By Jeff Cebulski
The singer Peggy Lee became an inspiration for chanteuses across America somewhat ironically; she decided to gain attention of noisy crowds by lowering the volume of her voice and emphasizing suggestion. It worked, of course, and her rise as a sexy, deeply passionate, yet enigmatic songstress is well documented. Unlucky in love (she married and divorced four times), she is still remembered mostly for her rendition of an old blues ditty “Fever,” one of the sexiest performances of the 20th Century.
Lee, who died in 2002, has received renewed attention in the recognition of female artists who carved their own careers in the midst of popular music’s classically patriarchal infrastructure. She did, indeed, help write over 270 songs and recorded over a thousand. In tribute, Lee has been increasingly embraced by women singers intrigued by her experiences and art.
One such person is the longtime vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway, who will be offering both famous and deep-dipped songs from Lee’s catalogue at City Winery on April 23, following the release of Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration and before a new edition of Lee’s autobiography is distributed in May. Both Callaway’s album and the new version of Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography have received the approval of Lee’s granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells. Callaway has received plaudits for her show Fever: The Peggy Lee Century, which was inaugurated at NYC’s 54 Below and earned a nomination from Broadway World for Best Celebrity Show.
And, in her own tribute to Lee’s creativity, for the new album Callaway was granted permission to write music in support of Lee’s unpublished poem “Clair de Lune.” While the recording references the famous Debussy instrumental, the new song advances in its own terms, evincing a sentiment that reflects Lee’s deep feelings about a husband/lover while realizing their time is up. Callaway, whose own delivery does not attempt to mimic Lee’s unique smokiness, does a fine job respecting the singer’s emotional integrity, both in her singing and in the melodic treatment.
Callaway’s rendition of another of Lee’s famous versions, “Black Coffee,” typifies the differences between the artists. Ann’s approach here is aggressive blues, with reinforcement from players like Ted Rosenthal on piano and Bob Mann on guitar. Speaking of guitar, the heralder of standards John Pizzarelli joins Callaway on two songs, a swinging “The Glory of Love” and a bouncy “I Love Being Here With You,” where Callaway name drops George Clooney in a playful way that will appeal to that nephew of a famous singer.
Of course, Callaway takes on “Fever”; the version here is not notably different in rhythm and performance from the Lee original. It’s such an iconic song that one doesn’t really mind hearing it again, and Ann has earned that chance to tackle it. Notable support comes from the redoubtable Martin Wind on bass. A lovely way to burn, indeed. Similarly, “Till There Was You” survives yet another recording, this time in a soft-Bossa treatment.
In total, Callaway, who arranges the majority of the offerings, covers nine songs that Lee either wrote or collaborated in, and these constitute a large part of the album’s appeal. Besides “Clair de Lune,” we get music written for musical and movie. Another first recording, “The Other Part of Me” from the autobiographical musical Peg, has Lee’s lyric and Paul Horner’s music, quietly delivered by Callaway with sensitive work from Rosenthal and Wind; “Johnny Guitar,” originally heard at the end of the film, gets a haunting performance embellished by Mann’s Spanish guitar; “This Is a Very Special Day/It’s a Good Day,” for the modern film version of The Jazz Singer, is maybe closest, besides “Fever,” to Lee’s original treatment (sans orchestra); and one more from Peg, “Angels on Your Pillow,” ends the album with a touch of poignancy provided by Lee’s lyric.
To her credit, Ann Hampton Callaway has created a tribute to a favorite muse without trying to match her. Instead we are treated to an overview of Peggy Lee’s wondrous talent and a peek, via Lee herself and her admirer, into a life of juxtaposed fates, fame and misfortune, but with an incisive view of her talent and deep heart.
Ann Hampton Callaway, Fever: A Peggy Lee Celebration. Palmetto, 2023.
Ann Hampton Callaway, vocals
Ted Rosenthal, piano
Martin Wind, bass
Tim Horner, drums
Bob Mann, guitar
Special Guest John Pizzarelli, guitar and vocals
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at email@example.com