Beyond the Book Review: A feast for the ears—60 Significant Vocal Jazz and Traditional Pop albums

I recently published a highly critical review of Will Friedwald’s The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums (Pantheon 2017) on my December 2017 Book Review blog. The book highlights 57 albums representing his perspective on the best albums in the vocal jazz, traditional pop, and cabaret traditions. Lists are highly subjective by definition so personal taste will always engender criticism. While I agree with many of his choices, such as 1954’s Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles’s  1962 album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, my primary critique with his list is a lack of diversity especially in terms of style and chronology. He fixates so narrowly on pop music of the mid-to-late 1950s (e.g., Doris Day) that he overlooks new generations of vocalists doing excellent work. Time will ultimately be the judge.

Below is a list of 60 albums in the vocal jazz, traditional pop, and cabaret fields that represent the best in the field of vocal interpretation. I selected the list based on the quality of the recording, unique and intangible qualities, and historic importance. Optimally, people who love enjoy these genres have fodder for discussion. Similarly, I hope that people seeking to build their collections and explore a variety of styles will find this list useful and informative. I aimed very intentionally to incorporate a balanced list of vocalists from multiple decades singing a broad repertoire of songs. I have restricted artists to one album apiece (except for duet projects) to foster greater diversity and have focused on albums rather than compilations. Because of this some key artists, such as Bessie Smith, are missing; check out my June 2016 blog “Contagious in his enthusiasms: A Personal List of Essential Music (Part 1)” to explore essential vocal jazz and pop compilations in greater depth.

Ballads, Crooning & Torch Songs

All the Way, 1992 (Jimmy Scott): After years of obscurity, the famed balladeer applied his languorous, almost elliptical style to classic ballads with the musicians and structural support befitting his talents.

American Song, 2003 (Andy Bey): A superb showcase of Bey’s hushed, carefully paced style  

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In the Wee Small hours of the Morning, 1955 (Frank Sinatra): This is one of ultimate torch song albums of Sinatra singing soulfully and vulnerably.

John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, 1963 (Johnny Hartman): On a program of six songs, saxophonist John Coltrane and the sublime baritone Johnny Hartman create one of the most sumptuous collections of love songs.

Love, 1963 (Rosemary Clooney): Love captures the sensual energy and bittersweet nature of Clooney’s romance with arranger Nelson Riddle whose dramatic orchestrations amplify the emotional subtexts of these songs of romantic longing.

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Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, 1994 (Etta James): James switched from sultry R&B to the torch  songs of Lady Day, her idol, and the result is a smoldering collection representing James at her most reflective.

Night in Manhattan, 1950 (Lee Wiley): Wiley’s cool sensuality illuminates a set of eight classic saloon songs.

Rapture, 1962 (Johnny Mathis): This suite of lushly arranged ballads captures the elegant crooning style of Johnny Mathis singing at his finest.

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The Very Thought of You, 1958 (Nat King Cole): The lushest and most beautiful collection of ballads recorded by the smooth and poised Cole.

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Blues & Jazz

Blue Light Til’ Dawn, 1993 (Cassandra Wilson): The most innovative vocal jazz album of the 1990s showcases profound awareness of how blues elements can transform how we hear and understand jazz.

Louis Plays W.C. Handy, 1964 (Louis Armstrong): Armstrong’s blues sensibility and improvisational prowess made him jazz’s most important musician. Here he interprets the repertoire of the premiere composer of early American blues.

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Classic Blues

Richland Woman Blues, 2001 (Maria Muldaur): Muldaur interprets classic blues and country blues songs associated with Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie, with gusto.

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Brazilian Jazz & Pop

Courage, Milton Nascimento, 1969 (Milton Nascimento): Nascimento was an established musician in Brazil; his introduction to U.S. listeners is a collaboration with jazz musicians featuring many songs vocalists continue interpreting including bridges and Salt Song.

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Elis & Tom, 1974 (Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim): Brazil’s finest singer and greatest composer collaborated on what are the definitive versions of songs such as “The Waters of March.”

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Cabaret

Blame it On My Youth, 1992 (Holly Cole): Swinging postmodern cabaret bringing together a century of composers from Frank Loesser to Lyle Lovett.

From Broadway to Bebop, 1994 (Susannah McCorkle): McCorkle locates the melodic richness and lyrical imagination of everything from jazz standards like “Moody’s Mood” to movie themes on this wonderfully eclectic group of interpretations.

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Judy Live at Carnegie Hall, 1961 (Judy Garland): Garland’s dynamic energy and vast repertoire came together on this magical night.

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Midnight at Mabel Mercer’s, 1956 (Mabel Mercer): This exquisite set represents the sophisticated repertoire and some of live emotional intimacy that made the Welsh-American singer the exemplar of the cabaret vocal style.

Songs By Bobby Short, 1960 (Bobby Short): Short held court at the Café Carlyle for over 30 years and defined New York’s Upper Eastside cabaret sound. This early set showcases his mastery of the songs of Vernon Duke, Bessie Smith, Cole Porter and more obscure composers.

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The Barbra Streisand Album, 1963 (Barbra Streisand): Streisand’s debut set a new standard in the vocal pop skill field via impeccable technical prowess and an original contemporary interpretive approach laced with irony, humor and vivacity that distinguished her from pre-rock female pop vocalists

The Divine Miss M, 1973 (Bette Midler): Midler reinvigorated cabaret music in the 1970s by mixing homages to pre-rock pop and rock material, with contemporary singer-songwriter fare.

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Experimental/Beyond Category

Café Blue, 1994 (Patricia Barber): Thrilling experimental jazz featuring original compositions, interpretations of rock and standards, poetry, and instrumentals.

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Genre-Busters

Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, 1960 (Ray Charles): The pioneering soul man invigorated songs by Hank Williams and the Everly Brothers with brassy swing, and infused countrypolitan ballads with elegance and pathos.

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Stardust, 1978 (Willie Nelson): Nelson translates his laidback phrasing and emotional command on this sterling collection of pre-rock standards arranged in an acoustic setting.

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The Gathering, 2011 (Diane Schuur): Schuur, singing and playing piano, reinterprets a set of first-rate country classics in a soulful style showcasing her gospel, jazz and pop roots.

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Singer-Songwriter Jazz

Be Good, 2012 (Gregory Porter): Porter solidified his reputation as the freshest male voice in 21st century vocal jazz thanks to his highly personal, yet relatable original songs, evoking writers like Oscar Brown Jr. and Marvin Gaye, and a warm, robust vocal style.

Serene Renegade, 2004 (René Marie): Marie consciously broke from the standards repertoire  to craft this engaging suite of melodic new songs that tell fresh personal stories.

 

Soul & Jazz

Live Session, 1964 (Ernie Andrews and Cannonball Adderley): A jumping set of soulful and swinging performances by one of jazz’s most venerable and underrated vocalists in the presence of a sizzling band.

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Pride and Joy, 2002 (Kevin Mahogany): Mahogany reinterprets classics from the Motown era as fresh jazz vehicles.

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Tobacco Road, 1964 (Lou Rawls): Classic songs like “Ol Man River” and “Georgia on My Mind” take on a new life via the thoughtful interpretations of the soulful Lou Rawls.

 

Straight-ahead jazz & bebop

A Little Moonlight, 2003 (Dianne Reeves): Superb straight-ahead jazz that makes you hear key classics like “What a Little Moonlight Can do,” and “Lullaby of Broadway” in an entirely new way. 

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American Road, 2011 (Tierney Sutton Band): A stunning amalgamation of songs from spirituals to Broadway.

Anita O ’Day Sings the Winners, 1958 (Anita O’Day): A jazz vocalist in prime form interpreting classic jazz melodies.

Cat, 2006 (Catherine Russell): A contemporary synthesizer of R&B, swing, rock, and classic blues debuts here.

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Close Enough for Love, 1989 (Shirley Horn): A masterful blend of luxuriant balladry and hard swinging jazz.

Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, 1955 (Joe Williams): A classic of big band swing jazz with a blued edge, including definitive versions of "Everyday I the Blues," "In the Evening When the Sun Goes Down," and "Alright, OK You Win" that have established a blueprint for other vocalists.

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Dinah Jams, 1954 (Dinah Washington): Washington showcases the scope of her improvisational chops on this thrilling set recorded with bebop musicians before a live audience.

Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert, 1958 (Ella Fitzgerald): Ella’s finest live album showcases her mastery of ballads, swing, improvisation and performance on an eclectic repertoire of top shelf songs.

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Live at the Jazz Workshop, 1989 (Kitty Margolis): One of the most skilled improvisers steeped in the jazz tradition debuted on this thrilling concert album.

Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, 1995 (Dee Dee Bridgewater): Bridgewater performs the first full collection of lyricized Horace Silver songs and it balances swing, bop, and funk perfectly.

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Mel Tormé Swings Shubert Alley, 1960 (Mel Tormé): Tormé’s wit, poise, and musicianship infuses a set of bonafide Broadway classics with a jazz-based savoir-faire

Nancy King: Live at Jazz Standard (with Fred Hersch), 2006 (Nancy King): A masterful vocal improviser and astute pianist  make improvisational magic together live.

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Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley 1961, (Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley): Nancy Wilson essays a set of classic performances melding the earthiness of R&B with the fervor of jazz

Nightmoves, 2009 (Kurt Elling):  Elling employs his formidable jazz chops on a varied program including a brilliant rendition of “Body and Soul” dedicated to his daughter.

No Cover, No Minimum, 1960 (Billy Eckstine): This live set chronicle’s baritone Eckstine’s powerful showmanship on everything from Broadway to Ellington.

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Portrait of Sheila Jordan, 1962 (Sheila Jordan): A total original in the vocal world, Jordan translated the improvisational values of her bebop heroes, especially Charlie Parker, into daring approaches to jazz and pop standards.

Rah! 1961 (Mark Murphy): A student of bebop, swing, vocalese, and cool jazz, bopster Mark Murphy made his reputation on this inspired set, most notable for his take on “Doodlin,” “Twisted,” and “Milestones.”

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Sarah Vaughan, 1954 (Sarah Vaughan):  Vaughan’s gorgeous voice anchors this delightful small group set highlighted by classic ballad performances of “April in Paris” and “Embraceable You” and a highly influential version of Lullaby of Birdland.”

Songs I Like to Sing! 1960 (Helen Humes):  The bluesy jazz singer with the girlish tone sings her favorite songs with some of her favorite musicians and the result is a highly natural and entertaining group of expert swinging performances.

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Spring Isn’t Everything, 1986 (Maxine Sullivan): The swinging minimalist interprets songs of Harry Warren with interpretive grace and swinging aplomb.

Sweet Home Cookin’, 1993 (Karrin Allyson): Allyson’s sophomore album is a genuinely exciting collection of heartfelt ballads, soulful vocalese, and skillful improvisation.

The Audience with Betty Carter, 1979 (Betty Carter): This live set captures the skill and excitement of the improvisational daredevil Betty Carter.

The Dreamer in Me: Live at Dizzy’s Club, 2009 (Freddy Cole): An exciting concert set that captures the singer and pianist in total command of pop, swing, and blues tunes.

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The Great American Songbook, 1972 (Carmen McRae): Subtle, swinging, and incisive, this concert capture McRae in peak form.

The Hottest New Group in Jazz, 1960 (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross): One of the most influential collections of the art of vocalese highlighted by classics such as “Twisted.”

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The Real Thing, 1990 (Carol Sloane): An exemplary performance of swing, bop, and balladry by a seasoned interpreter.

Traditional Pop/Swing Influenced Pop

The Art of Romance, 2004 (Tony Bennett): An interpretive master reaches his musical and lyrical acme on an inspired set of love songs.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Porgy & Bess, 1958 (Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong): Jazz’s greatest duet partners combine forces on this exquisite interpretation of America’s premier folk opera.

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Little Girl Blue, 1959 (Nina Simone): Simone’s unique blend of classical and jazz influences premiered on this stately album of inspired interpretations including “I Loves you Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

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Movin’ on Broadway, 1960 (Kay Starr): Starr brings brass, sizzle, and pathos to a delightful set of Broadway classics.

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Each of these artists represents the best of these vocal traditions and  warrant further listening and exploration. Enjoy!

   COPYRIGHT © 2017 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Listening to Lady Day with fresh ears

Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth

By John Szwed

Viking, 2015

 

                                                  Copyright  ©  2015 www.johnszwed.com.

                                                  Copyright©2015 www.johnszwed.com.

When I was a child the film Lady Sings the Blues (starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Pryor) was the kind of movie broadcast on Saturday afternoons on local channels that showed syndicated programs and old movies years before Fox, UPN, and the WB took them over. I remember watching bits and pieces of the film over the years, but reading Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery led me to revisit my conceptions of Billie Holiday including re-watching Lady. Though film critics generally dismissed it as factually questionable and dramatically challenged (though most appreciated Diana Ross’s performance) I interpret the film as more of an impressionistic sketch of Holiday than an attempt to retell her life story. The film’s primary problem for me is not the melodrama, the composite characters, or even its historical liberties. It’s the lack of attention to the most compelling element of Holiday—the music. The film’s nightclub scenes present multiple opportunities to distinguish Holiday’s approach to popular songs from the other singers featured but the movie never digs into the music making it incomplete. 

 Though Holiday’s childhood, failed romances, and addictions are integral to her story, her music forms the nucleus of our interest in Lady Day. As much as the film might be faulted, countless biographies are as guilty as the film in perpetuating distorted visions of Holiday. 

 Musician, author, and former professor John Szwed delves into Holiday’s artistry with the freshest eyes and ears since Griffin in Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth. Both more and less than a traditional biography it’s a smart exegesis of previous clichés, rumors, and gossip employing authoritative primary sources bringing us closer to understanding who Billie Holiday was by focusing on her music and challenging commonsense about her life. Structurally, he divides his argument into “The Myth” (first three chapters) and “The Musician” (Chapters Four-Eight) sections.

 Chapter One reviews the back story of the oft-questioned 1956 Holiday autobiography Lady Sings the Blues which was co-written by Holiday with William Dufty. Here Szwed chiefly reveals Doubleday’s reservations about content and tone, Holiday’s concerns about compromising privacy, and divided critical responses, including explicit concerns from black critics about the image its sordid tales of addiction might project.

 Szwed’s key observation is Holiday’s role in crafting her mythology. Whether we consider her a reliable or unreliable narrator is moot—the point is she was savvy enough to understand her stature and to tell stories that reflected her desired perception from the public. Chapter Two delves further into the public removed from the book, notably white public figures like Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, and Tallulah Bankhead. Here again Szwed reiterates Holiday’s use of media, including magazines, to defend and redefine herself regarding addiction and recovery, racism, and financial issues among others. Holiday’s translation onscreen is also explored including Holiday’s disappointing role in New Orleans, her self-portrayal in the ‘50s TV series The Comeback Story, and her legendary performance on a 1957 episode of The Seven Lively Arts-Sound of Jazz.

 Unlike many singers of her generation there are limited cinematic and televisual representations of Holiday which further limits our access to her outside of music. What we have is mostly forgettable—Holiday traversing of an old Hollywood version of black servitude (she portrays a maid in the film) in the ‘40s, and a tacky re-enactment of her troubled life (Benny Goodman and others refused to participate) in the relatively new medium of television. Ironically, toward the end of her life as addiction ravages her voice, a single program manages to successfully capture her in her essence: singing with a stellar group of musicians.

 Comparing the magic captured in the 1957 clip with the 1972 film illuminates its lost potential. As Szwed notes, an adaption of the biography was in the works for decades until Motown finally seized it more as an opportunity to make profitable entertainment than a musical portrait. Though Szwed dismisses Ross’s singing (“far from Holiday’s technically in its phrasing and rhythmic feel”) I enjoy the loose, woozy quality of her singing in the film and on the popular soundtrack. Again, she approaches the character through homage more than imitation giving her room to bask in the screenplay’s liberties such as her warm relationship to “Piano Man” played by Richard Pryor. While she is not Holiday there’s a fleet gleeful quality to her vocal performances afforded by the greater rhythmic freedom of the arrangements than her Motown material. I think Szwed dismisses the film a little too readily. If anything Ross’s vocal performance and vulnerable depiction conveys how even a great performer can struggle to capture Holiday.

 “The Myth” section, which concludes with a discussion of Holiday’s photographic imagery, is a lucid, engaging appetizer for Szwed’s main course—an intimate discussion of her musical genius in “The Musician.” Unlike a lay critic he moves beyond generic descriptors of her style to technically informed but accessible analyses of what she does musically and why it is notable. 

 Szwed draws a map of the female singing traditions that preceded Holiday in Chapter Four including the racially problematic minstrelsy and “coon” songs genres, classic blues woman Ma Rainey, “red-hot mamas,” and flappers/coquettes. It is as excellent a review of pre-jazz popular singing as you’ll find. He primarily cites Ethel Waters, big band jazz singer Mildred Bailey, and cabaret diva Mabel Mercer as key influences from these eras on Holiday. He also explores the long held perception of Holiday as the quintessential torch singer comparing her to Libby Holman, Helen Morgan, and Edith Piaf. For those unfamiliar with this period his discussion is a convincing sketch, but even the most knowledgeable readers will learn something new and find Szwed’s intriguing discussion points stirring.

 The remaining three Chapters illuminate multiple, aspects of Holiday’s formidable technique. More than anything he illustrates why the greatest compliment instrumentalists and critics can offer jazz singers is to label them as musicians. He outlines her career in phases noting her role as a “jazz musician” at Columbia in swing-oriented small groups, as a “straight jazz singer” at Commodore Records and Decca when jazz was gaining stature as an art in the early ‘40s, a classicist in her Verve/Clef Records phase where she revisited her signature songs and added new songs, and a kind of parlando singer on her final two albums where she relied more on recitative than ever.

 Among his observations are her skill at controlling tempo; her discriminating use of vibrato; her mastery of microphone technique; her ability to adapt and revise her influences (notably Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith); her ability to recompose songs through shifting her emphasis on certain consonants and stressing certain syllables seamlessly in her performances; a cross-rhythmic approach to time illustrated through a transcription of her 1945 performance of “What is This Thing Called Love?” on Decca;  exceptional diction; her ability to weave mutual melodic lines and solo with musicians without clashing harmonically (most notably with saxophonist Lester Young); and mostly, her consistent ability to trigger emotions among listeners.

 Central to his analysis of Holiday is distinguishing the notion of “good” jazz songs from the way the most skilled performers bring jazz to their material. He illustrates this most eloquently in describing the way Holiday’s interpretation of “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” improves the song. Notably, her version entails “detuning the melody, shifting the rhythmic accents around, and ignoring the moderator tempo indicated on the song’s original sheet music” (140) which established the blueprint for subsequent versions. Szwed also provides an array of examples of similar feats including Holiday’s subtle gestures on “It’s like reaching for the moon” and more radical choices on “I’ll Get By.”

 In addition to harvesting these aspects of Holiday’s art he demonstrates a fine breath of knowledge and insight in discussing the controversial roots of signature Holiday songs like “Strange Fruit”; comparing multiple versions of songs Holiday recorded throughout her career; and discussing her last two albums extensively, among other topics.

 Szwed’s structure builds genuine suspense by establishing elements of Holiday’s character and intelligence carefully, and piquing your interest in how she approaches music. His wise decision to devote five of the book’s eight chapters to Holiday’s music as vividly and comprehensively as he does is a feat of sound research, original thinking, and skillful writing. Placing her music at the center of his discussion truly makes her shine as the subject. And fulfills his aim “to shift the focus to her art” rather than the well-worn “tribulations and tragedy of her life” (197). Reading Billie Holiday the book instantly makes you want to listen and re-listen to Holiday the singer; both are in glorious harmony.

 

 COPYRIGHT ©2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. 

The last word on Miss Peggy Lee

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.

 

Copyright  ©  2014. Atria/Simon & Schuster.

Copyright © 2014. Atria/Simon & Schuster.

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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