applying unexpected accentuations, she’s able to wrest extra meaning out of almost any lyric. When Peggy Lee sings a song, she owns it.

These tracks augment her jazz credentials. Her voice is light, but lined with high tensile steel. She could bend a note like a blues singer. Her timing was excellent and her choice of tempos immaculate (even the matchless master of time, Count Basie, was impressed). She also swung effortlessly but, as my rabbi in all matters vocal, Will Friedwald, observes, rather than stating the beat, she levitated above it in the airy manner of Lester Young or Miles Davis in ballad mode.

In short, sit back and enjoy the feast.

LINK: Details from Udiscover Music

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