When did Peggy Lee become Peggy Lee? Meaning, at what point in her recording career did she cross over from a straight reader of songs to someone who was keenly hip and aware of her sly seductive powers when delivering songs? Today, we're most familiar with latter Lee, the woman with the hourglass figure in the 1940s and '50s cooly in control of her facial features as she cast a spell on viewers by moving her eyes from left to right and singing with a powdery, bedroom delivery. As Terry Teachout noted in his insightful Commentary review of James Gavin's superb Lee biography (Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee): she was an artist of the highest caliber, a peer of Sinatra who in certain ways surpassed him."
Yesterday, I listened to upward of 75 recordings by Lee at the start of her career in the early 1940s looking for that Continental Divide, where Lee found her true personality and transformed her approach from polished canary" to a slick chick." By my estimation, that moment came in January 1945, on Nice Work If You Can Get It for the C.P. Mac Gregor Transcription Service. On the standard, Lee was backed by Heinie Beau (cl), Buddy Cole (p), Phil Stevens (b), Dave Barbour (g) and Ted Romersa (d). Lee had married Barbour in 1943 and may well have been influenced by his liquid swinging style on the guitar.
On this song, Lee no longer feels constrained and becomes herself. On the first verse Lee sings, Holding hands at midnight, 'neath the starry sky, hey that's nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try." Just before the instrumental break, she sings, Say, that's nice work if you can get it." She adds these hey-say touches so naturally, you wonder why they weren't part of the original lyric.
From then on, Lee approached singing very differently. Her delivery was more savvy, as if she were trusting you with a secret. In the years that followed, Lee never seemed to sing but instead delivered songs as if she were whispering them to you. Her approach was deceptively effortless and organic. In many ways, her peer wasn't Sinatra at all but Nat King Cole, who all but invented conversational swing.
Lee began recording for Capitol as a headliner with Barbour in December 1944. By June 1946, she knew how to make a song her own with a combination of breathy sincerity and a certain sass that telegraphed she wasn't a pushover.
Here's the January 1945 recording of Nice Work If You Can Get It...
And here's a clip featuring Lee singing the same song with Frank Sinatra in 1962. They seem to be having fun with the hip elements Lee had introduced in the '40s just as the music industry was beginning to tilt in pop singers' favor...
Of course the primary influence on both singers was the casual swing of Billie Holiday. Here she is in November 1937 singing Nice Work If You Can Get It backed by Buck Clayton (tp), Prince Robinson (cl), Vido Musso (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Allan Reuss (g), Walter Page (b) and Cozy Cole (d)...
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