Yes, It's A Good Day
For singin' a song
And It's A Good Day
For movin' along...
This Tuesday - May 26th - Peggy Lee would have celebrated her 100th birthday. I wish she were around to do so, and I still regret that I'll never again get to slide a new Peggy Lee album into the player. I had planned to do another one of our live events with the likes of Carol Welsman and Russell Malone, some star vocalists and our house band all doing a big centenary salute, but alas, as Governor Whitmer of Michigan says, the science is settled and live singing is now an act of culpable homicide. Oh, well.
On a panel a few years back, I said that she was pretty much my all-time female singer. There were lots of great vocal gals who emerged in the Forties - Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Rosemary Clooney - but on the whole she chose better material and sang it like she'd lived it. Or as Jack Teagarden said: "When Peggy sings the blues, you're gonna hear the truth." At the risk of making insulting comparisons, take any pop chanteuse of today - not just the big stars but the zillions of wannabes on "The Voice" et al. All exemplify the dominant delusion of the age – that "emotion" in singing means vocal gymnastics and exhibitionist melismas; that the word "love" is somehow more felt if it's stretched into a 15-syllable word. Peggy Lee could have done that (certainly in the early days), but she knew enough not to. She's the Count Basie of singers: Lee's is more. The composer and musicologist Alec Wilder put it rather vividly when he compared her voice to a streetwalker you'd pass by ...but, if you ever stopped, you'd never leave.
In Peter Richmond's exhaustive if rather underwhelming biography Fever, there's a reminiscence from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the authors of "I'm A Woman" and "Is That All There Is?"
Leiber: I loved her. I even loved her big ass.
Stoller: She had much narrower hips at that time.
Actually, that's a not un-useful insight. The other female vocalists who emerged from the big bands were, as Rosie Clooney liked to say, "girl singers". As the song advertised, Peggy Lee was all woman, and not just because she was shoehorned into gowns that exaggerated that hourglass figure: in the Fifties, the poise, the cool, the raised eyebrow and the beauty spot made her as defining an emblem of mid-century pop culture style for the distaff side as Sinatra was for men. She got nearer to him than anybody else did, male or female, in her command of the standard repertoire, in ballad singing and swinging - and she roamed much further than he did from the Broadway/Tin Pan Alley core, at one point recording Chinese poetry and Japanese music (in Japanese).
There was another difference, too. She wrote songs. Not in the occasional sense that a Sinatra or Crosby would wind up with a co-credit on something or other, but seriously and continuously. Indeed, she was one of the first "singer-songwriters", and certainly the first lady one, three decades before Joni Mitchell and Carole King, half-a-century before Sheryl Crow and Madonna. One day, seventysomething years ago, she was pregnant and pottering around doing some housework. "It's a good day," she thought. And the professional in her then had a second thought: "That's a great title." And so it was:
Yes, It's A Good Day
For shinin' your shoes
And It's A Good Day
For losin' your blues
Ev'rything to gain
And nothin' to lose
Yes, It's A Good Day from mornin' till night...
She wrote it up, words and music, and when her husband Dave Barbour – Benny Goodman's guitarist – came home he harmonized the tune and they had a hit.
They did well with this one, too, although having Dave grooving in the classroom is at little at odds with the theme of scholarly application:
I know a little bit about a lot of things
But I Don't Know Enough About You...
Peggy Lee had great ideas, and understood singability. If you ever see the clip of The Judy Garland Show with her and Judy singing and kibitzing their way through Peg's and Bob Schluger's "I Love Being Here With You" you'll appreciate what an adroit piece of material it is: In a way that a lot of songs aren't, it's written with performance in mind:
There was more to her than that: with Sonny Burke, she wrote the songs for Lady And The Tramp, one of the all-time great Disney scores – not just "He's A Tramp", not just "The Siamese Cat Song" (which the girls and I incorporate here), but also that marvelously expansive bit of cod Neapolitana "Bella Notte":
Peggy Lee also had a very rare skill of being able to take pieces of essentially unvocal music, put a lyric to them and make 'em stick – "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'", with Duke Ellington, for example, or "So What's New?", one of those insistent Sixties instrumentals (by the jazz guitarist John Pisano) that Herb Alpert et al had great fun kicking around and which tickled Peg's fancy so much she wrote a great set of words for it. Nothing showy or clever, just simple words that sit easy on the tune:
I've always liked her songs. Some years back, I had the pleasure of pre-interviewing Peggy Lee – or "Miss Peggy Lee", as her stationery put it - for a BBC series about her songwriting that never got made. Battered by health problems, she was in her Brando-in-drag phase then: huge puffy cheeks and big black eyelashes that rendered her eyes entirely invisible, with a wig that sat on her face like half-drawn curtains. It was not a good time - but she'd gone through a zillion of those. What I could see was the trace of a scar on one side of her, from the heavy metal-ended razor-strap her ugly stepmother beat her with during her grim North Dakota childhood. (Heavy make-up covered it in public.) But, speaking or singing, the voice was as sensual as ever. I'd heard that the first lyric she came up with, at the age of four, when her mother died, was something called "Mama's Gone To Dreamland On The Train", and I was crass enough to ask her how the rest of it went. She dodged that one, but she did sing me a few bars of "Bella Notte". And she explained that she disliked some of her lyrics – for example:
It's A Good Day
For payin' your bills
And It's A Good Day
For curin' your ills
So take a deep breath
And throw away your pills...
Her own ill health had made her uncomfortable with the breezy optimism of that line: Sometimes, as much as you want to, it's not a smart idea to throw away the pills. So she wasted a lot of time trying to find a substitute for it, but never could. For what it's worth, I love it. It's such an unusual thought to find in a pop lyric.
But two of my favorite Peggy Lee songs don't even have her name on the credits. The more famous one is here; this is the other. "Don't Smoke In Bed" was written, officially, by Willard Robison. Born in Missouri in 1894, Robison is one of those curious diversions from the central thruway of American music. He was a composer and lyricist who played with some bands in the south and spent a few years in New York as leader of a combo called Willard Robison's Levee Loungers. And, if the concept of a lounge on the levee bemuses you, it manages to hint at Robison's place in the scheme of things. His songs are rural but not in the rough and raw vernacular of a Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. Robison's work is crafted, yet very pastoral. It's hard to imagine Rodgers & Hart or even Irving Berlin getting a yen to write a song called "Old Deserted Barn", never mind seeing the symbolism in it. The critic Will Friedwald calls him one of "the first composers to connect jazz and country music... The songs are as urbane as Cole Porter and as earthy and mystical as Robert Johnson. He conveyed an America in transit from rural to urban with a kind of tainted nostalgia, conveying a message that you can't go home again, and wouldn't want to if you could."
I don't know about that last bit. His biggest standard, "A Cottage For Sale", places the singer right at the gate yearning to go home again, but understanding that it's a home no more. I had the weird experience of hearing Chuck Berry sing and play the song to me in an hotel room a few years ago, and I realized listening to the ancient old rocker doing a very intense ballad from the Twenties that, somewhere deep down, Berry still wanted to be Nat "King" Cole. Cole recorded "Cottage For Sale", so did Sinatra and Billy Eckstine and many others: It's very unusual – it's a torch song about shattered domesticity. Robison had a very good eye for poignant vignettes. Once again, it's Alec Wilder who put it best, describing him as the man who convinced Johnny Mercer and others that "there was more to write lyrics about than city life, that the world of memory, of remembered sayings and scenes, was as evocative as the whispered words of lovers".
So how come nobody knows Robison or most of his songs? Well, he had a big bunch of problems, starting with alcoholism. Mercer and Mildred Bailey and all kinds of other luminaries tried to help him, but he was a hard guy to help, as Peggy Lee discovered. She loved Robison's songs. "They're sort of poems set to music," she told George Simon. "Little character sketches." And one day in 1947 he came to her with a title:
Don't Smoke In Bed.
He had a situation – a woman taking her leave – and a first line:
Goodbye, old sleepyhead...
"And then," said Peg, "he had a drink. Dear Willard. I used to lock him in a room and try to get him to work, and I'd say, 'When you get all through, I'll give you a beer.'"
This time he never did "get all through", and Lee and Barbour wound up having to write the song themselves. They set up the story in a mournful verse:
I left a note on his dresser
And my old wedding ring
With these few goodbye words...
She's walking out, but it's with regret. The tune is very spare, and there's not a lot of it, but they kept Robison's first line for the chorus:
Goodbye, old sleepyhead
I'm packing you in like I said...
They finished the song and recorded it in a haunting arrangement intensified at the end by what's surely one of the earliest musical uses of the echo chamber. The singer "returns" from the instrumental break for one last half-chorus, but so distant it's more like a stab of memory to the guy she left behind:
Don't look for me
I'll get ahead
Don't Smoke In Bed.
The song wasn't that big a hit, but what did Barbour and Lee care? The novelty number they'd recorded a week earlier – "Mañana" – was Number One for nine weeks in 1948. As for Robison, the Barbours were convinced this time that he was on his last legs and were worried that his measly royalties would be insufficient to support his daughter. "So David and I gave him sole credit on the song," said Peggy, "expecting him to be gone within a few months. He lived another twenty years."
Even more irritatingly, Miss Lee lived long enough to see "Mañana" rendered all but unperformable, a harmless novelty number ("I'll go to work mañana/But I gotta sleep tonight") scuttled by political correctness. Meanwhile, "Don't Smoke In Bed" slowly became a highly valuable copyright, second only to "Cottage For Sale" in the Robison catalogue. It's been recorded by Nina Simone, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Elkie Brooks, Rita Coolidge, Sarah Jane Morris, Carly Simon, k d lang, every torchy wannabe from cabaret to country to alt rock has it in her sights. Peg was right - Robison lived another twenty years – but this was the last song he ever wrote. Or "wrote".
It was also the most affecting legacy of Barbour and Lee's songwriting partnership. Indeed, Peg's lyric prefigured her own leave-taking. She would remarry thrice, never for long, and her ex-husband remained her closest musical confidante. "For the last thirteen years of his life, Dave didn't have a drop to drink," she said. "He asked me to marry him again. We were going to be remarried, and he had a physical. His doctor told him he was in excellent condition. Four days later, the aorta burst in his heart, and he died." The much older, much sicker Willard Robison outlived him by three years.
One day some biographer will do justice to Willard Robison's story and to Dave Barbour's and Peggy Lee's. But in the meantime we have this eerie crossing of their paths – two young talents on their way up, one also-ran on his way out. Peggy Lee is herself one of the great storytellers. There's a whole lifetime's experience crammed into her best songs, but especially this one, with the wedding ring on the dresser and a parting note:
Don't look for me
I'll get ahead
Don't Smoke in Bed.
A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke, said Kipling. But he never heard a woman smoke like Peggy Lee.
~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-audio companion, a bonus Song of the Week Extra, midweek on our Coronacopia edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone from Herman's Hermits, Lulu, Tim Rice and Paul Simon. And don't miss tomorrow's Mark Steyn Show, when Mark will have a very special Song of the Week bonus for Memorial Day.
Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn's Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we've done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in the Land of Lockdown. Just click here, and you'll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Randy Bachman to Liza Minnelli; Mark's interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse's lyrics, John Barry's Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We'll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you'll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from house arrest without end.
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