Art: The diva that time forgot

The world's first concept album is re-released this week, and no one has noticed. Peggy Lee should be an icon, but lost it to changing tastes and bad fashion moments.

This week, the mega-company that now owns Jack Kapp's old Decca label is reissuing Peggy Lee's album Black Coffee. Make no mistake - this is an event. After all, apart from its intrinsic quality, it could fairly be described as the first concept album of the vinyl era. This reissue should be equivalent to the reissue of a Frank Sinatra classic. Instead, it has gained as much attention as a re-release of a Herman's Hermits LP.

It shouldn't be that way. At her peak, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Lee was not only as good as it got when it came to pre-rock singing, male or female, but she was sexy, creative and a decade-long bestseller. Yet today, once you've mentioned "Fever", and somebody with small children and a DVD machine has recalled that she was involved in Disney's Lady and the Tramp, that's about it. What happened?

It was a combination of circumstances. After she joined the Benny Goodman band in 1941, Lee's smouldering version of "Why Don't You Do Right?" topped charts worldwide and gave Goodman a new image (he'd never been big on the blues). In 1944 she landed a contract with Capitol Records. That company learnt early on that they hadn't signed the average songbird: Lee (born Nora Egstrom, in rural North Dakota) was a rarity, a singer with thorough musical knowledge and a keen intelligence as well as raw talent. She wrote much of her own material, and fought her corner well enough to be able to record it.

Capitol concentrated on a never-ending supply of singles, including her first big hit under her own name, the cod-Latin "Manana", but she kept her poise up to her departure for Decca in 1952. By that time, Lee had evolved not only a unique vocal persona, but also an unparalleled professional elegance in deportment, couture and stage presence. She oozed class in all she did, although it was around the same time that her first marriage, to the guitarist Dave Barbour, crumbled, due to his alcoholism.

Decca gave her a new start, just as Capitol gave Sinatra - on the run at this time from Mitch Miller at Columbia - the opportunity to restart his career with the seismic Swing Easy and Songs For Swingin' Lovers. In Lee's case, Decca allowed her to record her first LPs, and she made Black Coffee. That was in February 1953, and the original issue was as a 10" LP.

Lee used the sparest of accompaniment - just a piano trio and a trumpet obbligato - to evoke and sustain a hypnotically intimate mood where you become aware within a short space of time that this is somebody baring their most private thoughts and feelings. Because of this, it has been called the first "concept album".

She had a seemingly soft and artless approach that belies the incredible attention to detail on all her records. She considered every note played and sung before a session had even commenced. Again like Sinatra, she was an artist communicating deep things about the human condition in a seemingly casual way, when her approach to her art was anything but casual. There are moments on Black Coffee where you get chills up the back of your neck because what Lee is communicating is so naked, so risky, that you wonder how she got away with it in public. Her version of "You're My Thrill" (added in 1956, when Decca expanded the album to 12") steals up on you like a scene from Play Misty for Me. Don't listen to it alone in the dark.

Lee progressed through her Decca contract with a series of masterpieces, including the soundtracks to Lady and The Tramp (the songs were all her own) and Pete Kelly's Blues (a superb mix of standards and self-penned pieces). She also recorded the most off-the-wall of all her albums, Sea Shells, in 1956. This is Lee accompanied solely by harp, singing folk- like arrangements of poetry from Japan and other countries. World music, anyone? Only 40 years ahead of time.

Seduced back to Capitol in 1957 by the promise of big-time collaborations and solid-gold productions (her first album, The Man I Love, was arranged by Nelson Riddle and conducted by Frank Sinatra, no less), Lee continued to find her own way. 1958 saw her cotton on to Little Willie John's 1956 hit "Fever". Adding a bridge and a new verse, and keeping the arrangement very spare (she also came up with the finger clicks) she brought her own smouldering, knowing sensuality to the song and made it an even bigger smash, this time worldwide. The flipside, "You Don't Know", was even closer to outright raw blues. All this with a voice that, again like Sinatra's, had clear limitations in volume and range, but which she learned to exploit like a virtuoso for emotional impact. She swung as well.

But what made her so well-equipped to negotiate the vagaries of 1950s popular music - her talent, her class, her looks, her loyalty to her style, even when she went on her Latin extravaganzas - made the 1960s hard going. The repertoire she had made her own was either being reinterpreted by a new generation of singers or discarded altogether as rock'n'roll metamorphosed into pop and then, later in the decade, rock. Although she updated her music in the early 1960s (two bluesy albums scored by Quincy Jones in 1961, and a record with Billy May that included "The Girl from Ipanema" in 1964), she also stuck with variations on her Fifties image that increasingly verged on camp excess. The cover of "Mink Jazz", from 1962, makes a woman in her mid-forties look like a pensioner who got lucky in Vegas, blond wig and all.

By the latter half of the Sixties, she was still able to command a loyal live following, but her album sales were faltering and she was often merely covering the hits of her contemporaries - Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night" and "Somethin' Stupid", and Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay". In 1969, she had her last major hit, "Is That All There Is?", the sentiment of which summed up what was happening to her. At a similar juncture in his career, Sinatra shrewdly retired (in 1970) while Lee recorded "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The Long and Winding Road". Two years later, she parted company with Capitol and, after an album each with Atlantic, in 1974, and A&M, in 1975, faded away.

Lacking perhaps the sheer egotism of Sinatra that made him return from retirement in 1973 and continue to pack out Madison Square Garden like Muhammad Ali, no matter what shape his voice was in, Lee made just half a dozen albums in the three decades left to her. Her personal appearances allowed her substantial cult following to satisfy their desires, but her lack of clear artistic direction and the ravages of a lifetime on her voice signalled a surrender to the inevitable.

For Lee was unfortunate enough to endure not only four failed marriages by 1962, but a 1961 bout of pleurisy that nearly killed her and left her with a damaged lung and dependent on a breathing-machine everywhere she went, along with, among other things in later life, double heart-bypass surgery and a fall from a Las Vegas stage in the 1980s that broke her pelvis and caused extreme difficulty in even walking.

Meanwhile, her increasingly bizarre dress sense (for starters, the jewelled fabric "helmet" head-dress and huge sunglasses that, together, pretty much engulfed her above the shoulders) adopted to distract from her physical frailties on stage, limited her latter-day appeal.

Never having cultivated the larger-than-life image and persona through films and lifestyle that made Sinatra, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday or even someone like Barbra Streisand perennial objects of fascination to the outside world, Lee only had her talent and musicality to offer. Inevitably, she suffered an eclipse that seems unlikely ever to be reversed, because, like Ella Fitzgerald, she only ever offered up her artistry to the public, not her life. Today, that's all there is left - Lee died of a heart attack in 2001.

`Black Coffee' by Peggy Lee is reissued by Verve/Universal Music Group

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?