I was always an admirer of Peggy Lee, dating back to my childhood, when my father had so many of her albums. If you looked up "sultry" in the dictionary (at least in the 50s and 60s), you'd find her picture. She had an extraordinary career as a singer, songwriter, and occasional actress (she received an Oscar nomination for Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955).
In addition to her impressive recording successes, she led a campaign, in the early 90s, to force Disney to compensate her for the huge video sales they were earning for Lady and the Tramp. That animated classic from 1955 included 8 songs written by Lee (she performed several of them as well), for which she was paid $3500 at the time. Decades later, the Disney company was raking in the millions, but refusing payment to the artists involved. The landmark case brought attention to outdated copyright laws, and Peggy won a victory for film and recording artists, as well as herself.
But none of that has anything to do with this week's Dance Party, which is inspired by the death this week of this guy:
He was in high school when he first joined forces with composer Mike Stoller, and together they became the preeminent tunesmiths of early rock and roll. They had so many monster hits, it's hard to keep track. Their first, the Elvis Presley recording of Hound Dog, was one they openly despised, though they kept cashing the checks I'm sure. They wrote for many if not most of the black singers and groups of the day, furnishing hits for The Drifters, The Coasters, and others. When Ben E. King left The Drifters, they penned his first solo hit, "Spanish Harlem," and followed up with one of the most satisfying hits of that or any era, "Stand By Me." They also wrote "On Broadway," an anthem which turned out to be prescient of their later Broadway success. In 1995, their song catalogue provided the basis for Smokey Joe's Cafe, which had a successful 5 year run and paved the way for a slew of other juke box musicals.
This week's Dance Party was not included in that show, with good reason. As the 60s ended, Leiber and Stoller were aging out of fashion in rock and roll, and they turned their attentions to more adult fare. The most famous of these songs became a smash hit for Peggy Lee, the final in her six-decade career. It is an unusual mix of song and narration, reminiscent of German cabaret in the 30s. You can almost hear Marlena Dietrich crooning the tune, but thankfully, we have Peggy Lee instead. The song hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1970, and became one of Lee's signature numbers. She continued to tour for many years, even as ill health and a fall from which she never fully recovered kept her in a wheelchair. Some of those last concerts were no longer sultry, they were positively somnabulant. But this clip, from a concert in the early 70s, shows Lee performing the song with the quiet dignity which I remember vividly.
The song is a tribute to survival, though there are those who consider it a tribute to suicide. Who cares, it remains one of my favorites. It is arranged here, by the way, by Randy Newman. In honor of songwriter Jerry Leiber, who died Monday at the age of 78: