If you have a soft spot for Peggy Lee (and who doesn't), you'll want to get your hands on Peggy Lee: The Lost '40s & '50's Capitol Masters, a two-CD set from Collector's Choice Music. This 39-track package features Lee in a variety of instrumental settings for Capitol Records between 1944 and 1952. Songs range from stunning surprises (Aren't You Kind of Glad We Did?) to uncomfortable novelty numbers (Neon Signs). What's interesting about the set is that it shows Lee as a work in progress, taking chances on different styles and material, with some results more successful than others.
How did Lee, a Columbia recording artist in the early 1940s, wind up at Capitol? In August 1942, the American Federation of Musicians called a strike against the entire recording industry, prohibiting members from making records. What seems quaint now (imagine all musicians today standing united against digital downloads) was a big deal back then,
especially a year into World War II. The musicians' strike over royalties was aimed primarily at the big three recording giants—RCA, Columbia and Decca—but it affected all labels. [Pictured: AFM president James Petrillo]
By 1943, the smaller labels began running out of stockpiles of material recorded before the strike. To avoid bankruptcy, they threw in the towel and settled with the AFM. Then they quickly began snapping up musicians who weren't signed to the major labels. For another year, the Big Three stubbornly refused to sign with the AFM, creating a golden opportunity for small labels and entrepreneurs. With RCA, Columbia and Decca on the sidelines, smaller labels used the open field to build a market position before the majors returned.
One label that had formed in the spring of 1942 and settled with the AFM in 1943 was Capitol Records. Founded by singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer with financial support from West Coast backers, the label signed Lee in late 1943 and began recording her in early January 1944. While the AFM ban did not affect singers (they weren't members of the AFM), the strike did threaten their standing since singers depended on recordings with musicians to remain popular. (After signing Frank Sinatra in 1943, Columbia worked around the musicians' strike by having him record singles with only a choir behind him.)
Prior to joining Capitol, Lee had a successful run with Benny Goodman on Columbia, rising to national fame in 1942 with Somebody Else Is Taking My Place and Why Don't You Do Right. In 1943, she married Dave Barbour, Goodman's guitarist, a move that infuriated Goodman. Benny fired Barbour, so Lee quit, too, a fortuitous event, since both artists were then free to sign—and record—with Capitol.
Roughly 70 percent of Lee's recorded output was for Capitol, and CD compilations over the years have included much of it. However, there always were sessions missing from the different sets. In some cases, the absent material had never been issued. This new CD, The Lost '40s & '50s Capitol Masters, captures many of the singles that never surfaced.
The set's first CD is clearly the better of the two. It features Lee in all her cozy, cottony glory, effortlessly sailing through song after song. Nearly all of this disc's tracks are breathy masterpieces, making you wonder why in heaven's name they only now are seeing the light of day.
Gems include Ain't Going' No Place, a credible blues, and catchy small-group numbers like What'll It Getcha? and I Want to Go Where You Go. Equally solid are standards such as A Cottage for Sale, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Music Maestro Please and an aching Trouble Is a Man.
But the best tracks on the set are Lee's sleepy, whispery singles like It's Lovin' Time, A Hundred Years from Today, Keep Me in Mind (with the Benny Goodman Sextet) and I Don't Know What to Do Without You Baby. Here, Lee sings at the pace of a heartbeat with that signature inhale-exhale tempo that makes you feel as if you're swinging gently in a hammock. These are the sessions that best suited Lee's intimate and pure singing style.
To be frank, this collection is worth owning if only for one track: Aren't You Kind of Glad We Did? from Lee's July 1946 session with Dave Barbour [pictured] and his orchestra. This is a perfectly executed ballad with Barbour's guitar up front and the orchestra in the background. Lee is at her 1940s peak here.
The second CD, sadly, is less consistent and contains a chunk
of ill-conceived material. You get the sense on these that Barbour [pictured] and Capitol were trying to find new sweet spots for Lee and testing out a wide range of material with commercial possibilities. So you have sticky and seat-shifting novelty numbers like Sunshine Cake and Don't Give Me a Ring on the Telephone (Until You Give Me a Ring on My Hand).
There also is the embarrassing Ay Ay Chug a Chug, in which Lee affects a Mexican accent, and It Never Happened to Me, a Cuban-accented execution. Other novelty numbers feature Lee being positioned for the rural market, with train-related tunes and numbers like Climb Up the Mountain (something of a spiritual) and If You Turned Me Down (Lee meets Li'l Abner).
To be fair, there also are a bunch of stunners on the second CD. These include Something to Remember You By; So Far, So Good; My Magic Heart; and Shame on You. Even Goin' on a Hay Ride, technically a novelty number, is a surprisingly strong tune for Lee.
As the CD's liner notes point out, Peggy Lee had the ability to convey belief in every song she sang, no matter the material. As a songwriter herself, some of these songs must have been painful for her to sing. Yet Lee's professionalism and peachy phrasing never let it show.
JazzWax tracks and clips: Peggy Lee: The Lost '40s & '50's Capitol Masters is available here. To see Peggy Lee sing Why Don't You Do Right with Benny Goodman in 1942, go here. Dig drummer Louie Bellson's gutsy stick twirl over Goodman's shoulder at the outset. Dave Barbour is on guitar between Goodman and Lee.
To hear and see Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour's Capitol sound, go here for a video clip of I Only Have Eyes for You (1950). Listen how Lee bends notes effortlessly, with Barbour coming in behind her on that big electric guitar. And watch Lee curl her mouth for that fabulous phrasing. Stunning. And dig the chemistry between them!