There's no "Fever," but Judge George Hatch is still steaming.
"In this fabulous DVD entitled Peggy Lee Singing at Her Best you'll see and hear why "Miss Peggy Lee" (as she was always introduced) remains one of the best-loved and most admired vocalists of all time."—back cover allegation
"I don't like time. I really have no sense of time except swing time."—Miss Peggy Lee
"Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm."—Frank Sinatra commenting on Miss Peggy Lee in 1964
Facts of the Case
Thanks to shows like American Idol, these days every self-proclaimed pop "diva" feels obligated to gargle one note into dozens, then rattle the rafters with a prolonged shriek for the finale. They don't comprehend the notion that less is often more, and that subtlety, simplicity, and sensuality can better command an audience's attention than ear-splitting vocal pyrotechnics. One of Peggy Lee's biographers explains that "…by reducing how much she gave her listeners, she increased how much they got."
"Beauty and the Beat" is the title of a studio album recorded with pianist/composer George Shearing in 1959. I can't think of four words that better describe the talent and persona that is Miss Peggy Lee. Discovered by Benny Goodman in 1941, Lee toured with Goodman's big band for two years and recorded her first million-selling hit, "Why Don't You Do Right?" She has often acknowledged that she "learned more about music with the bands I worked with than anywhere else." In 1943, she married the Goodman band's guitarist Dave Barbour and started a solo career, often composing songs with Barbour and requesting that he create arrangements suitable to her unique delivery. In the late 1940s, Lee began making radio appearances, most notably with Bing Crosby With the advent of television, she became a regular performer on Revlon Revue, as well as one of the most popular guests on Perry Como's and Steve Allen's variety shows.
In the world of film, Lee wrote and sang her own composition, the theme for Nicholas Ray's cult classic Johnny Guitar (1954), and provided the lyrics (and several voices) for Disney's full-length animated feature Lady and the Tramp (1955). A rare onscreen appearance as an alcoholic torch song chanteuse in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955) earned her an Oscar® nod as Best Supporting Actress, amid a cast that included Ella Fitzgerald, Janet Lee, and (ahem!) Jayne Mansfield.
A true professional, Peggy Lee adapted easily to changing musical currents. She applied her own distinctive style to Laura Nyro's "Wedding Bell Blues" and Leiber and Stoller's "I Am Woman." "Is That All There Is?" a single arranged by Randy Newman, put her back on Billboard's Top Twenty.
Listening to Miss Peggy Lee—especially on remastered CDs—is one thing, but to watch her perform is something else entirely. Throughout a career that spanned almost seven decades, she constantly refined her image, from the musical arrangements to her hairstyles, hand movements, and those exquisite shoulder bumps, so perfectly timed she was telling you to "kiss it" and "back off" in the same drum beat. She transformed herself from Benny Goodman's perky lead singer to a bewitching stage presence who could captivate an entire auditorium with her eyes, lip movements that would be the envy of any ventriloquist, and the provocative, come-hither purr of her voice.
So I must admit feeling my own temperature rise when I looked at the play list on Passport Video's DVD, Peggy Lee: Singing at Her Best, and saw that her near-incendiary cover of "Fever," Little Willie John's soulful 1956 R&B ballad, was not included, along with other classics like "Mañana," "Alright, Okay, You Win," and "It's a Good Day." But while the Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo is far from perfect and the quality of the transfer varies in the extreme, we do get to see Miss Peggy Lee in action for just under 45 minutes.
The first clip is classic Peggy Lee—alone in the spotlight with black background, wearing a subtly-sequined black dress with a low scoop neckline that draws all attention to her cleavage, shoulders, short-coiffed blonde hair, tasteful dangling diamond earrings and that face, those eyes, and those lips as she sings "The Best Is Yet to Come."
Next she's with The Benny Goodman Orchestra for her first million-seller, "Why Don't You Do It Right?"—and tell me white people ain't got no rhythm. Watch Goodman in particular as he's absolutely transfixed by his new singer, but keeps total control over his band. Even when he starts playing his clarinet for the interlude, Goodman can't take his eyes off Lee until she moves off-camera. "I Cover the Waterfront," a solo number with only a guitarist—possibly Lee's husband Dave Barbour—is the worst clip; almost unwatchable in medium shots, as all detail of Miss Lee's face is completely washed out.
Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" and Irving Berlin's "Love, Why Didn't You Do Right by Me?" show Lee developing her confident and sultry image wearing a dark, strapless and extremely low-cut gown—almost a bustier Madonna would kill for—and timing her hand movements to an unidentified band. To appease censors, she must have been asked to tone down her look for what appear to be early televised recordings of "Where Can I Go Without You" and "I Love Being Here with You," plus Jerome Kern's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" being sung in a lonely park bench.
Next up are three duets with Petula Clark and an older Peggy Lee at a time when she let her champagne blonde hair grow shoulder length and wore loose-fitting caftan-style gowns to compensate for her weight gain. "I Am Woman" includes some specially written lyrics allowing the two women to inject some humor and make a smooth segue into "Wedding Bell Blues." This is followed by what must have been a highly controversial presentation of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," with both singers materializing on a foggy battlefield amidst huge coils of barbed wire. No credits are given for any of these clips but I would love to know which television show had the guts to air this segment—and if they received any flack for it.
The 10-minute "Cross Country Blues Suite" follows, with Lee effortlessly slipping through nine songs including "Train Blues," "St. Louis Blues," "New York City Blues," "Boston Beans," and even Wilbert Harrison's 1959 hit "Kansas City." "Peggy's Theme" plays over a montage of the clips and the closing credits.
There are no extras at all, but the DVD has a kitschy animated menu in eye-popping 1950s pastels and great sound. Once you get to the clips, the image quality deteriorates by varying degrees; don't expect the songs to come close to any of the remastered CDs you might happen to own.
Often compared to Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, Peggy Lee had to be seen, not just listened to, and Passport Video's DVD, despite its faults, gives you the opportunity to watch this distinctive vocalist develop a physicality that enhanced her musical interpretations of both standards and her own compositions
With its May release of Sing Brother Sing: The Mills Brothers and the Delta Rhythm Boys, Passport appears to be trying to cut a niche for itself by resurrecting ancient footage of classic performers. They have yet to match, however, the doo-wop, early R&B and rock 'n' roll footage of several PBS specials—and of another DVD, Fever: The Music of Peggy Lee, which was released in April and puts this one to shame in terms of transfers, sound quality and extras. Passport should set their sights a little higher, apply the extra effort, and, for God's sake, find a better picture of Peggy Lee for the cover of their next release. The top-row fourth on the back cover would have been perfect.
This Judge can't bring himself to simply dismiss a case that offers rare and convincing evidence of a song stylist like no other—one who has already been sentenced to life in the Judge's audio collection. He goes on record, however, with a generous but sub-par decision requiring Passport Video to spend a few months of community service learning how to beef up the presentation and content on their future DVD releases.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
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