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.
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The Independent Culture
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