When Mad Men returned to television on April 5 for the first of its final seven episodes, viewers saw a different Don Draper – perhaps ready, at last, to realize what he’d become. To underscore his possible epiphany of disillusionment, the strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” recurred numerous times throughout the episode. The song’s placement underscored just how resonant Lee’s music – mysterious, elegant, startling, bluesy, sensual, sly, hip, alternately hot and cool – continues to be, thirteen-plus years after her death in 2002 at age 81. In the spoken introduction to one of the radio programs featured on Real Gone Music’s new At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings, Lee’s sound is described as “music for the heartbeat.” Truer words couldn’t have been spoken.
This 2-CD, 44-song set is mostly culled from 89 episodes of Club 88 Starring Peggy Lee (or The Peggy Lee Show) broadcast by CBS between June 1951 and November 1952. (One track appears to have been sourced from the companion program The Peggy Lee Rexall Show.) Though Lee performed many of her hits on her radio show, the selections on At Last are exclusively drawn from the songs she never recorded commercially or even recorded for radio transcriptions. In other words, this treasure trove features the rarest of the rare Peggy Lee.
Peggy Lee got her big break when she was chosen by the famously tough bandleader Benny Goodman to replace Helen Forrest as the “girl singer” at the bandstand. The North Dakota native came to Goodman’s attention in Chicago after having honed her craft performing across the country on radio and onstage. She stayed with Goodman for two years, between 1941 and 1943. Once on her own, Lee established herself as the rare vocalist who could accurately be described as both a pop singer and a jazz singer, subtly and stylishly making a song her own without losing sight of the composer and lyricist’s intentions. Like her friend Frank Sinatra, she personalized each song, seemingly singing to you, about herself, with an often piercing honesty and audaciousness.
For The Peggy Lee Show, the star was accompanied by the orchestras of Russ Case (in New York) and her future songwriting partner on Lady and the Tramp, Sonny Burke (in Los Angeles). Though captivated in her youth by the great blues singers – and possessed of a remarkable ability to tap into that vein – Lee’s vocals during this period were still rather creamy and youthful. She was on the cusp of Black Coffee, a 1953 turning point and concept album breakthrough in which she was supported by just a small jazz quartet. Those wishing to hear the intimate Peggy won’t be disappointed here, either, as a handful of tracks substitute jazz combos for the orchestra.
The sprightly “It’s a Most Unusual Day,” the opening cut here, reveals the young Peggy Lee voice. To those familiar only with “Is That All There Is?” and “Fever” will find the instrument is not quite as sultry or smoky as it became in later years. What Lee was, however, was incredibly versatile. Not only did she sing the blues more often on record than even many of her African-American contemporaries, she had a keen interest in early Americana and also explored European melodies and Latin styles.
Naturally, there are standards a-plenty here. It’s difficult to believe that some, such as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” weren’t surveyed by Lee in the studio. On the latter, she delivers one of the most ebullient and brassy performances here. Her take on “When I Fall in Love” is tender and ethereal. Treats from Broadway include a slow, intimate ballad arrangement of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Getting to Know You” from The King and I and Frank Loesser’s sweet “My Darling, My Darling” from Where’s Charley. The cool Lee savors Lorenz Hart’s wordplay on “Johnny One Note” from Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms. Far less well-known is the ballad “After All, It’s Spring” from the short-lived 1951 musical Seventeen.
George and Ira Gershwin’s immortal Girl Crazy showtune “I Got Rhythm” found Lee accompanied by The Red Norvo Trio, with Norvo, a.k.a. “Mr. Swing,” supplying the smoking vibes! Norvo’s trio isn’t the only jazz group here; The Mary Lou Williams Trio adds the backing to pianist Williams’ own song “Pretty-Eyed Baby.”
The music of Hollywood isn’t overlooked, either. Though closely identified today with Etta James, Mack Gordon and Harry Warren’s “At Last” was introduced in 1942’s Orchestra Wives. With her rendition, Lee brings a lighter sensibility to the blues. Peggy goes peppy for Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Life is a Beautiful Thing” from the all-but-forgotten Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick (starring Dinah Shore and Mr. Ed and DuckTales star Alan Young) and has fun with the brassy “Zing a Little Zong,” written by Harry Warren and Leo Robin for the Bing Crosby/Jane Wyman starrer Just for You. “Singin’ in the Rain” is transformed into a breathy, languid and dreamy ballad with vocal support from The Merry Macs, and given her role in Disney animated film history, it’s bound to put a smile on your face as Peggy sings a sprightly “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
At Last also affords the opportunity to hear Lee bring her personal stamp to songs popularized by contemporaries including Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, and Jo Stafford, as well as male singers like Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, Eddie Fisher and Johnnie Ray. “Please, Mr. Sun” is one of three songs popularized by Ray which you’ll hear here. “The Little White Cloud That Cried” and Ray’s hysteria-inducing chart-topper “Cry” are both performed by Lee with admirable restraint. She even channels Dean Martin for the hard-driving “I’m Gonna Live ‘Til I Die,” which no doubt Peggy certainly did. Both Martin and Stafford – not to mention Sue Thompson, Patti Page, and later, The Duprees – had success with “You Belong to Me,” but a listen to Peggy’s treatment makes it clear that she, too, could have scored a hit with the song.
Lee’s many sides as an artist are on display on At Last. She’s purely winsome on Oscar Hammerstein II, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” playful on “It Takes Two to Tango,” and ironically confident on “Undecided.” The plaintive “Everything Happens to Me” is another highlight here; it was introduced by Frank Sinatra when he was still with Tommy Dorsey’s band. She also tackles another song associated with The Voice, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” in an arrangement that builds from stark to swinging. Singing an adaptation of a Verdi melody (“Since My Love Has Gone”), she even tries on a more florid vocal style than usual.
“Did Anyone Call?” is the kind of torch song with which the mature Lee excelled. “I don’t suppose so,” she ruefully answers in this saloon lament. It’s one of a number of perfect tracks here for late-night listening, favorite libation in hand. The quietly powerful “Somewhere Along the Way” captures Lee at her most subtly moving. When she begs for “Just One More Chance,” it’s with true vulnerability. Of course, Peggy also goes from the sublime to the ridiculous with some novelties including the faux Italian “Botch-a-me.” Along with “Botch-a-me,” a No. 2 hit for Rosemary Clooney in 1952, Peggy tries on the ultimate Clooney “Italiano” specialty with the No. 1 hit “Come On-a My House.” Sonny Burke’s arrangement gives it a hotter feel than Clooney’s recording, however. Burke also provided the insistent Latin rhythms of “Go, Go, Go,” while Russ Case’s Latin sound on “Domino” is more slyly insinuating.
At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings is packaged in a handsomely-designed digipak, and the accompanying booklet is adorned with strikingly lovely photographs of Lee. It also features a 16-page booklet with new liner notes by David Torresen, the editor of PeggyLee.com. Mike Milchner has wonderfully remastered these tracks drawn from both Peggy Lee’s personal collection and the Library of Congress’ archives. Information as to the first airdate of each recording can be found online at the Peggy Lee Discography.
Is that all there is? One hopes that more is on the way from the bewitching singer. Listening to these meticulously restored and presented performances, you’ll doubtless fall under her spell.