Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Other Peggy Lee

I'm totally nuts about jazz singers. And for me, the last great golden age of jazz singers was the 1950's.

Artists working at peak, phenomenal form during the 1950's included:

Ella Fitzgerald, Lee Wiley, Julie London, Chet Baker, June Christy, Sarah Vaughan, Anita O'Day, Chris Connor, Billy Eckstine, Sue Raney, Jeri Southern.

But for me, the two greatest of them were Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.

Peggy's singing is intimate, intelligent and "unemotive"--she reminds me of the dialogue delivery from a Robert Bresson film.

When I hear this lack of overt emoting in her voice, it pulls me in, intuiting the emotional world of her song and projecting my own feelings into its narrative. And isn't that what great interpretive singing is all about?

Peggy Lee from the 1950's sounds so utterly original that it is difficult to pinpoint any other singers who might have influenced her. You have to go way back to the early 1940's to a budding Peggy in Benny Goodman's band to hear in her the two great formative influences of Billie Holiday and Lee Wiley.

Similarly with Sinatra. Frank's 1950's Capitol records are so sui generis that it is impossible to guess that he adored Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday.

Peggy's voice--its cool dreaminess, its pastel minimalism--is best heard on a record like Beauty and the Beat, recorded live with the George Shearing quintet.

Duke Ellington dubbed her "The Queen".

And when she sings Ellington's "All Too Soon" on the above live record, she calmly reduces you to mush.