In June 1951, Peggy Lee began hosting her own radio show on CBS. She appeared on the national network twice weekly—on Tuesdays and Thursdays—for a total of 89 episodes before her stint ended in November 1952. The first 42 episodes of The Peggy Lee Show ran from June 1951 until May 1952 and were broadcast from New York, directed by Russ Case, who worked with Perry Como.
Lee’s marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour was fizzling in Los Angeles, so the New York move was ideal. She also had an opportunity to appear on TV variety shows and star at the Copacabana nightclub. When Lee was cast in a remake of The Jazz Singer in the spring of 1952, she returned to Los Angeles, and the balance of her radio-show episodes were directed there by Sonny Burke.
Many of Lee’s more unusual solo numbers on her radio show have been gathered on a 44-track set, At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings (Real Gone Music). The two-CD set of previously unreleased tracks sounds great, with the pure, purring sound of Lee’s voice free of distortion or surface noise. Many of the songs aren’t generally associated with the singer, like Getting to Know You, Cry, Did Anyone Call, Wheel of Fortune, I’ll Never Smile Again, At Last and many others.
The time period of this set is rather interesting. Lee in 1951 and ’52 was being positioned as a jazz-free pop singer—the way Jeri Southern, Jo Stafford and so many others were around the same time period. The reason for this approach had to do with the still-uncertain emergence of Columbia’s LP versus RCA’s 45, the absolute power and taste of Mitch Miller [above] at Columbia and CBS, and the mandate of national radio to appeal to all markets.
As a result, what we have here isn’t the sassy Peggy Lee of the earlier Capitol 78 years or the swinging Peggy Lee of the later 12-inch LP era but the candlelight-and-furs Lee who sang songs straight and painstakingly slow, as if in slow motion. When you fall into the music, the songs and pace transport you back to a time before TV was widespread and radio still stimulated imaginations.
The CD set is evenly split between the Case and Burke sessions, with little differential between the New York and Los Angeles arranging sounds, which, again, is further proof of Miller’s bi-coastal iron fist. Nearly all of the material has a slow pulse, which is rather interesting. Lee is too often compared with Frank Sinatra, and here she is much closer to Perry Como’s ballad style, milking songs without becoming overly sentimental. There also are pained torch songs like Since My Love Is Gone, which was unlike anything Lee had done prior or after.
If there are tracks that come close to the Lee that would soon emerge in 1953 with the release of Black Coffee with Peggy Lee, her first 10-inch LP for Decca, it’s I Got Rhythm and Pretty Eyed Baby for Sonny Burke. The pep and risk-taking are saddled up for a ride. By mid-decade, when the LP began expanding to 12 inches, Lee would be off to the races, recording swinging albums with Nelson Riddle, Billy May and other leading arrangers.
But In 1951 and ’52, Lee was a slow, steamy ballad singer of impeccable talent, relying less on her looks or slick-chick vocal tricks. Instead, what we hear is a relaxed modernist instructed by a bearded boss to deliver songs geared to relax weary audiences before bed. Here, she’s a tall glass of warm milk.
JazzWax tracks: You’ll find Peggy Lee’s At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings (Real Gone) here.
JazzWax clips: Here are two clips from the album…