Stagecoach To Somewhere – Peggy Lee

The oddest people become friends.   Elvis liked the crude Tom Jones and not so interesting Nancy Sinatra was chummy with Peggy Lee. It makes a certain sense.   If Jones lacked the artistry of Elvis, he had a ‘big’ voice and although Nancy Sinatra lacked the talent or sophistication of Lee she made music that was minimalist.  Nancy Sinatra actually described Peggy Lee as the female Elvis Presley and this also sounds true.   Both Lee and Presley had sex appeal and they also

Peggy Lee and Nancy Sinatra on the Ed Sullivan Show

Peggy Lee & Nancy Sinatra on the Ed Sullivan Show

unashamedly borrowed songs from rhythm and blues performers. Elvis began his career with a cover of ‘That’s All Right’ by Arthur Crudup, an unpretentious blues singer.  The second hit of Peggy Lee had even better rhythm and blues credentials.   The song ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’ had been an earlier hit for Lil Green but had actually started life in the 30s as ‘The Weed Smoker’s Dream’, just about the time Bing Crosby was indulging his own and later denied affection for marijuana.

The two most famous songs by Peggy Lee were both originally rhythm and blues hits.  Her big hits, ‘Fever’ and ‘I’m A Woman’, were originally recorded by Little Willie John and Etta James.  Unbelievably, she outperforms Etta James on ‘I’m A Woman’.  Both versions are great but Etta gets a little bogged down in indignation and protest.  Peggy Lee is slick and her confidence evokes a word that has become used less recently.  She is sassy.  Lee changed the words of ‘Fever’ and made them funnier but her version of ‘Fever’ is, despite the success it obtained, a little tepid.  Not short of sass himself, Elvis took the words of the Lee recording of ‘Fever’ for his own version.  His decision indicates the complicated albeit short-lived ambitions Elvis had when he returned from the Army.  ‘Fever’ connects what Elvis wanted back then, increased sophistication and continued allegiance to black music.

Critics of Elvis now claim that he spoilt himself with sentimentality, that too much of his music was ‘sweet’.  This, though, may be his default position.   Categories are invariably unreliable but it is not ridiculous to argue that the best of his ballads evoke Peggy Lee and the worst remind us of Doris Day.  The latter was what he settled for when he lost his nerve.  In an outtake of ‘Fever’, he gulps after singing ‘Captain Smith and Pocahontas had a very mad affair’ as if he thinks he is claiming knowledge that is beyond him.  His best ballads like ‘That’s Someone You Never Forget’ or ‘Starting Today’ may Peggy Leeowe something to black singers like Bobby Bland but the restraint reminds us not only why Elvis was great but also why Peggy Lee was important.  This is especially apparent in his recording of ‘I Need Somebody To Lean On’.  This low-key but still bluesy ballad is drenched in the supper club next morning world of Peggy Lee.  Without cocktails and flattery, intelligent understanding arrives, or ‘dawns’, a loneliness and reality that will not be extinguished by sunshine or daylight.  Peggy Lee achieves something equally magnificent on her classic, ‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’.  The singer and the song have no illusions.  What awaits the departing woman will not be fun but the journey has to be made and whether she likes it, and although we have no doubt that she is justified, her conscience will always be scarred.   This mix of sophistication, amoral disappointment and a sometimes-regretted sense of entitlement define Peggy Lee.  Or at least when she is not having fun the day after.  But we all know that she will return to the supper club for evenings because fun is important and no man frightens her.  This tough smart cookie is the door that allowed white audiences to enter the world of rhythm and blues.  The minimalism was important.  It helped the white folks take at various sunrises the gentle steps into a world that was different from their suburban homes.  The best of those realised that their lives were darker than they thought and were beyond the promise of their luxury furnishings.   Some, of course, merely had fun.

The door that led people to rhythm and blues swung both ways, which is why Peggy Lee attracts rock and roll fans and leads them towards jazz.  Perhaps this begins for most people the day after a night before when the fun suddenly becomes less satisfying.   Who knows?  All is certain is that her best records like the best of Elvis make us think in ways that seem beyond the lyrics.  Peggy Lee was musical.  She co-wrote songs and, something like the parents of Mary Shelley – William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft – she fell in love with Dave Barbour because of the way he played the guitar.   Peggy Lee began as a singer who literally sang for her supper.  Before she was 17, she sang on a radio show in Valley City, Dakota.   The show was sponsored by the local restaurant and Lee was paid for her efforts with food.   Her real name is Norma Deloris Egstrom, which means that the two sexiest American women were both christened Norma.

Her great records are truly magnificent.   By hesitating at exactly the right moments she transforms the suburban delusion of ‘Folks On The Hill’ into an existential nightmare filled with ageing and dread.   ‘Johnny Guitar’ is the best

Peggy Lee

Peggy Lee

theme song of any Western and is so good and the romanticism so cursed with heartache that it makes six feet five inch Sterling Hayden, the actor who plays Johnny, appear inadequate.   Her triumph should not be a surprise.  Peggy came from cowboy country.  She was the daughter of a railway man and the sixth of seven children.  ‘You Go To My Head’ is a great song that has lyrics that should convince anyone of the merit of unadorned English.  Caressed by the vocal of Lee, the words sound Shakespearian.  And finally, there is the Leiber and Stoller song, ‘Is That All There Is’.  This tale of defiant despair and the emptiness of existence actually made number one in the American charts.   But that is her strength, so often she has persuaded the American people and a lot of the rest of us to laugh off nihilism and brutal truth.  The sassy smile is not merely about confidence; it represents triumphant resignation and calm bleak proportion.

Inevitably, the albums are not consistent and have weak moments.  She belonged to a bland age and the blandness paid the rent.  Like Elvis, though, the gems exist for those who need the best of what she can offer.  Again, like Elvis, she had fine moments on stage.  Another coincidence is that they both did live versions of the Ray Charles hit, ‘I Got A Woman’.  Her concert album with the talented jazz pianist, George Shearing, is delightful and she inspires Shearing.  Nancy Wilson is a fine singer but her album with George Shearing does not compare.  The opening of ‘You Came A Long Way From St Louis, simple but inspired, is so good it is addictive.   Peggy Lee died just over 10 years ago.  In her final concerts she sang while in a wheelchair and strangely she almost ended her career promising the immortality that her sophistication denied.  She will live on longer than most and the good news is that the Real Gone Jazz label has released 2 box sets.  Each set contains 8 albums and retails for under £15.  Imagine, 16 albums of the great woman for less than 30 quid.   If capitalism worked as efficiently as they say, those albums would cost a lot more.

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Here is the great Peggy Lee herself:


Elvis Presley Challenge No. 55 – Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington


Somewhere and at some time, jazz has to be mentioned.   Surely there cannot be a jazz musician more important than Duke Ellington.  He wrote a thousand compositions and that word is used because the term songs is inadequate.   His efforts include concertos and extended pieces.  The music flowed out of his brain, almost without interruption.   If that was not enough, he knew how to lead a band.  His soloists, people like Johnny Hodges, were as adored as some of the other band leaders.   Ellington also had the ability to compose for his soloists.   This helped them stay loyal.

The truth is that Duke Ellington makes a poor comparison for Elvis.  Ellington was cool and sophisticated but also disciplined.   The nearest equivalent to Ellington in rock music is probably Bob Dylan whose catalogue is so extensive that at times it appears to exhaust even him.  Dylan appears in public and the frail figure now looks drained by his achievements.  Ellington was different.  He was calm and charming, a man blessed with good looks and social authority.  Dylan has become haunted like Ezra Pound.

Duke Ellington and James StewartWhen James Stewart in the classic movie, ‘Anatomy Of Murder’, sits on the piano next to Ellington the scene makes this viewer uncomfortable.   It is not that it is barely credible that an amateur pianist will share a piano with Ellington.   As Hitchcock used to say, ‘It is only a movie’.  The scene disturbs in a way which is almost gothic, almost horror.   Something is wrong and like a bad dream it needs to be over soon.  His musical genius is entitled to personal space which should be left intact and not invaded by silliness and wrongheaded error.  Those sympathetic to the talent of Elvis watch his 29 movies with the same squeamishness.  Why is he being molested in this way?  We all know why, of course.  Money is important which is why so many of these challenges have drifted into politics.

But few jazz aficionados have sympathy for Elvis.  Compared to their giants, he was crude and unmusical.   He insisted Louis and Bingon immediate gratification and relief.   All the genres of American music have strengths and weaknesses.  Jazz is in hock to the saxophone and rock has the same obsession with the guitar.   In the film, ‘High Society’, Louis Armstrong teams with Bing Crosby on ‘And Now You Has Jazz.’  This fabulous record has a good tune and great performances, but in the final verse, when the song needs to swing at a higher level, it unashamedly quotes rock and roll.   The two genres exist because our nature requires both.

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

The music critic, Henry Pleasants , does find a figure in jazz comparable to Elvis but it is not Duke Ellington.  His choice is Louis Armstrong.   He describes the two as exceptional talents whose instincts and intuition led American music to previously unimagined glories.   Pleasants argues that as great as both were neither required a long a career to achieve their possibilities.  Elvis sang and Louis blew and that was all we needed to hear.  Ellington like Dylan had a talent that produced song after song.  These were artists whose lives were essential for the realisation of their talent.   For Elvis and Armstrong their lives are almost irrelevant.   Louis covered the Edith Piaf song ’La Vie En Rose’ and Elvis warbled ‘Santa Lucia’.   Neither appears to have had any interest in the cultures that produced these songs.  When Ellington extended his range beyond his roots we assumed that he was expressing an aspect of a complex character.

Unfortunately, it is easy to confuse focus and purpose with destiny.  The outcomes for these performers were not solely determined by the nature of the talent.   A songwriter, especially one who is prolific, will have an autonomy that enables continued realisation.  Yet there are too many songwriters who have failed at longevity for us to assert that it Elvisis a talent that always enables continual discovery.   We can understand why Pleasants and many others have assumed that Elvis could only sing brilliantly for so long without repeating himself.  But Elvis had to endure self-inflicted physical decline and a team that encouraged him not to be creative.  Even with these restrictions his music took different directions.   He has endured.   Both Armstrong and Elvis could reinvent songs and make them special.  They also inspired the musicians around them.  Such attributes ensure longevity.  Indeed, both musicians made music all their lives.  The deterioration in quality that the critics detect was caused by their inability to overcome commercial compromises and retain integrity.  This is the gift that Dylan and Ellington had and which has inspired many other musicians to imitate their approach.  Without the talent of Dylan and Ellington these musicians have sometimes exposed themselves badly.    Pedestals especially when self-built can topple easily.

Duke Ellington is an exceptional figure.  He combines curiosity and authenticity and his music has roots that can reduce subsequent innovation by others to inconsequential affectation.  His brilliant version of ‘Fings Ain’t What They Duke EllingtonUsed To Be’ not only anticipates later jazz minimalism but also echoes with the blues.  It exists as a warning against future pretenders.  Plenty of jazz enthusiasts will claim that after Duke Ellington no one needs Elvis.

But, as Bing realised on ‘And Now You Has Jazz’, rock and roll has always had a carefree potential beyond jazz.  It is a special talent that can combine the two and it is worth suggesting that it is a talent rooted in instinct and exuberance rather than cerebral invention.   This is why Bing needed Louis Armstrong on ‘Now You Has Jazz’ and why Elvis was unable to sidestep his potential in this area.  Those who doubt that Elvis could not have combined jazz with rock and roll need to listen to his version of ‘Such A Night’ especially the last verse and the cool Mel Torme impression.

Fans will argue not unreasonably that jazz has more scope for improvisation.   Although true, Elvis pioneered repeating songs in the studio until he found the right groove.   He rarely sings a song the same way twice.   Some years ago, a book of photographs appeared that had been taken in a French nightclub.  Elvis appears posing alongside women who could well be prostitutes although some have teeth that suggest limited earning potential.   One of the women was later interviewed for the book.  She claims she told Elvis that she did not like his music and that she preferred jazz.  Elvis ignored the insult.  ‘It’s not that different to rock and roll really.’  And he is right; much is similar, especially jazz that has strong roots in the blues.   Of course, we have to be careful with what Elvis says.  When not in nightclubs he has told people that he does not understand jazz.   And yet he is one of the few rock and roll singers who, when carried away with a song, will scat his way through the tune, jazz style.  He actually does it on his very first record, ‘That’s All Right’.  Since his death, the record collection of Elvis has been revealed.  Gospel and rhythm and blues dominate.  Included is a Duke Ellington album, not the big band but the quartet.   It may even be the one that includes ‘Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be.’  No wonder we wonder.


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