Peggy Lee – Something Wonderful – Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook (review)

Peggy Lee – Something Wonderful – Peggy Lee Sings The Great American Songbook (Omnivore Recordings)

All we know is that she’d rather sing than eat”

We need compilations like this to remind us just how unbelievably talented certain artists of the past were.  Peggy Lee had major hits with songs like “Fever” and “Golden Earrings,” but she recorded in the “pre-rock” era, so she’s often not given the credit she deserves.  Enter Something Wonderful – Peggy Lee Sings the Great American Songbook, a two-disc collection of performances, culled from radio broadcasts from 1951-52. The quote about her singing comes from the excellent liner notes of the set.

This collection gives so many opportunities to marvel at Ms. Lee’s staggering talent.  

After the birth of her daughter, Nicki, she returned to the spotlight as a frequent guest on various radio shows.  Eventually, she was asked to host her own program – The Peggy Lee Show and then, Club 88 Starring Peggy Lee.  Although these recordings were produced for radio and usually done before a live audience, the fidelity is very good and the editing is fantastic, making for a very enjoyable listen.

There’s something comforting in these times about Peggy Lee being beamed into living rooms all over the country on a weekly basis.

This is companion piece of sorts to one that came out in 2015 on Real Gone Music, At Last: The Lost Radio Recordings, which we reviewed here.  It’s funny, back then we remarked “perhaps this could lead to a Lost Radio Recordings Volume Two” and here we are.

This collection chooses to group performances by classic songwriters of the Great American Songbook, such as Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Matt Dennis and Frank Loesser, all of whom are present to duet with Lee on some of these tracks. In fact, the Carmichael medley is particularly fun – Lee’s smooth, strong voice is a stark contrast to Carmichael’s sandpaper. 

Throughout these two discs, there are times when Lee only sings one stanza of a song before switching to something else.  She really truly had an uncanny ability to give every song just what it needed. 

There are also times when she outdoes the original – “Goody Goody” swings more than the version by Helen Ward backed by Benny Goodman.

This is also an opportunity to recognize Lee as a gifted songwriter.  One section is devoted to tunes that were penned by her, and – even standing next to this hallowed material, they hold their own.  “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” and “Mañana” are just three examples of her craft.

The one section that really stuck out to me was Loesser’s.  Not quite the household name of the others, nevertheless you should recognize “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Bushel and a Peck” and “On a Slow Boat to China.”  And, once again, Lee approaches each snippet differently – buoyant with “Jingle,” sultry with “China,” goofy on “Bushel” and sassy on “Cold.”  What other artist could do this so effortlessly?

There’s also a humanness to these recordings – as Lee interacts with the guests, you get to hear her personality come through.  During another highlight, she reads a self-penned poem before launching into a seductive reading of “Somebody Loves Me.”  

Radio recordings are often used as “cash ins” – just look on eBay or at your local independent record store, and you’ll find unauthorized radio shows from Springsteen, Petty, or any number of other artists.  But, Something Wonderful rises above all that – managing to shine a new light on a spectacular talent.  —Tony Peters