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Miss Peggy Lee and Company

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I just saw Harry Smith interview Peter Richmond on CBS This Morning. Smith has been toiling away, largely anonymously, on the perennially low-rated show for approximately 230 years – since about the time Fred Reed went into the Marine Corps.

You know what? That man knows his music.

Richmond was flogging his new bio, Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee. Hearing him talk passionately (and fast – he knows you don’t get all day on these shows!) about her, and seeing the pic of Miss Lee and Mr. Frank Sinatra, a photo in which, by the way, she looked more fetching than I had ever seen her; I got chills.

Richmond is gaga for his subject, born Norma Dolores Egstrom in North Dakota. He believes Miss Lee had the power to single-handedly lift America out of the doldrums. But that’s all right. A biographer had better feel passion for his subject or else get a different subject. However, the moment Richmond said that Lee was “the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century,” I shook my head and said, “Ella.” A second later, Smith did the same. He slowly shook his head and said, “Ella Fitzgerald.” (Smith is at least 15 years older than me, so his reaction time is a little slower, plus he’s more of an easygoing kind of fellow.) But even before that, you could tell by Smith’s questions and his body language that this was no mechanical interview, reading off questions prepared by assistants.

I hadn’t known that Sinatra was ever romantically involved with Lee – I’m familiar with his musical and cinematic, but not his sexual history (beyond his Top 40 list, that is) – but then again, if you tried to keep score on The Voice, what with all the pinch-hitters, pinch-runners, and double switches, you’d end up not being able to read the score card. (By the way, don’t even think of accusing me of mixing my metaphors: Parenthetical and open-text metaphors may not be compared.) But on a musical level, the connection made beautiful sense. For Peggy Lee may not have been the greatest jazz singer, but seeing that picture of her and Sinatra made me realize that while Sinatra has been given credit for having the greatest talent ever at musical phrasing, Lee may well have been his match.

Note that there was a deep musical tie binding Sinatra and Ella, as well. Listen to any of their duets, but especially the one they did only once, on the radio.

Ella Fitzgerald’s chief competition at the time from black “girl singers” came from Sarah Vaughn and Lena Horne. (The phrase comes from the Big Band Era: The musicians were all men, as were often the singers that fronted them. Each band usually hired a “girl singer” to alternate with the male vocalist, so that the men in the audience had something nice to look at, instead of just a bunch of five o’clock shadows.) And so, we hear Sarah Vaughn singing to Frank, asking him if he loves her the best. (Due to the taboo against interracial relationships, it was understood that this was meant platonically, or rather musically.) No, no, no, he responds; he loves Ella the best.

Next comes Lena Horne, asking Sinatra the same question; he responds the same way he did to “Sass.” Finally, Ella asks Sinatra whom he loves the best. Of course, he answers, “I love you the best.” But the trick to the duet is, there was only one woman singing the whole time – Ella was doing dead-on impressions of Vaughn and Horne. No musical partner, not even Louis Armstrong, had that sort of effect on Ella Fitzgerald. Aside from the racial taboo, another reason Sinatra would not have made a pass at Ella was that he was not into large women.

The racial taboo didn’t stop Peggy Lee from having a torrid affair with a much younger Quincy Jones who remained a lifelong friend and who was one of the last people to see her before she died — but “discretion” was the byword.

Some readers will no doubt respond to Peter Richmond’s “best female jazz singer of the 20th century” claim by saying, “What about Lady Day?” Billie Holliday certainly does not lack for admirers. I admire her, too — to a point. I think Holliday is somewhat overrated because some of her work seems monotone to me. (The dumbest, most sycophantic praise I ever heard of Holliday came from Ken Burns in his segregated “documentary” salute to black jazz performers. In the early 1940s, Holliday wrote and performed a song against lynching, “Strange Fruit.” Burns asserted that the song was responsible for the end of the lynching of blacks. Had Burns been interested in history, he would have known that prior to “Strange Fruit,” the practice of lynching had slowed down to a trickle. One of the reasons the 1955 lynching of Emmitt Till so shocked the nation was that lynching was by then so rare. Back in lynching’s heyday, from ca. 1890-1920, black men and boys were lynched every week, and the nation ignored the victims. I don’t know what caused Southern whites to stop lynching blacks, but it is a subject worthy of rigorous research by a real historian, not a propagandist like Ken or Ric Burns.)

Holliday would impose the same way of singing on songs for which it was inappropriate. “The End of a Love Affair” comes to mind. She delivered “If I talk…a little too fast,” in the same slow style as a torch song. It’s “fast,” Lady! Tony Bennett did a much better job with that song, which I believe is one of the reasons he did not include it on his tribute album, On Holliday. In any event, Holliday cut some wonderful recordings, and was, on occasion, incomparable, as in her standard, “Good Morning, Heartache,” and her masterpiece, which she co-wrote, “God Bless the Child.”

There is a specific connection between Peggy Lee and Billie Holliday. The earliest Peggy Lee recording I’ve ever heard, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” was a jazz performance from the 1940s, cut with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The first few times I heard the recording, I assumed it was by Billie Holliday. Once I heard that the singer was Peggy Lee, I concluded that the young Lee had imitated Holliday.

It happens.

Eydie Gorme tells a story from early in her career. She had met Sarah Vaughn, aka Sass aka The Divine Sarah Vaughn, for the first time. Vaughn told her, “You got yourself a nice style. The problem is, it’s already someone else’s style, so you better get yourself a style of your own.”

I haven’t heard that musical side of Gorme, but I have to conclude that she started out as a Sarah Vaughn imitator. Gorme clearly took Vaughn’s advice to heart.

But once Lee got her sea legs, she proved herself to be one of the greatest and most original musical talents of the recording era, just behind Sinatra and Fitzgerald, up there with Tony Bennett and Harry Belafonte.

A gifted songwriter, she wrote dozens of songs, and also had some success as an actress, snaring herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1955’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (which I have yet to see).

One of my favorite Peggy Lee performances, originally from Pete Kelly’s Blues (and was not written by rapper Lauryn Hill!), is “You Can Sing a Rainbow,” which I sang hundreds of times for my newborn son.

Red and yellow and pink and green,
Purple and orange and blue,
You can sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow, too.

Listen with your eyes,
Listen with your eyes,
And sing everything you see.
You can sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow,
Sing along with me.

Red and yellow and pink and green,
Purple and orange and blue,
Now you can sing a rainbow,
Sing a rainbow,
Sing a rain …bow…too.

About Nicholas Stix

  • sal m

    great piece…especially in light of all the attention that the great american songbook has gotten because of american idol and rod stewart’s attempts to sing these songs.

    i’ve always felt that the only singer to approach frank sinatra was peggy lee – with all due respects to miss ella and the rest – so it’s interesting you bring this point up here.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    “… and rod stewart’s attempts to sing these songs.”

    LOL.

    Thanks for your kind words; I’m glad you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

    I’m sure you’ll agree that Peggy Lee is due for a reassessment, and thanks to Peter Richmond, it looks like she’ll be getting one.

  • http://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/ shilohmuse

    absolutely wonderful
    I miss that sort of music.

  • Bliffle
  • Bliffle

    Also, Peggy Lee didn’t write “Why don’t you do right”, as must be obvious from the words. A black blues singer (I’m tempted to say Bessie Smith but I’m sure that’s wrong) had a hit with the song in the 30s on “Race” records, and Lee transposed it to jazz with Goodmans help.

    One of Lees contributions was to successfully sue Walt Disney (that cheap character!) for a few million for the songs she wrote for “Lady And The Tramp”, which Disney only paid her a flat fee of $4000. Finally, when Disney transcribed “Lady…” to VHS the courts ruled that Lee had a new deal and earned royalties for every copy sold, which resulted in a multi-million royalty from old Walt.

  • Bliffle

    Also, Lee is much better than Sinatra. His rep is overinflated. The only Sinatra I liked was “All Or Nothing At All” recorded unaccompanied during Petrillos musicians strike in the 40s. Showed the real beauty of his voice at that time, which disappeared in the 50s when he resorted to gimmicks.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    Thanks for the background and for the link.

    Now I could have been sure that Burns claimed that Holldiay had written the song. I don’t own the DVD for the series, and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a VCR recorder when I saw the series, so I can’t “go back to the videotape.”
    So what I did was google, and I found this PBS resource which strongly suggests that Holliday wrote, as opposed to merely having sung the song.

    “The lesson then focuses on Billie Holiday, her song Strange Fruit, and the role technology played in disseminating popular culture.”

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that PBS was in at least one instance misleading.

    As for the link you provided, the name “Meeropol” immediately rang a bell; then the conclusion of the paragraph explained why. I did get a chuckle out of the language the anonymous author used, however:

    “Meeropol and his wife Anne are also notable because they adopted Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the orphaned children of the executed communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.”

    They weren’t “executed communists”; they were executed spies and traitors! That bit of disinformation tells me that the PBS writer is part of the continuing campaign to rewrite the history of communism in America.

    Similarly, the PBS writer recounts, “… anticommunist government officials, civil rights leaders, radical Leftist teachers and organizers …”

    It was “anticommunists” but only “radical Leftists.” No, it was communists.

    The writer is also no stranger to cliche and hyperbole.

    “The story of composer Abel Meeropol doesn’t end with ‘Strange Fruit.’ Working in Hollywood six years later, Meeropol penned his other well-known composition, the patriotic, Oscar-winning paean to tolerance ‘The House I Live In,’ which was performed by Frank Sinatra in a film short in 1945 and has experienced a revival since September 11, 2001. The film explores how two such seemingly different political and still-resonant songs came to be written by the same man.”

    The songs weren’t “seemingly different”: one deplored intolerance, while the other promoted tolerance. But how are they both still resonant? Is the anonymous writer claiming that blacks are still lynched in America? I guess for someone who can imply that the Rosenbergs were executed merely for being communists, it’s no great exertion, to imply that blacks are still being lynched.

    Note too that “The House I Live in” was a response to the Holocaust; the PBS writer is suggesting that it applies equally to Arabs since 9/11. Nonsense! The Arabs carried out a terrorist attack on us on 9/11; the Japanese carried out a military sneak attack on us on December 7, 1941. American Nazis notwithstanding, “The House I Live in” was not in response to a Jewish attack on America, and there is no way in hell that Frank Sinatra, had he been alive after 9/11, would have sung the same song on behalf of Arabs, anymore than he would have sung it on behalf of the Japanese. The writer is simply exposing his hatred for America.

    In any event, while “The House I Live in” is, in its proper context, unobjectionable pap, “Strange Fruit” is a very well-written poem. I find that it reads better off the page than it sounded, when I heard Holliday’s recording of it. Perhaps that explains Meeropol’s displeasure with Holliday’s rendition.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    “Also, Peggy Lee didn’t write ‘Why don’t you do right’, as must be obvious from the words. A black blues singer (I’m tempted to say Bessie Smith but I’m sure that’s wrong) had a hit with the song in the 30s on ‘Race’ records, and Lee transposed it to jazz with Goodmans help.”

    You make it sound as if you are somehow correcting me, when in fact I never claimed that Lee wrote it.

    Aside from that, there is nothing obvious about the words having been written by a black. There have been numerous whites in the 19th and 20th century who wrote in black vernacular as well or better than any black.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    “One of Lees contributions was to successfully sue Walt Disney (that cheap character!) for a few million for the songs she wrote for ‘Lady And The Tramp’, which Disney only paid her a flat fee of $4000. Finally, when Disney transcribed ‘Lady…’ to VHS the courts ruled that Lee had a new deal and earned royalties for every copy sold, which resulted in a multi-million royalty from old Walt.”

    Peggy Lee never sued, much less collected “a multi-million royalty from” Walt Disney, who was dead over twenty years before Lady and the Tramp was transferred to VHS. Since consumer VHS technology didn’t exist during Disney’s lifetime, it was impossible for him to cheat anyone out of VHS royalties. Lee sued and collected from the Disney Corporation.

    “Also, Lee is much better than Sinatra. His rep is overinflated. The only Sinatra I liked was ‘All Or Nothing At All’ recorded unaccompanied during Petrillos musicians strike in the 40s. Showed the real beauty of his voice at that time, which disappeared in the 50s when he resorted to gimmicks.”

    If you like Lee much more than Sinatra, that’s your prerogative. But it is not your prerogative to claim that Sinatra’s voice was much better in the 1940s than it was in the 1950s. That’s just plain ludicrous. I have no idea to which “gimmicks” you refer, but I have heard takes of some of his 1950s recordings with minimal accompaniment (e.g., “One for My Baby” in ’58 or ’59) that were not sold to the public at the time, when his voice was at his peak. In 1962, he gave one of the greatest performances ever recorded, on “The Way You Look Tonight,” and either the same year or the following one, he equaled that performance with the job he did on Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Soliloquy.” Ditto for the job he did in ’64 or ’65 on the Jones/Basie production of “Fly Me to the Moon.”

    Finally, Sinatra gave some of his greatest performances as a man diminished, in the early-to-mid 1970s, singing mediocre material with a voice that was past its prime. Those brilliant performances, as much as anything else, sealed his legacy as a singer.

  • sal m

    to follow up on the “overinflated sinatra” comment…that kind of misguided criticism has been floated about before, but it just doesn’t work…great musicians from count basie and buddy rich, and quincy jones to bono, and legendary producer phil ramone – to give you a few – have all recognized sinatra to be the innovator and force that he was, and still is. read why sinatra matters by pete hamill and sinatra and the art of recording by charles granata to “get it.”

    no doubt picking the era when sinatra’s voice was at his peak can be a subjective exercise, you’d be hard pressed to find a better “sinatra peak” than the years when he was in his late 40′s to early 50′s – from about 1962 on through early 70′s. creatively he stretched out quite a bit during this time.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    I didn’t know that the song I heard and saw as a child – a music video of trhe first order – “The House I Live In” – had experienced a revival after the fall if the World Trade Center.

    Had my kids been exposed to it the way I had, it might have been a much harder task getting them to move here.

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice job Nicholas, I really love Peggy Lee and her “Sing a Rainbow” you close with is ineffably airy and beautiful. Besids the hits, there are some sensational reissues from the early ’00s like Latin ala Lee, where she does Broadway songs with powerful Latin rhythms and it rocks the rafters.

    RE “Strange Fruit,” I wrote about it some here

    RE Sinatra, I go back and forth on him, but only between top 5 and top 10 singers of the 20th century. I prefer his lighter, least forced voice.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    Sal M: “read why sinatra matters by pete hamill and sinatra and the art of recording by charles granata to ‘get it.’”

    Thanks for the tips, Sal.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    Ruvy in Jerusalem: I didn’t know that the song I heard and saw as a child – a music video of trhe first order – “The House I Live In” – had experienced a revival after the fall if the World Trade Center.

    Had my kids been exposed to it the way I had, it might have been a much harder task getting them to move here.

    Now that you mention it, Ruvy, I didn’t know that, either. Considering the source, one would do well to doubt the assertion, unless and until one finds triple independent corroboration.

  • http://www.geocities.com/nstix Nicholas Stix

    Eric Olsen: very nice job Nicholas, I really love Peggy Lee and her “Sing a Rainbow” you close with is ineffably airy and beautiful. Besids the hits, there are some sensational reissues from the early ’00s like Latin ala Lee, where she does Broadway songs with powerful Latin rhythms and it rocks the rafters.

    Thanks for your kind words and for the tip, Eric.

    RE “Strange Fruit,” I wrote about it some here

    Very interesting take. I wonder if there is any recording of the Meeropol version. I had a cassette with Nina Simone’s version years ago, but all my music was stolen in ’97.

    RE Sinatra, I go back and forth on him, but only between top 5 and top 10 singers of the 20th century. I prefer his lighter, least forced voice.

    Who do you consider the top five or ten singers of the 20th century? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • http://popsiephotos.com Cliff Malloy

    This is my first post here, but I’ve been a long time reader of this site. It’s nice to see the positive reaction to our photos that were used for the book. We are currently working with 60,000 or so negatives from the archives of “PoPsie” and since Peggy was a personal friend of “PoPsie”, we couldn’t say no when we we asked to provide images for the book. Hope we have the same reaction to our archive when our book hits the stands in a few months… “PoPsie’s” life and times is one of the best untold stories of the 20th Century… He knew everybody, but died forgotten in AZ back in ’78… The archive has been in storage for the last 25 or so years, but the estate and I are currently making up for lost time… Wish us luck on getting these images back out in the eyes of the world… To see unpublished photos of Elvis, The Beatles and many more check out our site at http://www.popsiephotos.com (back into lurker mode)

  • Bliffle

    “to follow up on the “overinflated sinatra” comment…that kind of misguided criticism has been floated about before, but it just doesn’t work…great musicians from count basie…”

    Misguided? No one guided that decision, it was my own. And I’m not alone. Sinatras rep after 1950 was due to his own persistent self-promotion to save his failing career.

    Bill Basie detested the appelation “count” (which was contrived by a PR seeking club owner) as he stated many times, including in private conversation with myself and Ralph Gleason at the bar of “The Embers” dancehall in Atherton in 1962. Nobody who knew them ever called Eddie Ellington or Pops Armstrong by their pretentious cognomens.

  • Eric Olsen

    that’s super news Cliff and thanks for your kind words! Best wishes on the book.

    Nicholas, some of my favorite singers of the 20th century include Armstrong, Ella, Elvis, Sinatra, Holiday, Aretha, Peggy Lee, Bessie Smith, Lennon/McCartney, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Little Richard

  • http://popsiephotos.com Cliff Malloy

    Thanks Eric and if you ever need anything photo wise, drop me a line. I remember a piece you did on Tom Wilson a few years back that blew me away. Keep up the great work !

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Cliff – that Tom Wilson story has some legs!

  • Eric Olsen

    oh, and we’d love to review the book – please let us know when it’s available. I’m sure we’d love access to a few pics in conjunction with the book review!

  • spell correct

    Billie Holiday Sarah Vaughan

  • http://nicholasstixuncensored.blogspot.com/ Nicholas Stix

    Cliff Malloy: This is my first post here, but I’ve been a long time reader of this site. It’s nice to see the positive reaction to our photos that were used for the book. We are currently working with 60,000 or so negatives from the archives of “PoPsie” and since Peggy was a personal friend of “PoPsie”, we couldn’t say no when we we asked to provide images for the book. Hope we have the same reaction to our archive when our book hits the stands in a few months… “PoPsie’s” life and times is one of the best untold stories of the 20th Century… He knew everybody, but died forgotten in AZ back in ’78… The archive has been in storage for the last 25 or so years, but the estate and I are currently making up for lost time… Wish us luck on getting these images back out in the eyes of the world… To see unpublished photos of Elvis, The Beatles and many more check out our site at http://www.popsiephotos.com (back into lurker mode)

    Thanks, Cliff. Great site! I look forward to reviewing the book, when it comes out.