There was a time when jazz music and popular music overlapped quite a bit, and some great singers came out of that era. We have taken some time before with the inimitable Ella Fitzgerald and also the great Sarah Vaughan. We also spent some time with another favorite of mine, June Christy. Let us start the new year with another who is often mentioned in the same discussions as the ladies above: The great Peggy Lee.
We touched on Peggy some time back in a post on Girl Power in Classic Jazz, but that was nowhere near the level of attention she deserves. Lee was born Norma Egstrom on May 26, 1920. Her early life on the prairies of North Dakota was a hard one. The girl’s mother died when Norma was just four years old. Her father was a railroad depot manager who was also a severe alcoholic, so that his young daughter sometimes had to cover for him at work. Worse, he married again – this time to a woman who resented the child and was both physically and emotionally abusive. Norma could not wait to get away.
While still a teen, Norma performed on some local radio programs starting around 1936, and the following year found her on a larger station in Fargo, ND with a bigger audience and a new name – Peggy Lee. She made her way to Hollywood in 1938, but had to return home following a case of exhaustion and the need for a tonsillectomy. She got back to Hollywood in 1940 and got hired by Benny Goodman the following year – a gig that would be considered hitting the bigtime in anyone’s book. It was during her stint with Goodman that she met the love of her life, the guitarist Dave Barbour, whom she wed in 1943.
Lee and Barbour both left the band because of Goodman’s strict policy against, um, fraternization. She was happy to leave music and focus on making a home life for her husband and daughter, but Barbour encouraged her to not let her musical talents go to waste. Not only was Peggy a gifted singer, but she was a songwriter as well, eventually reaching well over two hundred songs to her credit. She once said that when Barbour came home from a day as a session musician in Los Angeles, Lee would report that dinner was not finished, but the song was.
The scope of this piece started out to be a little broader, but then I came across a small series of filmed performances that were simply fantastic in multiple ways. First, they show Peggy Lee at her jazz-singing best. If there is another singer who was within the same ZIP code as the great Billie Holiday in the way she put over a song, it would be Lee, who sang with a minimalistic style and could bend notes and tempos while never losing the beat. And like Holiday, Lee was not gifted with one of those naturally beautiful voices that makes the listener marvel that such a thing could exist. In fact, early reviews of her performances with the Goodman band were so bad that Peggy wanted to quit. But Goodman wouldn’t have it, and with practice she cultivated her strength which was a singing style that was a little sultry, a little sexy and a little world-weary.
What put these performances over the top for me is the way that this husband and wife team came together into a whole that seemed more than the two individual parts. These three filmed performances were made around 1950, apparently for the purpose of television broadcasts. They were made a few years after studio recordings of the same songs, but these have a looser, more relaxed delivery that is just delicious.
“I Don’t Know Enough About You” is an early collaboration in which Barbour wrote the melody and Lee penned the lyrics. They first recorded it for Capitol Records in late 1945, and it was the first tune Lee wrote that broke into the popularity charts of the day. The studio version is slower but this one is more relaxed, as though it had been broken in a bit and made more comfortable. I cannot decide if I am a bigger fan of the melody – which has plenty of interest in the way it is constructed – or the lyrics. Lee’s lyrics are subtle and a little ambiguous, giving the tune some mystery.
These filmed performances were almost certainly synced with a separately recorded sound track, but that sound track is delectable. Lee’s subtle and minimalistic vocal style mates perfectly with Barbour’s guitar, which has the same qualities. This song has been performed by a lot of others over the years, but it is a treat to see the two composers (with their musical and personal chemistry) show us how it is done.
The second video I chose is not one of the couple’s compositions, but is an old nugget that dates to 1929 – “I May Be Wrong”. The staging is charming, but this married couple sells it pretty well. Again, Lee and Barbour are lovely complements to one another.
It is hard not to compare this couple to Les Paul and Mary Ford, another guitarist/singer couple who became sensations starting around 1950 and also made some films like these. For me, the difference is that Paul and Ford were more about Les demonstrating his mad guitar skills and his pioneering work with multitrack recording. As a singer, I have always found Ford’s work to be somewhat undistinguished. Les and Mary may have ruled the charts as a husband and wife team in the early 50’s, but Dave and Peggy made music that has held up better over the decades.
Barbour was certainly not in Les Paul’s league on the guitar, but then who was. Barbour had started playing banjo for bands in the New York area in the early 1930’s before switching to guitar later in the decade. He played with several big bands before joining Benny Goodman in the early 1940’s. He also sat in on several now-classic Billie Holiday sessions in the late 1930’s. Barbour was another relatively early adopter of the electric guitar in jazz music and while he was never a dazzling power player, he had a lovely ability to be both in the background and yet indispensable at the same time.
This last selection may be Lee and Barbour’s best known piece of the three, “It’s A Good Day.” Peggy Lee is said to have put the song together in her head as she was vacuuming the carpets, and was sure she had a winner in it by the time the Hoover was back in the closet. She was right. She and Barbour recorded the song in July of 1946, and it eventually reached no. 16 on the Billboard charts later that year.
Lee and Barbour were early examples of something that would not become common until decades later – musicians who performed their own compositions and musicians who put out what we would now call music videos. As with the first selection, the performance is different from that on the 1946 Capitol disc and includes an intro that is not on the record. Although Lee eschewed the traditional full band on her records, these filmed performances jettisoned the horn players and kept things extra-lean with just a bass, drums and piano behind the couple. This was Lee’s musical philosophy, which shows even in the way she carries herself as she sings. Other singers moved around a lot, or at least used arm gestures as they sang. Not Lee, who stood like a statue, but a statute that swayed ever so slightly with the beat you could tell went all the way to her bones.
Sadly, Barbour had a drinking problem which, after Lee’s childhood, was too much for her to bear. The couple’s marriage was over by 1952 – a breakup that was devastating for Lee. This piece may seem to minimize Barbour’s contribution to this music, but these two lives went in opposite directions after their breakup, with Peggy remaining a household name for years while Barbour’s star faded. But during that marriage, the two of them made some great music together, and we are fortunate to have video evidence of those wonderful performances.
I was going to stop here, but must add a postscript. We have pointed out the Disney connections of a couple of other old performers – Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) who was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinocchio and Phil Harris who voiced Baloo the bear in The Jungle Book. Peggy Lee has a Disney connection too from her work in 1955’s Lady And The Tramp. I knew that Lee sang He’s A Tramp, but had not known that she co-wrote (along with Sonny Burke) all of the music for that movie, and voiced other parts, including the Siamese cats. Let’s close this with a clip made during recording “He’s A Tramp” for the film’s sound track.
The Dave Barbour Quartet also consisted of Hal Schaefer (piano), Phil Stephens (bass) and Nick Fatool (drums).
COAL Update: Last week’s post was finished right before deadline and your author spaced the COAL link from Curbside Classic. We will pick up here with the one we missed last week, which was about the Honda Odyssey everyone forgot about. Did you ever have a car that you bonded with, despite it being almost nothing like the kinds of cars that had always appealed to you? This was mine.