Before she died in 2002 at age 81, Peggy Lee was known by millions for her hit records and for co-writing the songs for Disney’s Lady And The Tramp (and voicing “Lady”). She combined the wholesomeness of the South Dakota farm girl she was with a jazz musician’s unfettered hipness.
She came to prominence singing a Lil Green blues, “Why Don’t You Do Right”, during her early-’40s apprenticeship with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra. By the war’s end, she’d found her style: the lilting, relaxed sexuality that fairly jumped out of the grooves of her early black-label Capitol 78s, some of them almost foreplay set to music. She and her first husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, co-wrote and arranged many of her more commercial hits, including “Mañana” and “It’s A Good Day”.
Maria Muldaur’s affinity for Lee’s music goes back 40 years, when she sang and fiddled alongside then-husband Geoff Muldaur with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. She recorded Lee’s “I’m A Woman” with Kweskin in the mid-’60s, making it so popular that a generation of folkies associated the song with Muldaur, not Lee.
It was ironic that Muldaur plunged deeper into jazz after her sultry 1974 pop hit “Midnight At The Oasis”. Her Reprise albums featured interludes of sparkling swing backed by an all-star studio orchestra with arrangements by the legendary Benny Carter.
On this tribute to Lee, Muldaur fronts a band sure-footed enough to move between orchestral and more intimate small-group accompaniments. She follows Lee’s own ethos (that of every great jazz vocalist) of literally becoming another instrument in the band. She chooses largely more obscure gems such as “Waitin’ For The Train To Come In”, Lee’s forgotten first solo hit. Without mimicry, Muldaur captures the 1945 song’s tantalizingly sexy anticipation of returning husbands and lovers at World War II’s end.
She renders “I Don’t Know Enough About You” as a drawling bit of come-hither nearly as arresting as Lee’s original, and garnishes “Freedom Train”, an underrated Irvin Berlin celebration of participatory democracy, with joy and energy. Similar results emerge on “Everybody’s Movin’ Too Fast”, the witty Lee-Barbour spoof of post-WWII American life. That she’d do justice to Lee’s better-known tunes, including the brooding “Black Coffee” and “Fever” (appropriated from Little Willie John), is a given.
Muldaur doesn’t improve on Lee’s originals, but then that wasn’t her intent. Instead, this flawlessly executed ode to a true master stands not only as another of Muldaur’s peaks on record, but as a worthy introduction to Lee herself.