Peggy Lee is right up there with Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Elvis Presley as one of the 20th century’s most important and influential voices. She was born Norma Delores Egstrom in rural North Dakota but her ambition to become a singer took her on a remarkable odyssey from Hicksville to Hollywood. Beginning as a chirpy-voiced big-band canary in Benny Goodman’s band in the early ’40s, she created the enigmatic persona of Peggy Lee, eventually morphed into a sultry chanteuse who was one of the first important solo recording artists in the post-big band era following the Second World War.
Released to coincide with the anniversary of her centenary, ‘Ultimate Peggy Lee’ features twenty-two songs selected with liner note annotations by her granddaughter, producer Holly Foster Wells. As Wells points out in her intro, the retrospective is not intended as a greatest hits collection but serves as a compilation of her most enduring songs from her Capitol Records tenure. It includes, of course, some of her most iconic records, including her remarkable repurposing of Little Willie John’s R&B hit, ‘Fever,’ which she transformed into a smouldering ode to desire infused with wit and featuring just voice, finger snaps, bass and drums. Though Lee was adept at playing the sexy, seductive vamp, she could also convincingly deliver chaste declarations of affection, such as the cheerful ‘It’s A Good Day’ and the homely, heart-warming ballad, ‘The Folks Who Live On The Hill.’
But Lee never got stuck in one style. Rather, she was a musical shape-shifter who wore many different musical hats. The compilation highlights her versatility by giving examples of her doing bossa nova (‘Sweet Happy Life’), blues (‘I’m A Woman’), big band swing (‘I Love Being Here With You’), and R&B (‘Hallelujah I Love Him So,’ a cover of a Ray Charles tune). There also some magnificent slower songs – like her iconic torch song anthem, ‘Black Coffee’ – illustrating Lee’s prowess as a ballad singer. As well as being a consummate song stylist and a highly skilled interpreter of other people’s material, Lee was also an accomplished songwriter. The album features five of her own songs, including the evergreen movie tune, ‘He’s A Tramp,’ which she co-wrote for the 1956 Disney animated film, Lady & The Tramp.
One of the most unusual songs she recorded was Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s ‘Is That All There Is?,’ a 1930s-style vaudeville-style song in the vein of Kurt Weill. A wry look at life, Lee mostly talks her through the song apart from a beautifully bittersweet chorus. Released in 1969, it was Lee’s last big US hit and won her a Grammy award.
As a summation of Peggy Lee’s contribution to popular music, ‘Ultimate Peggy Lee’ is impeccable. Of course, it doesn’t tell the whole story but it is highly recommended as a primer for those wishing to delve deeper into Lee’s back vast catalogue.
‘Ultimate Peggy Lee’ is available now to stream, download, and for those that prefer physical copies, is also available on CD and gatefold sleeve double vinyl.