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“Remembering Peggy Lee”, Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny.

by Ian Mann

October 19, 2020

Ian Mann enjoys this Centenary Tribute to Peggy Lee performed by vocalists Becki Biggins, Victoria Klewin and Debs Hancock and instrumentalists Guy Shotton, Nick Kacal and Alex Goodyear.

‘Remembering Peggy Lee’

Wall2Wall Virtual Jazz Festival 2020, Abergavenny

First Streamed 17/10/2020

Available via ticket only until 28/11/2020

Becki Biggins, Debs Hancock, Victoria Klewin – vocals

Guy Shotton – piano

Nick Kacal – double bass

Alex Goodyear – drums

This event celebrating the centenary of the birth of the popular vocalist and songwriter Peggy Lee (1920 -2002) brought together some BMJ favourites, a collection of vocalists and instrumentalists who have all made well received appearances at club nights or at the Wall2Wall Festival in recent years.

This one off aggregation brought together three vocalists – Becki Biggins, Victoria Klewin and BMJ’s own Debs Hancock, and teamed them with a South Walian rhythm section featuring pianist Guy Shotton, bassist Nick Kacal and drummer Alex Goodyear. Both Kacal and Goodyear had led their own groups at the 2019 Festival.

Biggins performed with the trio of Shotton, Kacal and Goodyear at the 2018 Festival Dinner at the Angel Hotel and returned to Abergavenny in May 2019 with her popular “It’s A Man’s World Show” for a well received club night at the Melville Theatre. Review here;

Klewin has previously performed shows paying tribute to the vocalist, pianist and songwriter Blossom Dearie and brought this production to a BMJ club night in September 2019. Review here;

BMJ stalwart Debs Hancock has performed at the Club and Festival on many occasions in a variety of different line ups and in 2017 toured extensively in Wales and the Borders with a show celebrating the centenary of the birth of Ella Fitzgerald.

Turning now to this livestream event which saw the musical performance interspersed by a commentary from Ceri Ellis that told the story of Lee’s life and career.

Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota on 26th May 1920. Her mother died when Lee was just four years of age and her father subsequently re-married.

By all accounts Lee led a pretty grim childhood and at seventeen she left home and auditioned for the local radio station in nearby Fargo. Although successful her producer insisted that she changed her name to Peggy Lee, which became her professional identity throughout her long and illustrious career.

Narrator Ellis then handed over to Hancock to introduce the first song, “Why Don’t You Do Right”.  This was described by Hancock as “a siren woman’s blues song from the Prohibition era” and it was Lee’s 1943 recording of the piece that first brought her to national attention in the US.
Tonight the song was ushered in by Kacal at the bass and included a voice and bass duet before opening up to embrace a scat vocal episode and a bass solo from Kacal that combined a strong melodic sense with a deep, earthy and highly rhythmic tone. Previously a professional musician and sound engineer in London Kacal’s move to South Wales has greatly enriched the local jazz scene.

Bristol based Klewin took over the role of featured vocalist for “Linger In My Arms”, another song described as being from “early in Peggy’s career”.
This was a ballad that saw Klewin’s vocal delivery combining purity with sensuality, and which saw another melodic double bass solo from Kacal.

Hancock then returned to sing “Black Coffee”, the title track of one of Lee’s best known albums. Like “Why Don’t You Do Right” this is a song that Hancock has regularly included in her repertoire and the piece was imbued with a bluesy, after hours feel with Shotton contributing his first piano solo of the evening. The Cardiff based pianist is particularly adept at working with vocalists and has previously appeared at BMJ / Wall2Wall accompanying Hancock, Biggins, Claire Victoria Roberts and Sarah Meek.

Biggins made her first appearance on a swinging, upbeat version of the Bill Schluger song “I Love Being Here With You”. The joyous nature of the performance was a reflection of Biggins’ bubbly personality and included a playful scat vocal episode.

Narrator Ellis now informed us that Lee’s big break came in 1941 when she was discovered by bandleader Benny Goodman when she was singing at a Chicago club. She subsequently joined the Goodman Orchestra and married the band’s guitarist, Dave Barber, with whom she stayed for eight years. This was the first of four failed marriages, although Barber and Lee remained friends and the singer considered the guitarist to be the ‘love of her life’.

Klewin returned to the stand for a version of the Jule Styne song “Just In Time”, which Lee featured on her 1958 album “Jump For Joy”. This found Klewin displaying a more vivacious side of her singing and personality during the course of a lightly swinging arrangement that included a piano solo from Shotton and lively series of drum breaks from Goodyear.

Introducing her interpretation of “The Man I Love” Hancock extolled “Peggy’s gifts as a story teller”, before exhibiting similar qualities herself on a performance that also included a further solo from Kacal at the bass.

Biggins then took over for a breezy. Latin tinged arrangement of the Cole Porter song “Always True To You In My Fashion”. The song first featured in the musical “Kiss Me Kate” and was recorded by Lee on an album that she made with the blind, British born pianist George Shearing. Biggins’ vocal combined playfulness with sensuality, very much in the spirit of the song, and the arrangement also included a scat vocal episode and an instrumental solo from Shotton at the piano.

Ellis then informed us that Lee had recorded over eleven hundred songs during the course of her career and released over fifty full length albums. Successful on the pop as well as the jazz charts she had over one hundred chart singles in the US and was nominated for twelve Grammy Awards. In 1969 she was awarded “Best Contemporary Vocal Performance” for her version of the Leiber and Stoller song “Is That All There Is?”. In 1995 a then ailing Lee was presented with a Lifetime Grammy Award.

Returning to the music Klewin delivered a lively, upbeat version of “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”, which combined her adventurous phrasing and vocal gymnastics with a vigorously brushed drum feature from the irrepressible Goodyear.

Biggins then returned to sing a rousing, powerful “I’m A Woman”, Lee’s hymn to female empowerment and multi-tasking capabilities.

It fell to Hancock to deliver the aforementioned “Is That All There Is?” with its combination of spoken and sung verses and general air of existential and emotional angst. A most peculiar hit single its mood of distraction and world weariness perfectly suited the older Lee. Interestingly Lee’s recording, arguably her most famous after “Fever”, featured an orchestral arrangement by none other than Randy Newman.

Besides her skills as an interpreter of the songs of others Lee was also an accomplished songwriter and lyricist who worked with numerous collaborators and whose songs were frequently covered by other artists. In this capacity Lee was probably best known as a lyricist and by way of illustration Biggins performed “There’ll Be Another Spring”, with words by Lee and music by Hubie Wheeler. This showed another side of Biggins’ singing and was a lyrical ballad performance that saw Goodyear deploying brushes.

The three vocalists then combined for the only time as the performance concluded on a high note with “Fever”, the song that will always be associated with Lee but which was actually written by r & B singer Little Willie John (1937-68). Introduced by just Hancock’s voice and Kacal’s bass the vocal lead changed frequently, with the singers’ phrases supported by the clipped rhythms laid down by the instrumentalists.

This was a high energy finale that saw all the performers really “going for it” and was a great way to end this hugely entertaining retrospective of Lee’s career with all three vocalists bringing plenty of themselves to the performances. Equally worthy of praise are the instrumentalists, all regular favourites at BMJ, who offered appropriate support throughout, whatever the mood or tempo of the song.

Lee made her last public performance in 1995, suffered a stroke in 1998 and died in 2002. The production closed with archive footage of Lee singing “There Is No Greater Love” as the credits rolled.

Congratulations to all concerned on this entertaining and informative centenary tribute to a singer who consistently and successfully straddled the boundaries between jazz and popular music, despite her very well documented personal problems.

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