The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography:
Observations On The Arrangement Of "Lover"

by Iván Santiago-Mercado

Page generated on May 31, 2018


I. Scope And Authorship


This page focuses on Peggy Lee's hit recording of "Lover." Emphasis is given to that arrangement that Lee herself conceived, and which Gordon Jenkins later orchestrated. My main sources of information were several interviews that the singer gave over her lifetime, as well as her autobiography. I have also consulted Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins, Bruce Jenkins' biography of his father. All commentary below relies on those sources, supplemented with some additional research and, of course, my own thoughts on the matter.

As a researcher, a particular source of pride has been my uncovering of previously unknown factoids about the topic at hand. For instance, the name of the movie that inspired Lee's arrangement was not anywhere on record. In interviews given late in life, the singer could remember the name of the picture's protagonist and the action in the scene from which she had once drawn inspiration, but she could nor recall the film's title. After some time spent checking pertinent movies and connecting dots, I was able to identify the movie as La bandera. (Eventually, I gladly shared this piece of information with noted music writer Will Friedwald and, subsequently, with the author of a Peggy Lee biography. The information has been gradually spreading, wiping out previous accounts in which another movie was wrongly named or, alternatively, no movie title was given.)


II. "Lover" At The Theatre And On The Stage


The original arrangement of "Lover" was conceived by Peggy Lee, and performed in her nightclub act long for months before it was taken to the recording studio. Gordon Jenkins did the orchestration of the studio recording.

Lee's inspiration for the arrangement came from watching the 1935 French movie La bandera (aka The Banner), a story about love and war in which a fugitive (Jean Gabin) joins the Spanish Foreign Legion after killing the man who had callously murdered his girlfriend. In some of the scenes, the legion is shown singing in Spanish and moving at the command of a banner waved by the film's star. The soldiers' horses are also seen changing pace from gait to gallop -- or so remembered Lee.

Peggy Lee mentally associated the horses' gallop with Latin rhythms, and the waving banner with music keys. Relying on such associations, she came up with the idea of a musical piece in which multiple time signatures are combined on a crescendo rhythm. "Using the different tempos made it seem like we were changing the keys, which we were to a certain extent," mused Lee during an interview many years later, "but it made it sound like we were going faster, you know?"

With the concept well-formed in her mind, Peggy Lee had a meeting with her rhythm section. She discussed with the trusted musicians the tempo in which she wanted to sing, and stressed her desire to feature a large number of percussionists. When it came time to pick a suitable song for the type of arrangement that Lee had in mind, "Lover" ended up being selected and satisfactorily rehearsed. "The bongos would be playing straight eights. The congas would be playing six-eight and other Latin rhythms, and the drums played a straight fast four," reminisced the singer.

"We tried this in clubs and concerts, and people went wild over it, including some pros," Lee added. The artist was already performing the number by early November of 1951, when she was appearing at the Thunderbird, in Las Vegas. According to a reviewer of that engagement the song was receiving "a most unusual treatment. Miss Lee sets up electrifying samba beat with her own trio aiding the [Dick] Peirce orchsters in the frantic, incessant sesh."



III. Why And How Peggy Lee Chose Her "Lover"


Readers might wonder about the rationale behind Lee's choice of "Lover" as a suitable match for Lee's bandera-inspired concept. (As discussed on another section below, the song's composer most certainly did.) The vocalist offered a general explanation in her autobiography:
"A lot of other singers tried to do other songs that way, and a lot of them did succeed, but some didn't, because they didn't seem to understand that the lyric had to fit the mood of the rhythm as well. Lover is ideal for the technique because it didn't have too many lyrics -- and they said the right thing -- so you could break up the time. Meanwhile, everything was sailing along under you." The marriage of mood and rhythm was thus a paramount consideration for her.

Lee also mentions the fact that the song is not too wordy, and her impression that it say just "the right thing" for her purposes. Indeed, the standard's passionate lyrics mirror the suggestion of fiery romance in Lee's arrangement. Here is a sample: "Lover, when I'm near you / And I hear you speak my name / Softly in my ear, you breathe a flame." An even more compelling motivation must have stemmed from the tune's chord progression, which lends itself very well to the heightened intensity of Lee's concept.

The artist's choice of this song could have also been inspired by a different, earlier movie: Love Me Tonight. During a scene from that earlier film, operetta star Jeannette MacDonald sings "Lover" while she rides a carriage pulled by a favorite horse of hers. (However, if Lee or her musicians ever saw Love Me Tonight, no public disclosures are known to me. The lyrics used in the 1932 movie are even partially different from those heard in the 1952 recording. Lee would use those other lyrics in a later recording of the song, but she seems to have done so at the suggestion of an acquaintance, not as a result of being acquainted with the 1932 flick.)


IV. Peggy Lee Versus Capitol: Lovers' Quarrel


Having witnessed invariably enthusiastic responses from live audiences, an elated Lee proceeded to try to record her arrangement of the number. She naturally asked permission from her label at the time, Capitol. The label nixed the idea. An unidentified Capitol producer objected on the shaky grounds that the label did not need another recording of "Lover" because their catalogue already had a hit version by Les Paul. Paul's hit version had been issued about five years earlier (1947), but its sales had been revitalized years afterwards, thanks to its re-release as the first single in Capitol's 1600 reissue series. (That popular series debuted in or around June of 1951, and some of its issues continued to be re-pressed until around 1957.)

Faced with such an unexpected objection, Lee protested. The singer counterargued that she definitely had another hit version in her hands, citing the enthusiastic reaction with which her arrangement was being met in concerts. Her arguments fell on deaf ears. The perspective of the unidentified producer prevailed. (Lee Gillette is the main out of about four suspects. In this regard, it should be mentioned that, around this time, most of Lee's days were being spent in New York. Hence there is the possibility that the initially consulted producer or executive was not necessarily Gillette or anyone primarily in LA, but someone with offices in the Big Apple.)

Other than the aforementioned references to Les Paul's bestseller, I know of no concrete data about the reasoning behind Capitol's refusal. I suspect that the record company was unwilling to spend its resources in what might have sounded like a costly experiment (given the prospective use of a large orchestra) with no guarantee of commercial success.

According to Capitol executive Alan Livingston, by this point in time Peggy Lee was being taken for granted by his label. Capitol might have thought of the singer as past her best-selling prime. (Lee's best-selling period had been 1947-1948, when songs such as "Golden Earrings" and "Mañana" had turned into chartbusters.) There was good reason, however, to still deem Lee a proven commodity. During the 1948-1951 period, she had continued to land on the charts' Top 10 and Top 20, albeit not as often as earlier on. To quote Will Friedwald, who interviewed Livingston for the EMI set The Singles Collection, Capitol must have "nonchalantly assumed that her renewal was routine."

Although she could rationally "see their point" (Peggy Lee own words, from her autobiography), emotionally the singer felt stung by her label's lack of confidence. At a time when her contract was about to be up for renewal, the label had assumed that her signing would be automatic, but the singer would prove such an assumption wrong.


V. Decca Loves A "Lover"


The September 5, 1951 issue of Variety announced that Morty Palitz was coming to Hollywood that week. Holding offices in the company's New York headquarters, Palitz was Decca's Artists & Repertoire chief, a position that he had begun to fill after the death of the label's founder (Jack Kapp) and the move of his brother (A&R man Dave Kapp) to another label. Meanwhile, for the East Coast area, Decca had appointed Sonny Burke as the A&R man. This would be his first East Coast trip since taking the post. According to Variety, Palitz was heading to Hollywood "for confabs" with Burke.

Perhaps Palitz and Burke began to "confabulate" about signing Lee during this visit. Or perhaps (and, admittedly, more likely) they were not yet aware that her Capitol contract would be up for renewal in about six months. Be that as it may, Palitz was already acquainted with Lee, and her name would have thus been under his radar. They had met him back in 1941, when she was an executive (& record producer) at Columbia Records, and she was recording for that label in her role as the canary of The Benny Goodman Orchestra. As for Burke, Lee might have been at the very least familiar with his name, because she had sung several of his compositions, and used his arrangements for two of them (1947-1949). In 1952, Burke and Lee would carry out a successful writing partnership and would work together on the radio regularly.

According to Lee in her autobiography, "I was at the Copa ... and one night Sonny Burke came with Milt Gabler of Decca Records, and when they heard me sing Lover, they got excited. We must have this."

"Would you record it? I asked. Of course, they said. So I left Capitol for five years and went with Decca." Lee is known to have held an engagement at the Copacabana (New York) in March of 1952. Her first Decca session (consisting of four tunes, none of them "Lover") took place almost right away, on April 3, 1952. Probably due to logistics, "Lover" was scheduled for few more weeks. (Logistics: hiring a large orchestra, waiting for the preparation of an orchestral arrangement, renting or setting up the studio of choice.)


VI. Gordon Jenkins And Peggy Lee Put Each Other's "Lover" In Their Place


At Decca, Gordon Jenkins was enlisted to orchestrate the piece. In later decades, both Jenkins and Lee talked about the authorship of the arrangement. "It was absolutely her idea," Jenkins modestly claimed. "She laid it out for me -- not literally the music notes but the tempo and the Latin drummers, the whole pseudo-sexy feel of this thing, changing keys a couple of times, the whole thing was dictated by her. Everybody's running around saying what a brilliant arranger I was, but the whole conception of the thing was hers." For her part, Lee generously retorted, "[w]ell that's ridiculous. I just had an idea for the rhythm section, nothing to do with the whole orchestration, and he brought my concept to life. I had no idea that he could embellish so beautifully."


VII. Heartbreak, Loss, And Isolation: At The "Lover" Recording Sessions


To Peggy Lee's great disappointment, the first attempt at recording "Lover" (on April 28, 1952) failed miserably. Amidst a 36-piece orchestra that included eight percussionists, the microphones had not picked up the vocal to her satisfaction. According to the singer, these early attempts at recording her voice in unison with eight percussionists failed because the acoustics of Liederkranz Hall was a bit live. "I started to cry," she reminisced, "and said something melodramatic like, well, it's just another dream gone wrong,."

Gordon Jenkins had a somewhat different recollection of the events. In 1977, he appreciatively laughed as he told the British press that the recording "was a pain in the ass. Oh, my God, what a disaster. I must have had 40 guys, then we had 4 Latin cats, and they were out in center field some place -- way the hell out. We're going at a big, fast tempo, and it's just murder trying to keep the thing together, and then Peggy stops and announces that she can't sing in tune because my drummer isn't playing on the cymbal. She must hear him play on the cymbal, or she can't sing. It was a buzz cymbal, a great big thing with a little piece of metal to give it extra vibration. She just wanted the guy to keep playing that thing all the way through. I said, 'Peggy, if he plays on the cymbal, this is going to be the worst shambles you've ever seen in your life.' And for the moment it went right down the drain; she went home and gave up the date. What are you gonna do? That's not my fault. I just went down to the saloon. But when we called a new session about 3 days later, some other drummer showed up, and we went ahead and made the record."

For her part, Lee would recount in her autobiography how, after leaving the date in tears and going to bed, she received a call from engineer Morty Palitz in the middle of the night. Palitz wanted to let her know that he and the session's chief engineer had kept working on finding a solution, eventually coming up with the idea of an isolation booth.

The news made Lee ecstatic. Her elation must have stemmed from several reasons, some of them more evident than others. Most obviously, the artist would finally fulfill her desire to record her version of "Lover." She would then be able to confirm or deny the validity of her instincts about its hit potential. Financial considerations of no small significance might have also been at stake. Albeit we do not know the specifics of Lee's contractual arrangements with Decca, we at least know about the procedures generally followed around that time. Record companies tended to charge artists for their sessions. Only eventual sales (or lack thereof) would determine whether the artist would break even, let alone receiving any compensation. If such was the case for this particularly ambitious, evidently expensive date, Lee might have been very concerned about incurring into a large financial loss.

The second attempt at recording "Lover" took place on May 1, 1952. For this session, Lee was placed in an isolation booth. It was her very first time recording under such conditions. The experiment proved a success: a satisfactory recording was finally produced.

Lee was led to believe that no recording artist had ever used an isolation booth before. Because her date took place four decades into the history of studio session recording, I am inclined to think that she was misinformed. This is not a matter that I have researched, however. In any case, the success of the May 1, 1952 date probably made Lee appreciative of the booth method -- particularly if made available when the recording program included ballads, which typically demand a high degree of concentration and a deep feel of intimacy from singers.



VIII. A Warm And Wealthy Reception For Decca's Lover"


Lee's version of "Lover" is said to have sold a quarter of a million in its first two weeks, and to have reached the million mark eventually. It stayed for 13 weeks in Billboard's music charts, where it peaked at #3. For further specifics, consult the notes under the May 1, 1952 session of this discography's Decca page.


IX. Peggy Lee Versus Richard Rodgers: "Lovers," After All?


Peggy Lee writes in her autobiography that composer Richard Rodgers "was usually very strict about how his songs were interpreted. In fact, when we would receive his scores at Capitol, he would send instructions on how they were to be performed. All of us respected him so highly that we were happy to follow his orders. A bit later on, when I did Lover, apparently I forgot that."

Not surprisingly, Lee's radical re-thinking of the melody met with the displeasure of the original composer, who had written the number as a waltz. According to various sources, Rodgers voiced his discontent in no uncertain terms: "I don't know why Peggy picked on me when she could have f*ck*d up Silent Night." A more diplomatic complaint is quoted in other accounts; the composer is said to have moaned: "my little waltz, my little waltz."

It's worth noting that, before 1952, acts such as Gene Krupa and Frank Sinatra had already recast Rodgers' waltz into a danceable uptempo number. Those earlier versions could have not gone unnoticed by the composer, yet he is not on record as having expressed any displeasure about them. Rodgers' mortification with Lee's version might have had more to do with the fact that, unlike those earlier and more modest experiments, Lee's radical reconstruction was admiringly received not only by the public but also by music professionals, including various arrangers who referred to the recording as an innovative concept.

Eventually, Rodgers changed his tune (as it were). For one, he was seen enthusiastically reacting to Lee's singing during his attendance of her shows at Basin Street in the 1960s. Later on, the composer let Lee know that he was using her recording of "Lover" in lectures, as an illustration of how songs can remain vibrant despite ever-changing trends in music. Lee's autobiography contains a quote from an appreciative telegram that Rodgers sent to her after she had participated in a 1976 televised tribute in his honor, too. The quote: "[y]ou interpret my songs any way you like. I trust your taste." At that tribute, Lee sang "Lover" in a more current, rock-oriented arrangement. During her long career, Lee actually cultivated an extensive repertoire of Rodgers material (about 30 compositions) which she often tackled in fresh and clever ways.



X. Fifty (Or Less) Ways To Honor Your "Lover"


"Lover" is one of the quintessential performances in Peggy Lee's canon. Although less well-known than "Fever" or "Is That All There Is?" (and, lyrically, more outdated), this number was the first to provide public evidence of Lee's musical talents beyond singing. The concept behind its 1952 hit version was hers, and so was the core arrangement. (Those same points would also apply to her career-defining hit from five years later, "Fever.") From here onwards, Lee's multi-musical capabilities (singing, lyric writing, occasional composing, etc.) would become more widely apparent to the industry, and subsequently to the public at large.

Lee ended up treating "Lover" as an agent for testing, experimentation, and change. When auditioning drummers, this was the tune that she asked them to play. When compelled to try a new musical sound, this was the tune of her choice, too. We thus have Lee versions of "Lover" not only as a mambo (1950s) but also as rock (1960s) and proto-disco (1970s). Thus, as the decades went by, this number, in all of its variations, reflected Peggy Lee's own understanding of rhythm and the evolution of popular music.

"Rhythm has a universal appeal," she felt, "there’s rhythm about most things we do – breathing and walking, for examples." To her way of thinking, the musical currents which surged during her lifetime (e.g., rock 'n' roll, the beat of The Beatles) were fresh and intriguing manifestations of old, primeval urges (e.g., dancing) and traditions (e.g., the blues). Naturally, she had more appreciation for some manifestations (e.g., the singer-songwriters) than others, and a few of them might have initially raised her eyebrow (e.g., early, lyrically anemic rock 'n' roll). But, in the end, the ever musical Peggy Lee became a lover of them all. As aptly encapsulated in her tombstone's epitaph, music was her life's breath.