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Can You Establish A Career-Long Musical Reputation With One Cup Of Black Coffee?

Mark Smotroff reconsiders a pop jazz vocal legend…

It’s taken me all these years to finally find “the” record that made me appreciate Peggy Lee as an artist. Perhaps I was traumatized as a young kid seeing her attempt to cover The Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” on The Ed Sullivan Show. Or perhaps it was just that I heard a number of lackluster late period albums and performances on the easy listening pop stations my parents sometimes played. It didn’t quite feel like my cuppa tea.

I recently heard some recordings of hers from the 1940s that were good, all compiled on a handy two CD compilation of radio transcription performances put out by Omnivore Recordings. As good as Something Wonderful was, it wasn’t quite enough for me to make the big leap of “genuine interest” to a point where I might want to add Ms. Lee’s music into to my collection. 

More recently still, I came across one of her albums from 1957 called Dream Street which I had heard from some fans was a great listen.  A thrift shop find and in very nice condition for its age, I took a risk on the two dollar price tag and was very surprised — it was great! 

This was a whole other side of Peggy Lee I was hearing — there was nothing painfully saccharine or bland here. On Dream Street she found the fine balance between the mainstream pop voicing and a more swinging, soulful and (frankly, at times) Billie Holiday-inspired delivery and that sort of blue feeling Sinatra was able to pull off on some of his Capitol albums. She even sounds more akin to Sarah Vaughan at times. It helps that the orchestra/band swings madly at times (Lou Levy on Piano). Clearly she found her zone on this album.  

Now, many months ago, the good folks at Universal  Music had announced a reissue of another Peggy Lee album which was originally on Decca Records: Black Coffee. Depending on what you read it was either her first album for the label or her first concept album.  Originally released as a 10-inch, eight-song LP in 1954, it was expanded a couple of years later with additional songs recorded in a different studio and with different musicians to take advantage of the then-still-new longer playing 12-inch vinyl format. 

Whatever it was, it was the pre-cursor to Dream Streets and fans on line have told me that it was in the same league. Joni Mitchell has called Black Coffee one of her favorites (she recorded a song from it on her 2000 album Both Sides Now). 

They were right:  it is a fine album!  This reissue of Black Coffee certainly sounds better than most mid-50s Decca Records pressings would. Given that most of Decca’s records from that period were not vinyl at all, but styrene, a hard and inflexible plastic that was not only prone to easy wear but also tended to sound a bit harder-edged. 

Of course at the end of the day what really matters here is the music and on Black Coffee Peggy Lee delivers a cool calm collected vibe in the vein of June Christy, Chris Connors and other respected pop-crossover jazz singers of the period. For me, while not quite as intimate sounding (production wise, at least) as Christy’s contemporary collection Something Cool — also issued in 1954 as a 10-inch and then expanded in 1955 — this one still has many great performances including a great take on Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “You’re My Thrill” (the song that Joni recorded, by the way). Of course, the title track is a classic. 

Black Coffee is another fine reissue from the Acoustic Sounds team at Universal Music, delivering high quality reissues that look and sound better than the originals with high quality mastering off original tapes, deluxe expanded gatefold design and restored high quality cover artwork. What more can you ask for? Grab a copy while you can!

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