Peggy Lee was one of the most successful pop singers in a career that spanned six decades. In 1969, she had one of her biggest hits, “Is That All There Is”, a nostalgic song that reached number eleven on the chart. Not bad for a woman pushing 50, in an age where rock and roll was king of the world.
Peggy Lee came up in the Big Band era of Benny Goodman, who she sang with during the 1940s. She enjoyed some solo success and hooked up with some other orchestras to back her up. In 1942, she sang on two, number one hits with Goodman.
Lee would enjoy success on the radio, singing regularly on several shows including the Jimmy Durante Show and Bing Crosby’s show. She branched out to sing in some films, and even write songs that appeared in films.
Lee was a contemporary of Doris Day, Patti Page, Julie London, Dinah Washington, Helen Forrest, Anita 0’Day and Ella Fitzgerald. All fine vocalists. Lee’s already warm voice gained character in her later years, giving her an extra gear to convey the maturity of her songs. Lee, unlike some of her contemporaries, was not associated with any certain type of style. Jazz, torch, show tune, pop, swing – she dabbled in them all.
Lee has a very long relationship with Capitol Records lasting almost 30 years, releasing one or two albums per year. By the end of the 1960s, Lee’s style of recorded music was on the decline, but she was one to shift styles and began recording songs by more contemporary artists like Randy Newman, Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon and Neil Diamond.
Lee was a very good interpreter of musical styles. She did not call into a predictable style during her earlier years, incorporating innovative jazz and Latin styles into her musical repertoire. Her vocal style had the resonance and versatility to tackle very complex shifts and moods.
I never felt like I fully appreciated Peggy Lee, only getting in on her later career. “Is That All There Is” was an enormously successful song at the end of the 1960s, bittersweet and poignant, a perfect song for Lee’s long career. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, best known for rock and roll songs like “Hound Dog”, “Kansas City”, “Yakety Yak” and “Love Potion #9”. This song rekindled Lee’s career and she recorded and performed for the next 20 years. Even Paul McCartney wrote and produced a song for her in 1974, “Let’s Love.”
Thankfully, there are numerous “best of” sets of Lee’s music, including The Ultimate Peggy Lee, a sampling from the 1950s and 1960s, arguably, her most creative period.