Fever!: The Peggy Lee Century
By Andrew Poretz . . .
Ann Hampton Callaway opened her three-night show, on May 18th, belatedly celebrating Peggy Lee’s 2020 centennial. “When you’re a diva, it’s okay to be fashionably late. Well, two years is a little late.” This honey-voiced diva, who somewhat straddles the worlds of jazz and cabaret, leaned more towards her jazz side in this show. How could she not, when backed by the superlative trio of jazz masters Ted Rosenthal on piano, Martin Wind on bass and Tim Horner on drums? Still, a cabaret it was. In fact, the pianist Alex Rybeck’s comment to me the next day read like a pull quote: “Cabaret perfection. Beauty, humor, heart; laughter and tears. A richly satisfying meal of music and emotion.”
Ms. Callaway weaved tales from Peggy Lee’s life and musical story with a diverse selection of songs from Ms. Lee’s long musical career as both an interpreter and songwriter. The evening was filled with interesting anecdotes and stories. There was a special drink available for the evening, the “Fever Margarita,” for a fascinating reason from the “Who Knew? Department”: the margarita was actually named after Peggy Lee!
Ann set the evening’s tone with a breezy opening number featuring lyrics by Peggy Lee, the welcoming “I Love Being Here with You,” composed by Bill Schluger.
“Why Don’t You Do Right?”, a song introduced by Peggy Lee in the film Stage Door Canteen and also a number one single for her, started with a Latin beat (so very Peggy Lee), but when the rhythm switched to swing, the star showed off her jazz bona fides with some fine scat singing.
Ms. Callaway is also a songwriter of note, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Barbra Streisand — in some of her shows she will write a perfectly crafted song on the spot, using words supplied from the audience – so it was appropriate that she supplied some new lyrics to “Fever” (Eddie Cooley/John Davenport, additional lyrics by Peggy Lee). Hers were biographical references to Ms. Lee and her ex-husband, guitarist Dave Barbour.
The next number, “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” was written by the couple in 1946, and was her first original hit. The jazzy arrangement included a couple of fun musical quotes by Ted Rosenthal.
A gorgeous jazz-ballad take on “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II) was lovingly interpreted by Ms. Callaway, and it fully hit its emotional mark. The star then ratcheted it up considerably for “Just One of Those Things” (Cole Porter), which Peggy sang in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer with Danny Thomas. With a 4/4 double-time beat, Ann did a scat doubling of Ted Rosenthal’s piano solo. After one particularly complex scat phrase, she humorously called out, “Everybody!” (There were no takers, thankfully.)
Telling the story of the noirish film “Pete Kelley’s Blues,” which garnered an Oscar acting nomination for Peggy Lee, Ms. Callaway performed “Sing a Rainbow” (Arthur Hamilton) almost like a music box song.
Peggy Lee’s work is known to younger generations thanks to her work in Disney’s 1955 animated film The Lady and The Tramp, for which she developed and voiced several characters, including “Peg” (of course), and many of the songs, including “He’s a Tramp (Oliver Wallace and Joseph Tramanese, with lyrics by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee). Ann announced, “I’d like to dedicate this song to my ex-husband,” to great laughs, and was something of an inside joke. (Her current spouse, the lovely Kari Strand, was present.) She gestured to the trio, “Let’s hear it for Three Dog Night!”
Ms. Callaway surprisingly asserted that Peggy Lee’s legendary 1953 jazz album, Black Coffee, was really the first concept album, not Frank Sinatra’s 1955 In the Wee Small Hours, as is often reported. Two minutes of research, including an essay in Jazz Times, confirmed this statement. Ann’s great, bluesy rendition of the title song more than did the recording justice.
Peggy Lee and Latin rhythms were a natural marriage, and her Latin ala Lee was an influential album for many performers, notably The Beatles, who borrowed the essence of the album’s arrangement of “Till There Was You” (Meredith Willson) for their early stage act. For the instrumental break, Ms. Callaway sang a lovely, wordless obligato vocal to Ted Rosenthal’s solo piano.
Another great tidbit Ms. Callaway told was that Peggy Lee thought of ex-husband Dave Barbour while writing the title theme to the movies Johnny Guitar, and always sang it for him after his death. Here, it was sung as a sort of rhythmic dirge, sans guitar.
Peggy Lee’s centennial has brought forth a number of gems, including James Gavin’s deep-dive, controversial biography (the family disputes much of the star’s early history) and a re-release of Ms. Lee’s own memoir. This tribute, two years (fashionably) late, is another one.
Ann Hampton Callaway – May 18, 2022
Fever!: The Peggy Lee Century
Ted Rosenthal on piano, Martin Wind on bass and Tim Horner on drums
254 West 54th Street, NYC
Lead Photo: Debra DeMartini