Girl Power in Classic Jazz – Three Songs From The 40’s Where The Girls Tell Their Guys To Amscray
Amscray – for those not fluent in pig latin, it means scram. As in beat it, go away, or make yourself scarce. I am not a lyrics guy. Most of the time I have to listen to something multiple times before I eventually pick up the lyrics – at least most of them. But sometimes the lyrics are hard to ignore, and are as compelling as the music that backs them up. Today we present three examples of songs before their time, songs where strong ladies have plenty to say to men who don’t measure up.
The reason these lyrics are hard to ignore is the combination of their genre and their era. Peoples’ playlists are loaded with songs alternatively described as Girl Power, Feminist or Empowerment songs. From the 1960s forward, songs like Leslie Gore’s You Don’t Own Me and Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T anchor so many lists of songs that every badass girl needs from time to time. That genre really hit its stride in the 1980’s and 1990’s and today you can take your pick of songs of that style, sung by a huge variety of artists.
But our wheelhouse is not the 1960s and beyond but a time period long before – when the typical lyric was about love or, alternatively, sorrow for love gone wrong. There were a handful of “breakup songs” of that period, but most of those poured out by female singers were about recovery from the pain of rejection – jazz classics of that genre are Billie Holiday’s Good Morning Heartache and Julie London’s Cry Me A River. But that sort of recovery from heartbreak is not what we are going for today. Instead, we went looking for songs about girls with some attitude, and have three examples from the 1940s to share.
It took a little doing, as this was not an era known for womens’ empowerment (or, for that matter, for women writing songs). Ladies like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey belted out some “my man’s a low-down, no-good jerk” blues in the 1920’s, but many of music’s rough edges had been smoothed by the start of WWII. These three may not have been the start of a trend, but they did get put down on wax and should be remembered as evidence that a woman who’s not going to take any sass is not a strictly modern phenomenon.
The earliest of today’s three is probably the most famous. Norma Egstrom (known professionally as Peggy Lee) had paid her musical dues singing in a series of regional clubs here and there before she got noticed during a 1941 gig in Chicago by the King of Swing, Benny Goodman. By that time, Lee had perfected a style that was a little sultry and a little sexy, and always subtle and a bit aloof in a way that never tried to reach the audience, so much as it made the audience try to reach her. It was in the middle of a two year stretch of singing with the band that she cut Why Don’t You Do Right.
Recorded July 27, 1942 in New York and released October of that year (the B side to Goodman’s famous instrumental Six Flats Unfurnished) the song would became part of her repertoire for the rest of what would be a nearly sixty-five year career. Lee’s later work is well known, from her voice acting in Disney’s Lady And The Tramp, to 1958’s Fever and to 1970’s Is That All There Is.
Why Don’t You Do Right is a musical version of a lady out of patience with a no-good man who has never gotten his act together. “Get outta here, and get me some money too” is a line that all too many women have identified with over the decades. Blues singer Lil Green did the song with a small group in 1941, but this Mel Powell arrangement made the chord progressions far richer and has become the one everyone knows. Some will remember that this song got some exposure by Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 partially animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Trivia time – although Kathleen Turner was the voice for the sultry, animated femme fatale’, Amy Irving provided Jessica’s singing voice in a version far more provocative than this one.
Next up is probably the most obscure of the three, but also probably my favorite. I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out had a brief run among bands in 1947-48 and, oddly enough, the first to record it was Woody Herman. Odd because Herman did his own vocals and this song is just not a guy’s song. Oh, a guy can sing it alright, but he spends three minutes being a toxic, nasty jerk while he does so. The better versions were June Christy singing in front of Stan Kenton’s band and this one – by Anita O’Day.
Anita O’Day (originally Anita Belle Colton) may be one of the most underrated female jazz singers of her era. A contemporary of Peggy Lee, O’Day is known for her slightly hoarse voice and is most associated with the band of Gene Krupa. When Krupa got sent to the pokey on a marijuana charge, O’Day spent some time with both Woody Herman’s band and then Stan Kenton’s before going out into a solo career. O’Day was one of the more jazz-centered singers, with a style that was both more percussive and improvisational than was the norm. Discerning listeners with long memories will recall that we have previously featured the similarly raspy voice of June Christy, whom Stan Kenton chose to replace O’Day when she turned in her notice.
This song was the B side of a disc recorded late 1947 and released in early1948 on the independent Signature label. Bandleader Ralph Burns is best known as Woody Herman’s piano guy in the 40’s and provides a good backdrop for O’Day, who was clearly the star here early in her solo career. O’Day had some of her own legal troubles with weed in the early 50’s but ended up with a career that ran even longer than that of Peggy Lee – she was still active into 2006, the year she died – over seventy years after getting her professional start in 1934.
This song also got some fresh exposure in the 1980s when it was sung by Cybil Shepard in an episode of the short-lived television show she shared with a young Bruce Willis – Moonlighting (Starting at about the 3 minute mark of a 2-song video). Given the friction between Shepard and Willis on the show (both in and out of character), the song was a perfect choice, in an arrangement that closely tracks O’Day’s version.
The last piece is the one that started me on this odyssey. Baby Get Lost was one of Dinah Washington’s first Number One R&B hits. Washington, by the way, completes a trio of women who avoided their given names – Ruth Lee Jones, in this case. Recorded March 4, 1949 in New York and released July, this record acts as a kind of bridge from the earlier era of the big band and the new sounds that would dominate the 1950s. Dinah Washington hit her stride in the early 1950s and was at the peak of her power at the time of her unexpected death in 1963 at the age of 39. We previously featured Washington near the end of her career but today we get her closer to the beginning. I have often wondered about the source of the “vocal runs” made famous by more modern singers like Whitney Houston and Beyonce’. I wonder if that source might be Dinah Washington who found a few places in this record to pepper a whole fistful of notes where the sheet music undoubtedly showed just one.
Notable sidemen on this record include Ernie Wilkins (alto sax) and Freddie Green (guitar), both long-associated with the Count Basie Band, which was then on hiatus. That piano guy sounds a lot like the Count himself to my ears, but session notes credit a guy named James Foreman, Jr. Given musicians’ history of using pseudonyms to get around record label contracts, I am still not 100% convinced on this point. Also of note was a young Ray Brown on bass (during his brief marriage to Ella Fitzgerald) and the strong, strong trumpet of George Hudson. Hudson was a longtime player in Kansas City and St. Louis as well as in New York, and who began a long second career as a music educator at Lovejoy High School in Brooklyn, Illinois that began a year or two after this record was made.
Like the other songs noted today, this one has not been recorded often, but those who have picked it up have made for a memorable version. The tune was covered later in1949 by Billie Holliday (with a very different arrangement) and in 2004 by Queen Latifah on The Dana Owens Album (with an arrangement inspired by Washington’s take).
Don’t ask me why a guy of slowly advancing age gets a charge out of songs like these. Maybe it was being raised in a family of strong women who were genetically predisposed to not put up with crap from anyone else. Or maybe I just enjoy listening to songs about poorly-socialized men who get schooled by ladies who deserved a higher quality of companion. Whatever the case, these songs (and the women who sang them) laid some groundwork for lots of girls who came later. In a way, we can think of Lee, O’Day and Washington as the mothers or grandmothers of the many girls since who were not afraid to speak their minds into a recording studio mic. Whether the magic words are “Get outta here”, “Get out” or a simple “Get lost”, I think that makes these three from the old-school worthy of some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Music selections as identified on the embedded YouTube pages
Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman – Screen Grab from 1943 film Stage Door Canteen
Other photos are period publicity photos or album cover art
I’ll vote for Peggy Lee on this one, and I like Balfour’s guitar playing on the later version I listened to. Although my favorite bit on this post is the “NON-BREAKABLE under normal use” claim on the Baby Get Lost disc.
How many things in life could you say that about?
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Yes, the beginnings of “the miracle of modern plastics” which benefitted the record industry as it did most everything else around that time. Anyone who ever accidentally dropped a brittle shellac disc on the floor really appreciated these!
In writing this, I have decided that I have not spent enough time listening to Peggy Lee – I will have to do something about that.
J.P. this entry is makin’ my Friday and October! BTW, Anita and Dinah both ended up in Bert Sterns fabulous “Jazz on a Summer’s Day”, his doc about the Newport Jazz festival (I think I own two copies). Worth a watch to see these “queens” in action! The hippest jazz film ever…
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Wow, I see I really got behind in responding to comments! Yes, this one was a blast to put together. I have not watched that film, and should do so. None of these 3 ladies of Jazz may come up at the top of most listeners’ lists of top female jazz singers because none is named Billie, Ella or Sarah. But, each of these three had a notable career and left us a lot of great listening. I really need to hit each of these lodes harder than I have.
Your blog has me thinking I must add some more badass girl songs to my playlist. The only one I recognize here, and thought of right away is, the Cybill Shepard’s rendition, mostly because I think I might have owned a CD/cassette tape of songs from Moonlighting at one time. Her version wasn’t the best, the Blue Moon one was better. I must check out Peggy Lee a bit more.
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This piece really woke up my Peggy Lee fanboy urge – I am not sure why she always kind of fell off to the side for me. She has a quality to her singing that you really don’t find anywhere else – a sort of relaxed, slightly careworn, “I don’t really care if you listen or not” vibe to it that is really appealing to me right now.
I remember really liking Moonlighting when it was on TV, and had forgotten that Cybill did that song. I only found it when checking out other versions than the ones I knew. And yes, doesn’t everyone need more badass girl songs on the playlist? 🙂
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I was fortunate to witness one of Peggy Lee’s last performances, unexpectedly, at a charity event in West Los Angeles in the late 1980s. She could still put the moves and high notes into “Fever”. I’m fascinated by your knowledge of the details of jazz, J.P. Your subject aside, you make comments here and there which show you’ve really delved into the lives and performances of these singers. I enjoy that aspect of your posts. Finally, like the earlier comment about NON-BREAKABLE, I love how the Columbia disc includes an advert for Columbia needles right there on the vinyl. I mean, with all that real estate, why not, right?
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Thanks for the kind words, Dave. These are always both a chore and a joy to write – a joy because I love the topic and a chore because while I know enough for a short barroom conversation about many of these performers or songs, there is a lot of digging for depth (and to check the accuracy of what I remember or think I know). And wow, Peggy Lee would have been a great performer to catch. Some singers age better than others (in voice or style) and from what I know, Lee aged far better than most.
I have always had a real thing for record labels – I don’t know why. I could look at old record labels all day long. Maybe that is why I love to use shots of them whenever I can.
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