Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Peggy Lee - Christmas With

One morning last month over breakfast, my wife asked our kids what they wanted to give me for Christmas. In between bites of their cereal, my two oldest responded "Christmas CDs".

I could hear my wife rolling her eyes in the next room.

There was a time when my family actively tried to buy Christmas CDs for me. It reached a point several years back when almost every CD they put into my stocking I already owned or bought. Out of frustration they began handing me gift cards and that was that.

Not wanting to disappoint the kids, my wife asked me for a list of CDs that I would want - bless my wife's heart!

I quickly typed out a list of CDs that I knew I wanted then headed over to Randy's Rodeo where I saw a list of new releases for the 2006 Christmas season. One of those titles on the list was this Peggy Lee CD you see before you.

I already own Peggy's classic 1990 Christmas CD entitled "Christmas Carousel" and figured most of the tracks on that would be on the new CD. I wrote it down on my list under the category of "Only if you can't find the other CDs".

On Christmas morning, I opened a huge stack of CDs and when I saw this CD, I was happy and Maggie was sooooo proud about her purchase. My wife picks up the story from here:

"We went to the store and Maggie (our oldest daughter) insisted on wearing her tiara (again! Maggie loves being a princess). We began looking for the CDs and I noticed Maggie looking at this nearly all white CD cover (see above). She asked for the list, she read it, and jumped with glee that she found a CD on the list - especially one with "the snow princess" on the cover!

"I tried to get Maggie to choose a CD that was higher on your priority list but she wouldn't hear of it. She was in love with the snow princess and none of my cajoling would make her change."

My daughter's got taste! She wanted to listen to "the snow princess" on Christmas morning as we opened presents - which we did. Maggie and I looked at the pictures in the booklet, danced as she cleaned up from unwrapping presents, and kept singing "I like a sleighride, I like a sleighride..." for several days after.

Another Christmas memory locked away forever.

Norma Deloris Egstrom probably didn't have too many Christmas memories like that growing up in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her mother died early, her father remarried, and her wicked stepmother made Norma's formative years horrific. The young Norma began listening to the radio and took comfort by singing along.

Music became a refuge and she began appearing on local radio shows to sing in exchange for food - will sing for food! As she got better, she quickly got better paying gigs. Such was the case when she appeared on WDAY radio in Fargo, North Dakota when the program director thought a better moniker would be more appealing. He changed her name to Peggy Lee and a star was quickly rising.

After trying her luck in Los Angeles, Peggy landed a gig in Chicago at a nightclub located inside the Ambassador Hotel in 1941. As fate would have it, the famed "King Of Swing" Benny Goodman was staying at the hotel and needed a new singer to replace Helen Forrest. Goodman was mesmerized by Lee's singing and offered her the job.

For the next two years, Peggy was the torch singer and landed several number #1 hits including "Why Don't You Do Right?" and "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place". Something else happened during her stay with Goodman: she met then guitarist for the band and her future husband Dave Barbour.

Peggy stated later that it was instant love when she heard Barbour's playing. Both fell in love and this was a cardinal rule breaker: Goodman allowed no fraternizing within the band with the girl singer. When Goodman fired Barbour for breaking this rule, Peggy said adios as well.

Lee & Barbour married, had a daughter, Peggy settled into retirement to take care of baby Nicki, and Dave kept playing studio dates and nightclubs to earn their bread. This arrangement didn't last long. Towards the end of World War II, Peggy began recording and writing songs occasionally for the new record label in town called Capitol Records.

The strand of hits began and Peggy soon began appearing on radio, nightclubs, even movies. In 1952, Peggy left Capitol for Decca Records. For four years, Peggy produced some of her most best known works. She wrote and recorded several songs for Walt Disney's 1955 movie "Lady And The Tramp" (more on that later) and her landmark 1956 album "Black Coffee".

She returned to Capitol Records and recorded a song in 1957 that would become her signature song - a cover of Little Willie John's R&B classic "Fever". With this song, the Peggy Lee mystique was firmly set in stone.

Around 1960, Peggy took time out to record a Christmas album - the aforementioned "Christmas Carousel". On this new Christmas CD, thirteen tracks come from that album (what's more overlap in my collection?) but the three new tracks are worth their weight in gold.

"Song At Midnight" was the B-side to "The Christmas Spell" released in 1949. Released only once on a long OOP 1992 Christmas CD called "Let It Snow!: Cuddly Christmas Classics from Capitol", it hasn't been available until now. It was worth the wait. Sung in the traditional mold of a 1940s pop song, the sultriness of Lee's voice cuts through the mold and gives you an indication of things to come in the 50s.

"It's Christmas Time Again" was recorded for Decca Records in 1953 - the A side of a 78 single that included "Ring Them Christmas Bells" on the B-side (you can find that song on the "Yule B' Swingin'" comp). Like "Song At Midnight", Lee's rich voice just blows away anything else that the Jud Conlon Singers bring to the background table!

"My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)" was previously unreleased until this album came out. Recorded later in her career (a demo possibly?), Lee's voice is older but still carries her tones beautifully. It's a wistful song with much longing in the notes; Peggy's voice adds the icing to the cake. A wonderful solemn Christmas treat.

(Much of my info came from the fantastic discography at Peggy Lee's official website - this wasn't the first time I've visited and it won't be the last - there are other Peggy Christmas songs I need for my collection!)

Throughout the 1960s, Peggy Lee was one of the most consistent artists Capitol Records had under contract. As rock-n-roll pushed most pop artists off the charts and out of the studios, Lee averaged an amazing two or three albums a year from 1957 to 1972!

In 1969, her song "Is That All There Is?" won her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance - it put her name in the winner's column with the likes of The Fifth Dimension, Blood, Sweat & Tears, and The Beatles that year!

As the 1970s began, Peggy's health began to take a toll. Diabetes, heart bypass surgeries, and a stroke would have made any other person retire. Peggy took all of it in stride, wrote her autobiography, tried to launch a Broadway musical, and continued to perform through the 1980s and 1990s.

Then came the Disney matter. When she wrote the songs for "Lady And The Tramp" back in 1955, she retained the rights to the songs & transcripts. Nothing was mentioned about home video which didn't exist. She sued Disney for royalties in 1988; a death sentence for anyone up until that time. Lee persevered after Disney waged war on her the only way they know: dirty and prolonged.

After a bitter three year court battle, the court awarded Lee an award of almost $4 million dollars in back royalties. "You know, they always say, 'Don’t mess with the Mouse,'" said Lee at the time. "I’m glad that my rights were vindicated."

Peggy Lee died on January 21, 2002 of a heart attack - her legacy and legend firmly in place.

I hope my daughter Maggie will keep looking to Peggy Lee as a role model - I can't think of a better one.

UP NEXT: A Christmas CD from the only person with FIVE stars on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.



brainwerk said...

I was on the fence about this one. I too have Christmas Carousel. After reading this I've bumped it to the top of my list. Thanks for the great read!

CaptainOT said...

Brainwerk - "Christmas Carousel" is a great album. You gotta keep it because "Deck the Halls," "The Christmas List," "The Christmas Riddle", and that fantastic full-length version of the "Toys for Tots" song weren't on this new one!


stubbysfears said...

I'd like to track down "Christmas Carousel" just for that great cover art!

Mildred said...

My all time favorite Christmas CD. I just created a FB fan page for it (jumping the gun a bit I know, it's Sept), but hey.....anyway, i linked your blog. love your story.