A Dozen Great Jazz Vocal Albums, from a Singing Writer

This piece was commissioned a few years ago for the inaugural issue of a new journal that never took off, so I’m sharing it here.

I came to jazz singing and lyric-writing from a background as a fiction writer and performance artist. As a wordsmith, I’m particularly attuned to the quality of repertoire and the way singers negotiate lyrics. When I was invited to write about twelve of my favorite jazz vocal albums the hardest part was to choose twelve out of hundreds of worthy contenders. This is in no way intended as a list of “best” vocal albums, just twelve personal favorites I felt I had something to say about.

Mark Murphy, “Stolen Moments” (1978)

What exactly makes a singer a “jazz singer.” To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I hear it.” Mark Murphy was, to my ears, the quintessential jazz singer. I first became aware of Murphy when this album came out in 1978, by which time I was already familiar with most of the better-known jazz singers. Murphy’s original lyrics to Oliver Nelson’s jazz standard “Stolen Moments” quickly became popular with jazz radio deejays, and I first heard it on New York City’s WRVR. As soon as I heard the track I thought, “This is the very definition of jazz singing for me, a virtual template.” All right, at 22 I probably didn’t think those exact words, but something like it. And the rest of the album doesn’t disappoint either.

Murphy was a fearless singer. He took the kinds of chances that would sound ridiculous on lesser singers (and often does, I won’t name names). His rhythmic fluidity is virtually unparalleled among male singers, and his scat singing is convincing even to a scat skeptic like myself. Murphy treats the changes of a tune like a lover in a complicated relationship: he may caress them, settle into them, and then all of a sudden challenge them, push them, playfully, of course. He bends a tune, a lyric, to his will while knowing full well he’s respecting the tune’s own “will” at the same time. It’s a tightrope walk, stretching the limits of a song while respecting the integrity of the melody and lyric even as he’s radically altering what’s on paper.

I could have chosen any number of albums to represent Murphy at his best; the slightly later “Bop for Kerouac” comes immediately to mind, where he interpolates readings from Kerouac into bebop tunes and ends the affair with a heart-rending rendition of “Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” one of the most affecting ballad performances ever recorded. But “Stolen Moments” finds Murphy really climbing the peaks after a nearly 25-year recording career. Its repertoire represents just about all aspects of Murphy’s art: original lyrics for jazz tunes, vocalese (a standout is a version of Annie Ross’s lyrics for the tune “Farmer’s Market”), goose-bump inducing ballad performances (“We’ll Be Together Again,” a favorite among jazz singers, and the lesser known “Again”), and the Brazilian repertoire he would continue to explore with more sensitivity than any other English-language singer, represented here by Jobim’s “Waters of March” and Dori Caymmi’s “Like a Lover.”

Of all the singers before him, I think Murphy’s rhythmic and harmonic gambits owe most to Mel Torme. Interestingly, when Torme was interviewed about jazz singers by jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason in the mid-sixties, he was adamant that he didn’t consider Murphy a true jazz singer. I love Torme too, so I was startled and disappointed to hear that, and I can only chalk it up to jealousy on The Velvet Fog’s part. Thankfully, there will always be room for both Murphy and Torme among the ranks of the unquestionably authentic top-tier jazz vocalists.

 

Billie Holiday, “The Commodore Master Takes” (1939, 1944)

When I was thirteen, both of my maternal grandparents died. When we went to their apartment to rummage through their effects, and I found a number of 78 rpm records, among them a Commodore disk of “I Cover the Waterfront” and “Lover Come Back to Me.” I had heard the name Billie Holiday (perhaps, I’m ashamed to admit, via Blood, Sweat & Tears), but I think this was the first time I had heard her voice, as our “hi-fi” turntable still had a cartridge that could be flipped to a 78 needle. To be honest, I can’t remember my reaction to the music at the time, and I didn’t own my first Billie Holiday album until four years later, 1973, when Columbia put out a double LP of her early recordings.

Like the moon (which she wished on in Dorothy Parker’s lyric), Billie Holiday’s career had many phases, from the youthful ebullience of the Columbia years to the weathered profundity of her fifties recordings. The Commodore sides fall in between those two periods, with the first four tracks on this compilation overlapping with the Columbia recordings. And that, indeed, is an essential part of the Commodore story.

It was the “troublesome” tune “Strange Fruit,” a lament about lynching, that led to Lady Day’s association with Milt Gabler’s independent label. Columbia producer John Hammond, who helped the careers of many black artists but could also be insufferably paternalistic, thought that recording this political material would be ruinous to her career (ha!), so he let her record the song, which had become a signature tune during her long stint at Café Society, out of contract, along with three other sides, for Gabler’s label in 1939. Hammond, incidentally, also accused Ellington of abandoning jazz with “Black, Brown & Beige.”

The 1939 session featured a tight band led by trumpeter Frankie Newton along with other cohorts from Café Society. In addition to “Strange Fruit,” this session also featured the first recording of “Fine and Mellow,” basically a variation on her earlier “Billie’s Blues.”

By the time of the 1944 sessions, after she had left Columbia, Holiday was, I believe, at the peak of her vocal art. There was a depth to her interpretations hinted at in the early recordings, but now in full flower, and her voice had not yet succumbed to the ravages of her lifestyle. And all the material she recorded was top-flight, as opposed to many of the throwaway tunes she had been given to record not so long before.

On the 1944 dates she’s accompanied by another fine group of musicians, this time led by pianist Eddie Heywood, a subtle stylist who sounded the right notes for a singer who had recorded so much with the elegant Teddy Wilson. Some of these tunes she had recorded earlier, like “I Cover the Waterfront,” “He’s Funny that Way,” and several others, but these versions are more relaxed, more sophisticated. Among the standout debuts are what is possibly the definitive version of “How Am I to Know?” (lyrics by Dorothy Parker), and a beautiful, unjustly neglected song called “I’m Yours,” with a lyric by Yip Harburg. But all 16 tracks are treasures.

 

Anita O’Day “Sings the Most” (1957)

For Anita O’Day a song was an elastic object. Her rhythmic and harmonic fluidity was so audacious yet fine-tuned that her interpretations were akin to musical sculpture in real time. She was the quintessence of the improvising jazz singer and an inspiration to so many other vocalists.

O’Day, who chose her stage name because it’s Pig Latin for dough, and she hoped to make plenty of it, started as a big band singer, and many of her albums were recorded with big bands and full orchestras, but for me her natural habitat was the small jazz group, which gave her more room to move, which is why I chose this album with the Oscar Peterson Trio to represent her art.

Peterson, who could be showy with his prodigious pianism in his own recordings, was a fine accompanist for a number of singers during the fifties, on record and sometimes with Norman Granz’s JATP tours. I once saw Peterson interviewed on TV and he credited Hank Jones with teaching him how to be a sensitive accompanist. I can’t think of a better teacher.

One often hears that many of the great jazz singers improvise like horn players, but sometimes, I think, they take it too far, try too hard to sound like a horn at the expensive of the lyric. O’Day instead walked a fine line that made her performances so electric, riffing on the changes with the freedom of a horn player while always (all right, usually) respecting the lyric. The results are a kind of alchemy.

When it came to swing, she had few peers among vocalists, and this album focuses on that side of her art. The opener is a very playful Gershwin medley of “’S Wonderful/They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Her remarkable reinventions of familiar tunes were marvelously captured in the film “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” where she plays cat and mouse with “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” On “Sings the Most” her performance of “Love Me or Leave Me” takes a similar path. “Them There Eyes” is a feature for her scatting talents.

There were more profound ballad singers, to be sure, and what’s often most interesting for me in her slower performances is her choice of material. For instance, she does “I’ve Got the World on a String” at ballad tempo, not its usual mode. “Tenderly” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” are certainly respectable performances, but they don’t give me the goose bumps I get from nonpareil ballad masters like Shirley Horn and Rebecca Parris. “Stella by Starlight” starts in its usual slow tempo but turns into a mid-tempo swinger in the second chorus. And she swings “We’ll Be Together Again,” a song that’s almost always performed as a ballad.

 

Lee Wiley, “A Night in Manhattan” (1950)

If ever there was a singers’ singer, it’s Lee Wiley. Her direct, understated delivery with a touch of Oklahoma twang along with her reverence for a lyric has been an inspiration to countless interpreters of the Great American Songbook, especially those who straddle the worlds of jazz and cabaret.

She was a successful radio performer in the early thirties, but by the forties had become more a cult artist, recording the first single-composer songbook albums for small, independent labels, and that’s when an album was really an album, i.e. a set of 78s in a book of slipcases.

Her early-fifties Columbia recordings, compiled in this album, are considered her greatest achievement by many of her admirers. The original 10-inch LP of “A Night in Manhattan” contained all eight full band sides, featuring cornet soloist Bobby Hackett with Joe Bushkin and his swinging Strings. For the 12-inch release, four tracks from her Vincent Youmans and Irving Berlin songbooks from the following year, featuring the duo pianists Cy Walter and Stan Freeman, were added.

Wiley always sang at a simmer; she never belted. Her performances were sensual lullabies. Among the standout tracks (for form’s sake, because, really, all of them are standouts) are Bushkin’s own “Oh, Look at Me Now,” which had been an early hit for Sinatra, Victor Young’s “Street of Dreams,” and the virtual title tune, Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan,” which was not included in her earlier R&H songbook album. The two-piano version of “More than You Know” is another highlight. A particular favorite of mine is “Sugar”—Billie Holiday’s version from the thirties is joyful; Wiley’s is bittersweet.

This was something of a comeback album for Wiley, and there are numerous live recordings from the period of much of the same material. She continued to record throughout the fifties, and then pretty much stayed retired, except for a few scattered appearances and recordings, until her death in 1975.

 

Ella Fitzgerald, “Pure Ella” (1950/1954)

Most rankings of great jazz singers have Ella at the top of the list, and while I won’t quibble with that, I listen to her far less than many other singers. Her musicality, taste and chops are undeniable, yet many of her recordings lack certain qualities that draw me to the singers I most connect with. I prefer singers who mine the depths of emotion, like Billie Holiday, singers who dazzle with their rhythmic and harmonic risk-taking, like Anita O’Day, and singers whose subtle musicality puts a great lyric across without pyrotechnics, like Lee Wiley and Irene Kral.

On the two duo albums she recorded for Decca in the early fifties with the exquisite pianist Ellis Larkins, Ella achieves the last of my ideals, with beautiful and direct interpretations of great American standards. She would revisit the duo format a little later with her piano accompanist Paul Smith, and then, decades later, in a series of fruitful collaborations with guitarist Joe Pass.

A lot of the credit for the success of these recordings goes to Larkins, one of the most tasteful of accompanist/collaborators. Like Hank Jones, Larkins takes his inspiration from the elegant playing of Teddy Wilson and brings it up to date with the harmonic innovations of bebop.

The first of the two albums compiled on this CD is “Ella Sings Gershwin,” eight songs by George and his lovely wife Ira, as an old blooper would have it. Eight tracks was standard for early 10-inch LPs. Their next meeting, in 1954, would yield the 12-track LP “Songs in a Mellow Mood.”

The Gershwin tracks are, without exception, among the greatest recorded examples of vocal jazz, or, for that matter, of any American vocal music. These versions of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “How Long Has this Been Going On?” are gold-standard.

“Songs in a Mellow Mood” finds the duo in top form again, this time with a program drawn from a number of great American songwriters, though overall I think the Gershwin set is easily the stronger of the two. On “Stardust” and several other tunes, Ella improvises more than she had on the Gershwin album, and in this setting I just don’t think it enhances the performances. But on a CD full of such riches, these are minor reservations.

 

Nat “King” Cole, “After Midnight” (1957)

Jazz purists often bemoaned the fact that Nat King Cole, one of the great swing pianists and small group leaders, “abandoned” jazz to become a mere “pop singer.” Backseat listeners are always happy to opine about how an artist should run his career, but while Cole may indeed have been a great pianist, there’s no denying he was also one of the most natural and appealing of singers, a great communicator and song stylist despite a relatively limited range (roughly two octaves). He sang as if he were talking to each individual listener, in the most comforting of voices. And with this natural gift he was able to reach a vastly wider audience beyond the world of jazz aficionados. With the big bucks he made as an internationally renowned singer he was able to provide quite nicely for his family and assure his place as an American cultural icon.

With the “After Midnight” sessions, recorded in the summer of 1956, we get the best of all worlds. Cole sings a program of fine songs, some he’d been singing for years, from the piano, with his trio and four guest soloists, all great jazz players: Harry “Sweets” Edison (trumpet), Willie Smith (alto sax), Stuff Smith (violin) and Juan Tizol (valve trombone). There are also some nice solo spots for John Collins, Coles’ guitarist, who conjured a beautiful sound but was usually only heard in the background (he had previously been part of Art Tatum’s trio). On the original 12-track album, each of the soloists appeared on three songs. Subsequent releases in the CD-era included previously unissued songs and alternate takes. I’d say that among jazz-oriented Cole fans, this is the Coley grail.

Cole stalwarts include “Sweet Lorraine,”  “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” and “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” all with Edison on trumpet. Edison, a veteran of the Count Basie orchestra, had one of the most recognizable trumpet sounds, especially when he played with a mute. He did a lot of studio work for Capitol in this period, and can be heard taking brief solos on a number of Sinatra’s recordings.

For me, it’s the lesser-known tunes that are the biggest treat. “You’re Looking at Me,” which features Smith on alto, is a charming tune by Bobby Troup, who also wrote “Route 66.” Smith also plays on “Don’t Let It Go to Your Head,” an easy swinger I don’t believe I’ve ever heard from any other singer, and I know nothing about any of the writers, Hadamik, LaVere & Nast. Oscar Levant’s wistful “Blame It on My Youth” is better known, but hardly a shopworn standard, and Cole’s performance, augmented by a lyrical Tizol solo, is stunning. Tizol also appears on his own “Caravan.”

Stuff Smith’s visceral and expressive violin sound is a great foil for Cole’s voice and piano, especially on “I Know that You Know,” where he trades fours with Nat.

The only clunker on the original album, for me, is “The Lonely One” (Hambro & Heller), which seems to have been an attempt at a follow-up to “Nature Boy.” It features Tizol, as does “What Is There to Say,” one of the unissued tracks. The latter really should have been chosen for the album instead of the former.

The album was critically acclaimed from the start, but Cole had more hits to make. It’s a shame he never did another album like this, a gift that we have this one.

 

Carmen McRae & Betty Carter, “Duets”  (1987)

Sarah Vaughan’s nickname may have been “Sassy,” but this recording features two of the sassiest women ever to sing jazz, and the combination is pure delight. These duet performances were recorded at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, where the two artists had previously recorded stellar solo albums. While both were consummate jazz singers, there were enough differences in their approaches to add another level of fun to the proceedings through contrast.

Of the two, Carter was less well known outside the world of jazz. Known as Betty “Bebop” Carter earlier in her career, she was one of the most adventurous song stylists, playing with time and changes like a lioness stalking her prey. And she became more audacious as the years passed. To be honest, while I admire her brilliance, I sometimes find her late-career song interpretations too extreme, as if it were irrelevant what the lyricist had written. In this set with McRae she sometimes tones it down a bit, and sometimes the full Betty seems to work in counterpoint.

Carmen McRae was also rhythmically and harmonically adventurous, but her stretches always took the lyric into account, often offering wry commentary with her phrasing. She was one of the most affecting of ballad singers, weighing every word and holding the listeners ears in the palm of her hand. On uptempo tunes she could swing like few others while showing the changes who was boss.

And together, Carmen and Betty had a ball, playing with and off each other. The pair uses the standard “What’s New” to introduce themselves to the audience, and it becomes all about how much they dig each other. When she sings, “But seeing you is grrrrand,” we get the first taste of Carmen’s playful growl.

On the set’s first ballad, “But Beautiful,” the two interweave their vocals, both stretching time and space. Carmen’s solo feature on “Glad to Be Unhappy” is a great example of her ballad brilliance. The two get to show off their rhythm chops on “Sometimes I’m Happy,” which features both singers scatting. And this is where Carter leaves McRae, who didn’t often scat in her own performances, in the dust.

The proceedings close with a couple of Ellington tunes. On “Sophisticated Lady,” both show their devilish side. Carmen’s phrasing of “dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant, is that all you really want?” is priceless, as is the response, from both, of “no, no, no, no, no” that follows.

The CD reissue on Verve also includes three bonus performances by McRae alone, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

 

 Bill Henderson, “With the Oscar Peterson Trio” (1963)

Over a nearly 60-year career, Bill Henderson only recorded intermittently, and this album was perhaps his most high-profile record. Not that Henderson had been twiddling his thumbs between albums and live appearances, as he was also a very active film and TV actor.

The first thing that strikes the listener about Bill Henderson’s voice is its slightly raspy, comforting timbre and his understated, spot-on interpretations of the lyrics he sings; you might say he’s a song actor. In this mode, he’s somewhat reminiscent of Nat King Cole; at his best he sings a song like breathing out and breathing in. But often he’ll follow up a simple reading of a lyric immediately with a furiously swinging chorus, where he’ll run changes in a manner closer to Mel Torme or Mark Murphy.

The Oscar Peterson Trio provides the perfect accompaniment to Henderson’s voice, with Ray Brown’s bass effectively out front in some of the arrangements. Henderson’s performances are hip in the best sense, totally natural, without a sign of artifice.

The repertoire suits Henderson’s voice and style perfectly. Some of the tunes are recent hits, like “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” and “Stranger on the Shore,” which had been an instrumental hit for British clarinetist Acker Bilk. There are the evergreen standards too, like “I’ve Got a Crush on You” and “At Long Last Love.”

One of the most effective tracks is “The Lamp is Low,” based on a melody by Ravel. It’s a classic example of Henderson’s ability to croon like a gentle lover on one chorus, and to swing like a motherfucker on the next.

 

Irene Kral, “Where is Love” (1975)

She was one of those singers who made it sound effortless. Her art was a kind of minimalism. She didn’t create drama through big gestures, through grand displays of passion or technique, but rather by singing a song as if it were singing itself, by revealing the drama of the song, not imposing her own drama on it.

Irene Kral, who died way too young, of breast cancer, has become a cult figure among singers and aficionados of great songs. Fans speak of her with awe and reverence. Yet she’s far from a household name. Never was one.

Her choice of material was impeccable, as was her choice of accompanists. “Where is Love” is a duo album with the simpatico pianist Alan Broadbent. This setting suits her beautifully.

The repertoire includes stellar versions of several songs from the ranks of the hipster (in the original sense) singers and lyricists of her generation, including Blossom Dearie’s “I Like You, You’re Nice,” Bob Dorough’s “Love Came on Stealthy Fingers,” and the exquisite “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” with lyrics by Fran Landesman.

There’s not a dud in the bunch. Among the highlights, for me, are a stunning medley of “Lucky to Be Me / Some Other Time,” from “On the Town,” and what may well be the definitive version of “Never Let Me Go.”

There’s really no need to say more.

 

Dakota Staton, “At Storyville” (1961)

Dakota Staton was surely one of the most underrated and versatile of jazz singers. She had a big success early in her career, with her first album, “The Late Late Show,” in 1957. This was before the line between jazz and popular music had been drawn. She maintained an active career for another fifty years, but later on she often played second-tier jazz clubs, like New York’s Angry Squire (I know it was second-tier because I sang there too!)

This live album was recorded at George Wein’s legendary Storyville club in Boston, and I think it’s perhaps the best introduction to Staton. A few of years after this, due to the lack of work opportunities in the U.S., she left for England, where she lived for the rest of the sixties. Another great American singer, Mark Murphy, was living and working in the U.K. at the same time. It was a kind of reverse British invasion.

“Dakota Staton at Storyville” displays all aspects of her art, and she mastered all of them: the funkiest of blues, uptempo swingers, and torch songs. But another thing that makes this recording so special is the presence of an uncredited reed player. The backup band is listed only as the (pianist) Norman Simmons Quartet. The mystery reed player, who is heard on tenor sax, flute and oboe, is the great Yusef Lateef. If Lateef’s very personal styles on tenor and flute weren’t enough, the presence of his third horn, the oboe, assures a positive ID. Lateef is the perfect foil for Staton, especially on the blues numbers, where his brawny, gutbucket tone is right at home. It’s a match made in the same heaven as Billie Holiday’s early recordings with Lester Young and her later ones with Ben Webster.

“Mean and Evil Blues” is an excellent example of Staton’s blues chops, and it shows that she was a peer of such singers as Dinah Washington and Helen Humes. Another blues, the set closer, “Play Your Hands, Girls” has a forties R&B rhythmic feel, as does her party-vibe rendition of “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” where the audience joins in the festivities. The R&B groove is there from the start, with the version of Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” that opens the album.

Lateef switches to flute for the album’s first torch song, “This Is the Beginning of the End.” Other songs in this vein are “The Show Must Go On,” “Music, Maestro, Please” and “It’s the Talk of the Town.” On these tunes, Staton weighs every word, communicating the song’s message like a great actress, in much the same way as Mabel Mercer, except that Staton actually sang! These slow tunes feature all of Lateef’s horns (though not all at once).

The program is rounded out by several swinging jazz performances, including “Saturday Night,” an early Sinatra hit, Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” and “Easy to Love,” where Lateef’s tenor sounds as if he’d been paying attention to Coltrane.

Surely there’s a place in the jazz vocalist pantheon for the multifaceted Dakota Staton.

 

Jeanne Lee & Ran Blake, “The Newest Sound Around” (1962)

In the summer of 2000 I saw Jeanne Lee sing standards with the Mal Waldron Trio, at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. I stayed for two 45-minute sets that were nothing short of revelatory, among most mesmerizing performances I’ve ever witnessed, and I came out of the hall with tears in my eyes. Lee would die of cancer within months. I became obsessed with her, searching out all her recordings over the next several years.

I was familiar with Jeanne Lee before that show, but this was an aspect of her art I had somehow missed. I had seen her live and heard her on record for decades, but always in a more “outside” mode, with musicians like Gunter Hampel (her husband for some time), Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. In this work Lee often used extended vocal technique and blended poetry, her own and others’, into her performances. I didn’t know that she had performed and recorded with Waldron a number of times before, or that her first album was a mix of standards, spirituals and blues, albeit with a twist.

“The Newest Sound Around” was the first recording for both Lee and pianist Ran Blake, who had met when they were both students at Bard College. Its execution finds the territory where jazz meets the European art song, and Blake’s signature crepuscular style was already firmly in place. It certainly hints at the work Lee would do later, but it’s nonetheless quite accessible, despite the unconventional accompaniment peppered by dissonance (granted, I can’t hear this with 1962 ears).

Lee’s voice is supple and sensual, her range, sensitivity and control remarkable. Perhaps the most seductive of the tracks is “Laura,” the David Raksin film theme with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Lee’s performance here is at once ethereal and earthy; her wordless improvisation isn’t quite scat, but more like a lullaby sung by Mother Nature. The duo’s deft use of space, tension and release is a wonder to behold. They take a similar approach to the other standards, including “Lover Man,” “Summertime,” and “When Sunny Gets Blue.”

Blake and Lee each have a solo track on the original album, with Lee’s feature a hauntingly beautiful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Also included on some CD releases is a somewhat less effective rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

The two become three with the addition of bassist George Duvivier and lighten up the proceedings with “Evil Gal Blues,” where Blake takes a decidedly Monkish solo. Duvivier also appears on the delightful “Season in the Sun,” by Fran Landesman and Tommy Wolf (not to be confused with Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun”).

Already Lee was engaging with Mal Waldron’s music, and a CD version of the album, first released in 1987, includes a stunning rendition of his composition “Left Alone,” with lyrics written by Billie Holiday when Waldron was her accompanist (though Lady Day never recorded it). Also included is Waldron’s “Straight Ahead,” with words by Abbey Lincoln, as well as Lincoln’s lyric for “Blue Monk” (all three had been recorded by Lincoln the previous year). The two Waldron tunes were not on the original LP release, but certainly not for lack of quality.

 

Joe Lee Wilson, Livin’ High off Nickels and Dimes (1974)

I first heard this album a couple of years before it was an album. This was recorded in 1972 during an on-air performance at the studio of WKCR, the Columbia University radio station, which had, and still has, the most adventurous jazz programming in New York. I can’t remember if I had yet heard any of Joe Lee’s recordings with Archie Shepp, though I did buy Attica Blues that same year.

What struck me was an amazing, booming baritone that communicated utter joy. And when the album was finally released, through the auspices of WKCR deejay Fred Seibert, one of the tracks, a cover of Norman Mapp’s “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul,” became something of a radio hit on New York’s WRVR.

Around that time, Wilson opened his loft venue The Ladies’ Fort, on Bond Street, just a block from Sam Rivers’ better-known Studio Rivbea. As a late teen I was a regular visitor to both lofts and got to know Joe Lee a bit. He was a sweet, generous man, like his voice in the flesh. I was pleased to catch up with him many years later at a jazz room in a billiard parlor in Greenwich Village, on one of his rare visits from overseas (he lived his last decades in the U.K. and Japan). I also remember seeing Joe Lee at the bar at the Village Gate in 1975, during a Mingus gig. He was talking to saxophonist George Adams between sets about having to go on welfare again, and I thought, with 19-year-old indignation, what kind of country is this where a great artist like this has to go on welfare?

Joe Lee Wilson’s obscurity, even in the already obscure circles of jazz, is mind-boggling. His instrument was one of the most powerful baritones in all of jazz, and his ebullience was infectious. He was a master of multiple aspects of the music: smile-inducing workouts on uptempo tunes, gutbucket blues, vocal contributions to free jazz recordings, and moving ballad performances. He recorded rarely, and perhaps the fact that this was a casual radio performance rather than a formal record date gives it the homey feel that makes it my favorite of his albums.

“Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul,” makes me smile from ear to ear every time I hear it. “You Make Me Want to Dance” is a similarly joyous uptempo tune. Another delight in this vein is Wilson’s version of Horace Silver’s “Strollin’.” His ballad brilliance is on display in “God Bless the Child” and especially “It’s You or No One,” a gem of a performance.

My ears are richer for having listened to Joe Lee for over forty years, and my life is richer for having known him, however casually.

 

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T.B. Blues

Note, to avoid confusion: This is about the Jimmie Rodgers song. There is also another song with the same title, recorded by Leadbelly (who may have written it) and others, which begins “Too late, too late…”

Jimmie Rodgers was the first country music superstar, before it was called country music. He was considered a hillbilly singer, but the blues were really at the heart of his music. By prevailing southern race definitions of the time, his music might have been called “Negro,” as the black elements would have made the music “quadroon” or “mulatto” by the even most conservative of musical gauges. One of Rodgers’ recordings even featured Louis Armstrong along with his wife, Lil Hardin, on piano. The primacy of African-American elements in American country music has never gotten its due recognition.

Known as “The Singing Brakeman,” Rodgers worked for the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad before his performing career took off. His big break came in 1927, when Ralph Peer recorded a veritable Old Testament of early country music (including The Carter Family) in Bristol, Tennessee, for the Victor company.

Rodgers had contracted tuberculosis in 1924, and it was to do him in nine years later. One of his most affecting songs, “T.B. Blues,” deals with his disease without equivocation. This is definitely not illness as metaphor.

[The excellent steel guitar work on the recording is by Charles Kama]

My good gal’s trying to make a fool out of me
Lord my gal’s trying to make a fool out of me
Trying to make me believe I ain’t got that old TB
I’ve got the TB blues

When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me
When it rained down sorrow it rained all over me
Cause my body rattles like a train on that old S.P.
I’ve got the TB blues

I’ve got that old TB, I can’t eat a bite
Got that old TB, I can’t eat a bite
Got me worried so I can’t even sleep at night
I’ve got the TB blues

I’ve been fightin’ like a lion looks like I’m going to lose
I’m fightin’ like a lion looks like I’m going to lose
Cause there ain’t nobody ever whipped the TB blues
I’ve got the TB blues

Gee but the graveyard is a lonesome place
Lord that old graveyard is a lonesome place
They put you on your back, throw that mud down in your face
I’ve got the TB blues

Consider that first line. “My good gal’s trying to make a fool out of me.” What’s the first thing a listener thinks upon hearing this? I’d say, here comes a “she done him wrong song.” But Rodgers turns that assumption on its head when we learn that the good gal is trying to comfort him with optimistic sentiments. It’s really brilliant, yet it’s not something I ever thought about until I decided to write about it.

From there we get the classic rain metaphor for personal gloom, followed by a vivid simile from his railroad world. Surely listeners of the time would have easily recognized “that old S.P.” as the Southern Pacific Railroad.

And when Rodgers sings “I’ve got the T.B. blues,” he does so in his signature yodel (indeed, many of his tunes were titled “Blue Yodel,” followed by a number).

The song ends on a stark, dark note, with a harrowing image. “They put you on your back, throw that mud down on your face.” Perhaps inaccurate, but certainly much more gut-wrenching than “throw that mud down on your casket,” wouldn’t you say?

A number of others have recorded the song: Gene Autry, Ernest Tubb, Leon Redbone, Don McLean, Pete Seeger and, the best of them all for this song, Merle Haggard. Haggard has a special affinity for Rodgers’ music. Really, most country musicians worth their salt do, but Haggard has always had Rodgers songs in his repertoire and in 1969 he recorded a tribute album.  But as good as Haggard is, as good as any of them are, they’re performing another person’s illness; Rodgers was living it and dying from it as he sang it.

* * *

In 1929 Rodgers starred in a short film, “The Singing Brakeman,” in which he performs several of his best known tunes.

The Real Pain of Rodger Penzabene

I was planning to write about Barrett Strong, the lyricist who, along with composer Norman Whitfield, wrote many of the Temptations’ biggest hits. Of all their great songs, which one would I write about? “Just My Imagination”? Fabulous song. “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” was a very strong contender too, a story you can sink your ears into. Then I thought about “I Wish It Would Rain,” a very powerful, very moving song. Only, I learned, Barrett Strong didn’t write the lyric, Rodger Penzabene did (with music by Whitfield). And when I read a little more about the story behind the song, and about Penzabene’s ultimate fate, it was too compelling a tale to hold off on. Barrett Strong would just have to wait his turn on the back burner.

Penzabene had penned the words for an earlier Temptations song, “You’re My Everything.”

You surely must know magic girl
‘Cause you changed my life
It was dull and ordinary
But you made it sunny and bright

Now, I was blessed the day I found you
Gonna build my whole world around you
You’re everything good, girl
And you’re all that matters to me…

This song was inspired by Penzabene’s wife, with whom he was head over heels in love.

Alas, not long after, Penzabene discovered his wife was cheating on him. Terrible for the psyche, but fodder for one of the great modern torch songs.

“I Wish It Would Rain”

Hmmm
Sunshine, blue skies, please go away.
My girl has found another and gone away.
With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom.
So day after day, I stayed locked up in my room.
I know to you it might sound strange.
But I wish it would rain. (How I wish that it would rain)
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

‘Cause so badly I wanna go outside. (Such a lovely day)
But everyone knows that a man ain’t suppose to cry, listen.
I gotta cry ’cause cryin’ eases the pain, oh yeah.
People this hurt I feel inside, words can never explain.
I just wish it would rain. (Oh, how I wish that it would rain)

Oh, let it rain.
Rain, rain, rain (Oh, how I wish that it would rain)
Ooo, baby. Let it rain.
(Let it rain) Oh yeah, let it rain.

Day in, day out, my tear stained face
Pressed against the window pane.
My eyes search the skies, desperately for rain.
‘Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops.
And no one will ever know.
That I’m cryin’… cryin’ when I go outside.
To the world outside my tears, I refuse to explain.
Oh, I wish it would rain. (Oh, how I wish that it would rain)
Ooo, baby.

Let it rain, let it rain.
I need rain to disguise the tears in my eyes.
Oh, let it rain.
Oh, yeah, yeah listen.
I’m a man and I got my pride.
Give me rain or I’m gonna stay inside.
Let it rain.

(Let it rain)
(Let it (rain) (rain) (rain) rain, rain)

This is a torch song with a vengeance. The pain is palpable. The prevailing conceit, the weather motif, common enough in popular music (“Stormy Weather” anyone?), is worked out eloquently and consistently, from a simple but powerful beginning: “Sunshine, blue skies, please go away.” The jilted lover doesn’t see stormy weather, he wants stormy weather, so his pain can blend in.

Just the other day I was asking my musical collaborator Lee Feldman, an excellent lyricist in his own right, what qualities he thought made for a great lyric. He said strong visual imagery was the thing he most looks for, the image that can crystallize the sentiment.

Day in, day out, my tear stained face
Pressed against the window pane.
My eyes search the skies, desperately for rain.
‘Cause raindrops will hide my teardrops.
And no one will ever know.

Positively cinematic, no? A man (who “ain’t supposed to cry”), crying at the window, cursing the beautiful day, yearning for an external manifestation of his inner misery in the weather, a kind of cosmic companionship as well as convenient camouflage for his tears.

The record was released in late December of 1967. A week later, on New Year’s Eve, Rodger Penzabene committed suicide.

Vocalese 2: King Pleasure and “Parker’s Mood”

For a definition of vocalese, see the previous post on Eddie Jefferson.

Before Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross joined forces to form Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, bringing vocalese to a wider audience, the most popular practitioner of the form was King Pleasure. King Pleasure? It might make a good name for a porn star, or perhaps a calypso singer, but a 1950s jazz singer? Well, he was born Clarence Beeks, and I suppose if your name is Clarence Beeks you might as well throw caution to the wind when choosing a stage name.

Pleasure scored a big hit in 1952 with a lyric to James Moody’s solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” titled “Moody’s Mood for Love” (It’s unclear if the lyric was written by Pleasure or Eddie Jefferson). Other successes included the song “Red Top,” with Betty Carter as second vocalist, and “Don’t Get Scared,” based on a Stan Getz recording.

Pleasure’s most profound—and eerie—lyric was for Charlie Parker’s song “Parker’s Mood.” Parker’s original recording was made in 1948, and the King Pleasure version was recorded in 1953. The song is a pensive, dirgelike blues, and Pleasure works with both the blues lexicon and the dirge quality of the original.

First, the original Parker recording:

Here’s the lyric:

Come with me,
If you want to go to Kansas City…

I’m feeling lowdown and blue,
My heart’s full of sorrow.
Don’t hardly know what to do.
Where will I be tomorrow?

Going to Kansas City.
Want to go too?
No, you can’t make it with me.
Going to Kansas City,
Sorry that I can’t take you.

When you see me coming,
Raise your window high.
When you see me leaving, baby,
Hang your head and cry.

I’m afraid there’s nothing in this cream, this dreamy town
A honky-tonky monkey-woman can do.
She’d only bring herself down.

So long everybody!
The time has come
And I must leave you
So if I don’t ever see your smiling face again:
Make a promise you’ll remember
Like a Christmas Day in December
That I told you
All through thick and thin
On up until the end
Parker’s been your friend.

Don’t hang your head
When you see, when you see those six pretty horses pulling me.
Put a twenty dollar silver-piece on my watchchain,
Look at the smile on my face,
And sing a little song
To let the world know I’m really free.
Don’t cry for me,
‘Cause I’m going to Kansas City.

Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City in 1920, and buried there in 1955. When Parker died just a little over a year after King Pleasure’s recording was released people started commenting on the prescience of his funereal imagery. Parker’s death made it that much more moving and chilling.

But before we meet our maker we go to Kansas City on our own two feet. In the opening choruses, Pleasure borrows heavily from the lyric of an earler blues, “Goin’ to Chicago,” by Count Basie, with vocals by Jimmy Rushing. Instead of “going to Chicago,” we get “going to Kansas City,” but Pleasure borrows the phrases “sorry that I can’t take you,” “when you see me coming, raise your window high,” “hang your head and cry,” and the infamous “monkey-woman” (often thought to be a drug reference, Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout cites a book called Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary that defines the term as “an overly obliging or compliant female”).

Here’s the Basie recording:

But after taking us to Kansas City instead of Chicago, Pleasure takes another detour, “The Big Detour,” one might say, and starts singing about Bird’s funeral, his final homecoming. And it’s this passage that has really immortalized the song. “Sing a little song to let the world know I’m really free. Don’t cry for me,’cause I’m going to Kansas City.” This struck a chord with those who knew Parker, the tortured genius imprisoned by drugs.

And now for King Pleasure’s recording:

Eddie Jefferson, The Shakespeare of Vocalese

First of all, let me define vocalese for readers who may not be familiar with the term.

Vocalese is a form of jazz singing where lyrics are added to a previously recorded instrumental solo. The form was pretty much established in the 1950s* by singers like Jon Hendricks, King Pleasure, Annie Ross and Eddie Jefferson. The term was most likely coined by critic Ralph J. Gleason to describe the music of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Probably the two best known vocalese lyrics are “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which Eddie Jefferson wrote to a James Moody solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” and was a hit in 1952 for King Pleasure, and Annie Ross’s “Twisted,” based on an original by saxophonist Wardell Gray, and best known to many listeners from Joni Mitchell’s cover (“My analyst told me…”).

Having written vocalese myself, I have the utmost of respect for these pioneers. Writing a lyric to fit the meanderings and creative irregularities of a jazz solo is a difficult task, and much different from writing a lyric for a standard song form, which is, of course, much more regular. Vocalese is a stream-of-conciousness form, essentially. Or at least “stream of narrative.”

For me Eddie Jefferson is the greatest, and likely most prolific, of the vocalese writers, and his exuberant vocal style was a joy. I had the pleasure of seeing him several times in the 1970s at The Tin Palace, a New York jazz club, where he sang with saxophonist Richie Cole’s band. It’s often said that a great jazz solo is an instrumentalist telling a story, and Jefferson had a way of turning those solos into coherent and amusing verbal stories.  Among his most memorable lyrics are one for Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” and his comic immaculate-conception twist on “Pennies from Heaven” which he called “Benny’s From Heaven.”

But “Moody’s Mood” aside (and, there is some dispute about whether Jefferson or Pleasure actually wrote that lyric), I think Jefferson’s masterpiece is his lyric for Charlie Parker’s solo on “Oh Lady Be Good,” from a live Jazz at the Philharmonic recording. Here’s that Parker solo, about a minute into the recording:

And now Jefferson’s lyric:

Here’s what Bird said…

I got in trouble fooling around with a pretty woman.
She said that she was alone,
And that I could come by her home.
She went out to lunch with me,
And a couple of times I took her out to see a movie or two,
And never ever thinkin’ that she would do that to me.
Every mornin’, yes, every evenin’,
I used to call her on the phone and tell her just how much I wanted her so,
And there is no mistake,
My heart would surely break if she should ever say goodbye.
My, why, I thought I’d die, [could] not survive without her sweet tenderness,
And her lovely caress, I’m a fool I confess.
I’m tellin’ you that she just left one evenin’,
Didn’t even say she’s leavin’,
I went by her house to take her to a dance and we were gonna have a steak
But when I knocked up on her door there wasn’t no answer.
Lord! In the mornin’ don’t you know
I’d never even thought that while I was standin’ round and waitin’ she was halfway out of town,
I figured maybe she had gone out to the store to get a couple of things she needed ’cause she knew I’d wait around,
I sat down on her steps and smoked a cigarette ’cause I just knew that she’d be back in plenty time.
The first thing I knew an hour then two and then three went by.
All my cigarettes were gone and I was wonderin’ to myself,
What in the world has happened?
When the lady from next door come up to me and said I know you’re the fella that’s been comin’ around
I don’t know how this is gonna sound
But Virginia’s out of town and she told me to tell you that she won’t be back ’cause she has gone off with her lover to get married.
Why in the world did she do it?
I could have did oh so much for her.
Oh well I guess there ain’t no use to thinkin’ ’bout it,
I got myself a new gal and she swear that she’s mine.

Girl, please be good to me…

(My transcription. Where I have “could” in brackets it sounds like Jefferson says either “if” or “did,” but I regularized it for sense.)

That’s pretty remarkable, I’d say. How long did it take him to write that, I wonder. He has skillfully shoehorned language into a challenging solo by one of the greatest of improvisers, and it all sounds perfectly natural. Bravo, Mr. Jefferson.

* While the form pretty much took off in the 1950s, there is an utterly fascinating outlier from 1929, the earliest example I’m aware of. It’s a setting of Bix Beiderbecke’s solo on “Singin’ the Blues,” by Ted Koehler, best known for his collaborations with Harold Arlen, many of them for the Cotton Club stage shows. This version is by Bix’s sidekick Frankie Trumbauer with vocalist Bee Palmer.

Thanks to the great vocalist and vocalese maven Giacomo Gates for some fact-checking help.

Even Ira Nods

A case can be made for Ira Gershwin as the perfect lyricist of the Great American Songbook, and by perfect I don’t mean best. What I mean is that his lyrics tend to have a great polish, unity and perfect marriage with a melody without really calling attention to themselves. He definitely has a recognizable style, but it’s a subdued one compared to say Lorenz Hart’s street-smart cleverness. For me his style is transparent and easy on the ears, like Christopher Isherwood’s prose. And for the most part, “The Man I Love” is one of his supreme achievements. But for me there’s also the blemish that doesn’t make the lady more beautiful. It’s the line “who would, would you?”

It scans and rhymes with “just meant for two,” but to me it’s lazy and not worthy of the rest of the lyric. Ira Gershwin, New York Jew, has written a great, universal American song of romantic yearning. There’s nothing ethnic about the language until we get to that sore thumb of a line, “who would, would you.” This, to me, sounds like a Yiddish-inflected New Yorkism, out of character with the rest of the song. It’s a phrase that suggests a hand gesture, two hands, and a shrug. Yet to even work with that aspect of the phrase the singer would have to pause between the two “woulds,” and the same pacing would not work with “just meant for two.” So when singers tackle it, it becomes an awkward “who would would you,” that is, no pause for the comma. I know Ira could have done better.

Someday he’ll come along, the man I love
And he’ll be big and strong, the man I love
And when he comes my way
I’ll do my best to make him stay

He’ll look at me and smile,
I’ll understand
And in a little while he’ll take my hand
And though it seems absurd
I know we both won’t say a word

Maybe I shall meet him Sunday
Maybe Monday, maybe not
Still I’m sure to meet him one day
Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day

He’ll build a little home, just meant for two
From which we’ll never roam; Who would, would you?
And so all else above I’m waiting for the man I love

Chris Smither’s Got No Love Today

Until 2001 Chris Smither was just a name to me. I knew vaguely that he was somehow connected with the folkie or singer-songwriter scenes. I decided to catch his set at the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle that year, and he blew me away, First of all, he’s a great fingerstyle guitarist. But he’s also a fantastic songwriter with great idiosyncratic lyrics. He has a wonderful sense of humor, delightful wordplay and true pathos. This song plays out its premise with a vengeance, playing off the call of a street produce vendor to make a leap to regret for love lost and ultimately self-awareness. “If hungry is what’s eating you I’ll sell you peace of mind”—pure brilliance. There’s so much packed into this lyric, yet it all moves along like a charm. This is a song where the verse is essential to set the scene. A great lyric, and there’s many more where it came from.

I don’t know much, when I knew less,
And I was heartbroke for the first time,
I was drowning in my tears,
I went looking for a lifeline,
Trying to find some comfort,
A simple tender touch,
Searching for some little cure
That would not cost too much,
And I could hear that produce wagon on the street,
I could hear that farmer singing,
As I cried myself to sleep

CHORUS
I got ba-na-na, watermelon, peaches by the pound,
Sweet corn, mirleton, mo’ better than in town,
I got okra, enough to choke ya,
Beans of every kind,
If hungry is what’s eatin’ you
I’ll sell you peace of mind,
But this ain’t what you came to hear me say,
And I hate to disappoint you,
But I got no love today,
I got no love today,
I got no love today,
No love today

I could not love to save myself
From lonesome desperation.
Everything I thought was love
Was worthless imitation.
My concept of commitment
Was to take all you could give,
I thought the cheapest thrills I loved
Were teachin’ me to live,
But nothin’ seemed to last or see me through
Nothin’ but that little song
That I still sing for you.

CHORUS

No love today, none tomorrow,
Not now, not forever.
You can’t see what comes for free,
I think you much too clever,
For your own good I will tell you
What’s right before your eyes,
Intelligence is no defense
Against what this implies,
In the end no one will sell you what you need,
You can’t buy it off the shelf,
You got to grow it from the seed,

CHORUS

Everything Happens to Me: Tom Adair and the Expandable Lyric

Matt Dennis (music) and Tom Adair (lyrics) were staff writers for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, and many of their songs were introduced by Sinatra. Unlike most of the icons of the Great American Songbook, they didn’t write for the theater, so their songs didn’t grow out of (or get shoehorned into) story lines. Among their notable collaborations are “Let’s Get Away from It All,” “Will You Still Be Mine?” and “Violets for Your Furs.”

And “Everything Happens to Me,” which I’m just wild about. It’s a fun song, where the unlucky lover portrays himself (or herself) as an unlucky schlump in general. It’s basically a list of all the bad, but hardly catastrophic, things that befall the singer. And the wonderful thing about list songs, Porter’s “You’re the Top” perhaps being the supreme example, is that they’re infinitely expandable (just ask Chomsky). As a matter of fact, when I did a cabaret show in the late ’80s I called it “Everything Happens to Me” and wrote an additional chorus of lyrics, which I’ll share below.

Here’s the lyric that everybody sings:

I make a date for golf, and you can bet your life it rains.
I try to give a party, and the guy upstairs complains.
I guess I’ll go through life, just catching colds and missing trains.
Everything happens to me.

I never miss a thing. I’ve had the measles and the mumps.
And every time I play an ace, my partner always trumps.
I guess I’m just a fool, who never looks before he jumps.
Everything happens to me.

At first, my heart thought you could break this jinx for me.
That love would turn the trick to end despair.
But now I just can’t fool this head that thinks for me.
I’ve mortgaged all my castles in the air.

I’ve telegraphed and phoned and sent an air mail special too.
Your answer was goodbye and there was even postage due.
I fell in love just once, and then it had to be with you.
Everything happens to me.

Here’s a version by Rosemary Clooney, who could always be trusted with the care of a lyric.

When Sinatra sang it he opened with the brief verse:

Black cats creep across my path
Until Im almost mad
I must have roused the devils wrath
’cause all my luck is bad

Billie Holiday also sang the verse. And like many singers from the ’50s onward, she replaced “missing trains” with “missing planes,” which isn’t a bad idea.

And then there are the additional choruses. Here’s a version by the composer, who also had a performing career as a singer-pianist. He does a playful additional chorus that certainly doesn’t stand the test of time. I don’t know if Adair is responsible for the additional lyric.

Finally, my own contribution.

I join a new religion and the preacher starts to sin,
I throw away my turtlenecks, next thing I know they’re in,
I’m always playing solitaire and still I never win,
Everything happens to me.

I buy a famous painting and discover it’s a fake,
I move to San Francisco and they have another quake,
So far a pair of broken arms has been my only break,
Everything happens to me.

When first we met I looked to you imploringly
To put an end to my unlucky streak,
But you have no intention of adoring me,
Now once again my future’s looking bleak.

I sent a dozen roses in a last attempt to woo,
You said they made you sneeze and then you told me we were through,
I fell in love just once and then it had to be with you,
Everything happens to me.

Miss Peggy Lyricist

Of course I knew Peggy Lee as a singer since childhood. And I also knew some of the songs she wrote lyrics for, as recorded by her and others. But until recently I didn’t know that she had written those words.

We had Peggy Lee albums in the house when I was a kid. I remember especially “Live at Basin Street East.” She was on TV a lot in the sixties, and when I was an adolescent she had a surprise hit with “Is That All There Is?,” an uncharacteristic product of the pens of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I remember an older Peggy, with bleached blonde hair, and lots of makeup, standing stock still, singing that maudlin song. I don’t know, is maudlin the word? I found her look rather ghoulish as she sang it, kind of like a lobotomized Baby Jane Hudson. At any rate, I won’t be posting that song here anytime soon. Maybe when I post Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days”—that is, when hell freezes over. (Though, in defense of the melody of “Those Were the Days,” it started out as a maudlin Russian song, with English lyrics added by Gene Raskin, who I hope was a better architecture critic than lyricist.)

But back to Peggy Lee. She got her start as a big band singer with Benny Goodman. She met her husband, Dave Barbour, a guitarist, in the Goodman band, and the went on to collaborate on a number of songs, some of them really good. The Lee-Barbour collaborations have found favor among jazz singers. “I Love Being Here with You,” has been recorded by a number of singers, and in live performance it’s often done at the top or end of a set as a tribute to the audience. “It’s a Good Day” is not to my liking. It’s a kind of exuberant revival meeting song, and to my ears it’s as corny as “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

My favorite of the Lee lyrics is “I Don’t Know Enough About You.”

I know a little bit about a lot of things,
But I don’t know enough about you.
Just when I think you’re mine,
You try a different line,
And baby, what can I do?

I read the latest news,
No buttons on my shoes,
But baby, I’m confused about you.
You get me in a spin,
Oh what a stew I’m in,
‘Cause I don’t know enough about you.

Jack of all trades, master of none,
And isn’t it a shame,
I’m so sure that you’d be good for me,
If you’d only play my game!

You know I went to school,
And I’m nobody’s fool,
That is to say until I met you!
I know a little bit about a lot o’ things,
But I don’t know enough about you.

It establishes its conceit right at the start and plays it out nicely. She uses the cliche “jack of all trades, master of none,” but we all know that the pop song is where cliches go to make a new start. Maybe not an earth-shattering lyric, but a good one that’s like smooth vodka to a singer, and one that works just right with Barbour’s melody. The only line that gives me pause is “no buttons on my shoes.” I’m guessing that when the song was written that was a way of saying “I’m up to date,” but I can’t imagine it can still convey that.

Below is a clip of Peggy and Judy Garland dishing and singing a duet on “I Love Being Here with You,” which I mentioned above.