I’ve been gradually wending my way through the discography of Norma Deloris Egstrom, better known as Peggy Lee, since a friend lent me the inimitable Mirrors a few years back. That album is sort of a concept record in theme if not story, put together by Lee and the ace songwriting/production team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I’ve since learned that Lee had a number of other thematically unified albums through her career, pretty much all the way back to her first non-compilation of the LP era, the 10-inch disc Black Coffee.
Lee was a rare bird for a singer emerging in the Big Band Era; she wrote songs and, when working as a solo singer, often worked closely with her bands on the musical arrangements, as explicated in Peter Richmond’s biography Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee. Reading Richmond’s book brought to mind parallels between Lee’s work and that of Frank Sinatra, who was similarly pioneering the idea of concept albums in the mid-’50s as his career rebirth on Capitol Records got rolling. His first for Capitol, the justifiably lauded Songs for Young Lovers, was out early in 1954...after Lee’s Black Coffee. One hopes in a few years we will see a 100th birthday reissue campaign for Lee similar to that going on right now for Mr. Sinatra.
Of Peggy Lee’s music I’ve had a chance to hear so far, the most consistent period is her time at Decca Records in the 1950s. (One caveat, though: Besides the Rendezvous with Peggy Lee compilation drawn from her first time with Capitol in the 1940s-early ’50s, I’ve heard very little of her earlier work.) In addition to Black Coffee, the period includes another excellent concept collection, Dream Street...and the completely iconoclastic Sea Shells.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sea Shells was not even mentioned in Richmond’s book, which returns to the touchstone of Black Coffee’s brilliance repeatedly. Considering Richmond focuses on Lee’s jazz bona fides, I guess it makes sense that he would skip this album, as it’s pretty far from any sort of jazz, or even pop. Lee is accompanied only by harpist Stella Castellucci for most of the album, with some occasional harpsichord added. Along with ditching a jazz combo or orchestral backing, Sea Shells also eschews pop songs or now-classic “Great American Songbook” material for folk songs from around the world, Chinese love poetry set to music, a Debussy selection and some originals. It also makes room for a few short instrumental interludes.
Lee’s recordings are wider ranging stylistically than the uninitiated might guess, but Sea Shells is really out there. By pop music standards, the album’s suite of songs moves along at a glacial pace, with Lee speak-singing through many of the lyrics. If the listener gives it time to work its magic, the album creates a hypnotic mood unlike anything else in Lee’s diverse catalog; about the only analog I can think of is what Joanna Newsom occasionally gets up to in her more sparse moments.
Decca apparently was flummoxed by the project, which was recorded in 1955 but shelved until sometime after Lee had left the label to re-sign with Capitol; it’s listed as a new release in Billboard’s May 19, 1958 issue. The label’s timing was apt, as Lee that summer would have a pop hit with her unforgettable re-creation of Little Willie John’s “Fever.” Sea Shells did not exactly fly off the shelves, though, and failed to hit the album charts. From what I can tell by searching online, it’s never been reissued in the U.S. in any format. Luckily, other countries have done better, including a very nice reissue from the ’80s on the U.K. reissue label Jasmine, which is the copy I found of this overlooked disc.
(Decca DL 8591, 1958; Jasmine JASM 1046 (UK), early ’80s)