Peggy Lee: Going yard at the Copa
(painting of Peggy Lee from the Jazz Masters Series by BRUNI, available for sale at,Peggy,670,30x48,Miss%20Peggy%20Lee.htm)

Once More, In Prime Time
By David McGee


Peggy Lee
Collector’s Choice

Unlike her contemporary Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee did not enjoy a late-life renaissance with a supportive label such as Concord Jazz. Her later years were marked by an artistic aimlessness, and a very public and very painful physical decline. Not that there weren’t some high points—the detached, chilly reading of Leiber-Stoller’s “Is That All There Is” in 1969, her last pop hit; and another Leiber-Stoller project, 1975’s album of quasi-art songs, Mirrors, as strange as it is haunting, and redolent with the pain of a personal history that included four failed marriages, a childhood marred by the early death of her mother, and her father’s remarriage to a woman who physically and verbally abused the young Norma Delores Egstrom of Jamestown, North Dakota.

Throughout her career, though, Miss Peggy Lee, as she was always introduced onstage, was hardly averse to pushing the musical envelope. During two stints at Capitol, when she was a pop force recording songs by great songwriters such as Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Cole Porter, Carl Sigman, et al., and working with brilliant arrangers such as Gordon Jenkins, she would up and cut something on the order of 1959’s Beauty and The Beat, a live album with the George Shearing Quintet (whose guitarist was Toots Thielemans, otherwise known as a virtuoso harmonica player) that included some experiments in fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms to pop song forms. The year before she explored the Twilight Zone in Mirrors, however, she was signed to Atlantic, produced by Dave Grusin and supported in the studio by jazz and R&B stalwarts such as Grusin, Lee Ritenour, Chuck Rainey, Harvey Mason and others. Her lone Atlantic album, Let’s Love, has been returned to print by Collector’s Choice, and though Miss Lee gets points for once again thinking outside the box—her box—the album itself is obscure for good reason: it’s a near-disaster. The title song was brought to her and produced by Paul McCartney, and it’s a pleasant enough bit of Paulie upbeat romantic fluff of no particular distinction, when what Lee needed was “Just Another Day,” the great lost McCartney hit of 1971 that so piercingly catalogued the dreariness of the everyday housewife, sans her dreams. But most of the album finds Lee drowning in horrific wah-wah guitar, struggling to find her footing in some southern funk completely foreign to…well, to just about everything Lee understood musically. The less said about this the better. It’s probably telling that she stayed with Atlantic for only this album, and then bolted to A&M, back to Leiber and Stoller, and on to Mirrors.

Peggy Lee and Toots Thielemans, late 1960s, performing ‘Makin’ Whoopee,’ popularized by Eddie Cantor in the 1928 musical Whoopee! Music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn. Harmonica-guitar-whistling master Thielemans is in the band accompanying Lee on 2 Shows Nightly.

On the other hand, 2 Shows Nightly captures Lee in prime-time form in a live set (heretofore unreleased owing to Lee’s dissatisfaction with the performance) culled from performances recorded at New York’s Copacabana club (a favorite stop of Lee’s) on April 22-24, 1968, plus a dozen other bonus tracks, some previously issued but rare, others seeing the light of day for the first time.

“I came here to sing. So I shall.” So says Lee following a lovely, winsome reading of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” its lonely ambiance enhanced by Thielemans’ weeping harmonica punctuations supporting Lee’s probing, delicate reading that has some of the abject quality she would bring to “Is That All There Is” a year later. A jittery, driving, horn punctuated romp through Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe” follows, and, amazingly, retains its bereft quality amidst the R&B thrust of the arrangement, thanks to Lee’s conviction (although the abrupt ending is a bit jarring). The bonus track version of the Hardin song veers more toward a syncopated rock ‘n’ roll arrangement with sputtering guitar, tambourines and burbling bass, and adds soaring strings and a robust horn section in a many-layered arrangement that goes for the widescreen feel but has the same strange ending. In general the ballads go over better than the uptempo material, but then Lee was as masterful a balladeer as pop music has produced. The beauty of her sensitive immersion in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” all delicate, yearning entreaty, is a thing of beauty, made all the more so by pianist Lou Levy’s quiet, thoughtful—and spare—backing that lends the performance a torchy quality. The existential musings of her later years are foreshadowed in the tender ministrations of “What Is a Woman,” from the Broadway musical I Do! I Do, complete with subdued woodwinds and percussion; tasty, subdued guitar embroidery; and the barest hint of keyboard, all supporting Lee’s philosophical musings on the nature of the feminine beast and the moment when she is fully realized (“That’s why a woman is only alive when in love/what is a woman/what does she long for…”). On the uptempo side there’s a nice, bluesy stride-and-glide take on “Alright, Okay, You Win” (a tune Lee had first recorded in 1957 and again in 1966), with the band getting into a boisterous call-and-response with Lee’s swinging vocal before the whole bunch wraps it up in a big, chordal blast at the end. She does a cool romp through her buddy and former Capitol labelmate Frank Sinatra’s “Something Stupid” (a hit for Frank and daughter Nancy the year before), in an arrangement bristling with Latinized flourishes in its bustling rhythm and Theilemans’ evocative whistling. With her recording career now being directed by Charles Koppelman (permission to cringe is hereby granted) and Don Rubin, Lee was steered toward songs written by other of their charges, notably John Sebastian and Tim Hardin. A dreamy, string-rich rendition of Sebastian’s “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It,” a Lovin’ Spoonful hit, is heard in almost identical arrangements on live and studio versions (the latter having previously been issued as a single in 1968), both equally effective, both lovingly rendered with the requisite measure of regret and resolve informing the striking vocals. This was also about the time Hardin was being recognized as one of the fine young songwriters of the day, with both Johnny Cash and Bobby Darin scoring hits with Hardin-penned tunes. Lee does a wonderful job finding the aching heart of a lush, string-enhanced “It’ll Never Happen Again”; a gently shuffling, acoustic guitar-based “Misty Roses,” which has the feel and the late-night longing of a saloon song; and a sputtering, anxious “Reason To Believe,” which will never cut Rod Stewart’s glorious gospel-inflected treatment, but has a certain special allure here, thanks to the forcefulness of Lee’s vocal quest and the power of the horns surging behind her. This is the real Peggy Lee, more so than the one we hear on Let’s Love. In whatever form she returns, it’s always great to have her back, especially when she’s knocking them out of the park as she does at the Copa. 

Peggy Lee’s Let’s Love is available at

Peggy Lee’s 2 Shows Nightly is available at

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