Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee
By James Gavin
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster, 2014
Peggy Lee’s main musical contribution to pop music came during her 1952-56 stint at Decca Records. Lee, who possessed a modest voice and a deft way with a phrase, was a minimalist whose “less is more” approach preceded the “cool” school of vocal singing that gained favor in the ‘50s (i.e. June Christy, Chris Connor). Her “orgiastic” arrangement of “Lover” angered composer Richard Rodgers but it was a hit in 1952 and has influenced most subsequent renditions. 1953’s Black Coffee (a 10” album later expanded to a 12” LP) established her as an important albums artist capable of executing a concept thoroughly and successfully, a pattern she continued during her second tenure at Capitol Records (1956-72). Though she had commercial successes at Columbia Records and hit singles during her first run at Capitol (1945-51) it was at Decca where her distinctive vocal persona blossomed and she became someone of interest to jazz listeners.
During her return to Capitol she made some seminal recordings, notably 1958’s sensual “Fever,” and some enchanting influential ones as well (her original composition 1961’s “I Love Being Here with You,” 1957’s “Folks Who Live on the Hill,” 1969’s “Is that All there Is?”). Her recording career (1941-93) is, however, best understood as sporadic. In the late ‘60s, “Is That All There Is” aside, she began losing her taste and largely recorded rock and R&B songs incongruent with her voice in garish arrangements that clashed. It’s simple: she couldn’t give up pop.
James Gavin’s Is That All There Is? is the second major biography of Peggy Lee in eight years following Peter Richmond’s Fever published in 2006. As a book it expands on a lot of what Richmond revealed about Lee. Notably it reiterates Lee as a gifted singer whose deft musicality was of a piece with her sultry, highly cultivated image and persona. Similarly as its subtitle indicates, Gavin depicts Lee as an eccentric recluse whose insecurity, vanity, and mean streaks made her a difficult person. The greatest reveal of both is not that Lee was complicated—decades of “tell-all” biographies have long exposed gaps between star personae and actual personae; the takeaway for me is how fragile the legacies of singers on the pop/jazz axis actually are. The real question Is That All There Is raises is does Peggy Lee warrant so much biographical coverage? Arguably, Gavin’s book is so thorough it is definitive, and deserves to be the last word on Lee for awhile.
Gavin is an excellent journalist and biographer who wrote a seminal account of New York cabaret life (Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret) and the most thorough overview of Lena Horne’s life and career with 2009’s Stormy Weather: The Life of Lena Horne. He covers Lee’s music even more authoritatively than Richmond, such as his discussion of her innovative use of Latin percussion on several ‘50s recordings. Gavin also details her masterfully seductive presence in the television medium. Though Richmond covers all the basics effectively Gavin writes in a more intimate style and seems to have had even greater access to behind-the-scenes stories. For example, in the opening chapters he provides a more complicated portrait of Lee’s childhood in North Dakota, especially regarding her relationship to her emotionally abusive stepmother.
He also gets his sources to share what happened literally and emotionally, which can be entertaining. The anecdotes he recounts from jazz singer Mark Murphy about meeting Lee, whom he idolized, as well as her curtness toward him after he rejected her advances are fascinating. Like his work on Horne he is a skillful storyteller who convinces you through vivid accounts of personal and professional situations and a natural narrative flow. Gavin also excels at placing Lee’s music within the cultural moment, including a lucid reflection on the contrast between “Fever” and ‘50s sexual politics, and a thematic yoking of music industry payola and the quiz show scandals to illustrate the era’s mendacious currents.
Gavin succeeds in provoking valid questions about the path singers of Lee’s generation made when confronted with the commercial risks of staying true to the jazz influenced pop milieu and the artistic risks of staying commercially relevant. His book, in concert with Richmond’s and critic Will Friedwald’s take on Lee (in 2010’s A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers), helped clarify for me how vanity is often more culpable for artists’ tarnishing their discographies than simple record industry greed or audience coarseness, even when these are factors.
Though Lee first made her mark commercially in the 1940s in Benny Goodman’s band she is a beneficiary of the CD era and the digital age. After decades of hard-to-find rarities, like 1975’s Mirrors, you can finally access almost everything important that she recorded. Aside from her ‘40s and ‘50s boilerplate hits, which have been in print for years, I was especially excited when Capitol/EMI and Collector’s Choice reissued some of her ‘60s LPs in 2008 because I was curious how Lee—whom Friedwald has praised for her versatility with blues and R&B—handled rock and more modern pop songs. The results were mostly strained and disappointing. More to my liking was the gradual availability of ‘50s & ‘60s LPs (i.e. 1957’s The Man I Love; 1961’s Peggy at Basin Street East: The Unreleased Show, released in 2002) on iTunes, Amazon etc. where I could download individual Lee versions of songs and compile my own collections of Lee material.
This is an enjoyable way to hear Lee sing one’s personal favorites but it only goes so far. Her arrangement preferences are consistent, maybe to a fault, and as deft as she was at crooning she lacks the range of colors Ella, Sarah, and other more elite jazz singers and the dynamism of pop singers like Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Lee is an enjoyable talent but seems less transcendent when one listens extensively to her main influence Maxine Sullivan, and an even earlier precedent the sensual phraser Lee Wiley.
If from 1941-65 Lee was a bonafide jazz influenced pop singer and recording artist, from 1965 onward she made a series of mostly (mis) calculations to stay current that backfired. By the time she reconnected with anything remotely in the jazz milieu in 1988 (on Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues) her vocal resources were seriously declining. Lee was a purveyor of mostly high quality pop for about 25 years but she—not rock ‘n’ roll, rock, or industry executives—shook up her legacy by straining for hipness and succumbing to unfortunate trends. As such she is more important as a skillful pop singer who worked in jazz settings than a vocal jazz innovator.
This does not necessarily diminish her accomplishments or influence. She has written lyrics to several standard, or near-standard, tunes including “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “I Love Being Here with You,” “Where Can I Go without You,” and “I’m Gonna Go Fishin.’” Further, singers as diverse as Jeanie Bryson, Bette Midler, Jessica Molaskey, and Maria Muldaur have saluted her recordings. But when you consider their emphasis on her ‘40s and ‘50s recordings it only amplifies that there is a very specific period her followers cite: the first 25 for more so than the last.
It’s tempting to blame industry politics with diminishing the careers of pre-rock pop singers, and the downsizing of the genre. But commercial genres fluctuate naturally as do audience tastes. In the ‘60s jazz and pre-rock singers turned away from standards to record newer pop songs; in the 1990s and 2000s rock and soul singers turned to standards when their new songs failed to click with audiences. More importantly, a formidable group of jazz-oriented singers have defied the blame game clichés by scaling down. In the 1970s Fitzgerald and Vaughan left the frustrating world of pop labels and recorded for Pablo Records, an independent label founded by jazz producer Norman Granz. Because they had already enjoyed pop careers and primarily made their living as performers in their autumn years their recordings were conceptual statements (Ella sings bossa nova! Sarah sings Ellington!) not attempts at populism. After recording a few soft rock sets for United Artists Rosemary Clooney gave up on pop and recorded for Concord Jazz, as did Mel Tormé. Maxine Sullivan (Lee’s main vocal influence) recorded for Audiophile, Concord and Harbinger. Helen Humes and Etta Jones recorded for Muse Records.
After Lee left at Capitol in 1972, ending her recording career there with thundering covers of songs like “Spinning Wheel,” “Everyday People,” “Sing,” “The Long and Winding Road” and other hits of the day, she continued to chase the pop market even though she could have recorded for more artistically minded independent labels. Post-Capitol Lee recorded the pop-soul mediocrity Let’s Love (Atlantic Records), the eccentric Leiber and Stoller written art song concept jumble Mirrors (A&M), and the disco/funk flavored pop set of new and old songs Close Enough for Love (DRG). After a long fallow period, during which she wrote and starred in the disastrous autobiographical one woman Broadway show Peg, she recorded for the small indie label Music Masters label in 1988. There she recorded a fine blues set Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues. Her tight-lipped performance is a little off putting at first but it works contextually. It should have been her last recording. 1990’s The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring provided an opportunity to revisit her compositions; her voice was very subdued but masked by strings and the songs are of uneven quality. By 1992’s Love Held Lightly and 1993’s Moments like This (Chesky) she was a shadow of herself.
Here lies the difference between Lee and Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Tormé etc.—they were improvisers and needed the meat provide by complex songs to work their magic. At Pablo, Fitzgerald and Vaughan gave up the pop radio spotlight but gained opportunities to record quality material in intimate settings appropriate for their voices. If Lee recorded for Pablo, or Audiophile, or Concord she could have enjoyed a few more decades of glory in more scaled down settings. This is precisely how Rosemary Clooney’s reputation transcended much of her ‘50s schlock and made her an important vocal artist from the late 1970s-early 2000s.
Lee has achieved pop iconicity through recordings like “Black Coffee,” and “Fever,” her film work (Pete Kelly’s Blues and The Lady and the Tramp), and her iconic image. Reading Gavin’s account of Lee actually made me increasingly less interested in reading more about her than reflecting on how other singers of Lee’s vintage, like Kay Starr and Tormé (who Gavin mentions as a colleague-turned-rival for Lee), strike me as underrated.
Starr was arguably one of the best blues-oriented jazz interpreters of her generation and her Capitol LPs from 1959-62 are, frankly, superior to Lee’s. Though she dabbled here and there in commercial country in the ‘60s and ‘70s, she recorded a big band jazz set with the Count Basie Orchestra in 1968, a swinging jazz album (Back to the Roots) came in 1975, and she still soars on her final album 1986’s Live at Freddy’s. As of this writing she is entering her 93rd year; though jazz critics Gary Giddins and Friedwald have written fine essay length tributes to her art she is overdue for greater coverage. Tormé, like many peers, wanted to stay in the mainstream thus he endured some commercial compromises at Atlantic, Capitol, and Columbia, etc. But, like Clooney he got serious and found his stride at Concord and had a great second wind from the early '80s through his death.
Other worthy singers who have kept jazz at the center of their artistic pursuits include the late Lorez Alexandria, Helen Humes, Maxine Sullivan, and Shirley Horn, as well as singers alive currently including Ernestine Anderson, Ernie Andrews, Andy Bey, Freddy Cole, Mark Murphy, and Carol Sloane.
Music critics can easily point to the ways the music industry diminished the role of jazz influenced pop. But they are less critical of how the publishing industry is more interested in telling the stories of well-known pop icons from the jazz world than those who rarely-to-never crossed over. Is That All There? is an entertaining and authoritative account of Lee’s life and career. Her iconic status has been solidified but it’s important to remember the range of untold stories in vocal jazz remaining to be heard.
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