Monday, April 24, 2006

Miss Peggy Lee & Co.
By Nicholas Stix

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? The 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. 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, whom he believes had the power to single-handedly lift America out of the doldrums. But that’s alright. 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 shakes his head, and says, “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, from Smith’s questions, from his body language, you could see 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. But each band usually also hired a “girl singer,” to alternate with the male vocalist, and 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, however, because some of her work seems to me monotone.

(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 which was not written by rapper Lauryn Hill!), is of “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.

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