Hearing the sad news that the great pianist George Shearing passed away (there’s a brilliant tribute here) I decided to listen again to a classic album he recorded with Peggy Lee in 1959 called Beauty And The Beat!
According to the liner notes, the pair first met in 1948 through the critic Leonard Feather. When Mr Shearing moved to Capitol after success with his celebrated quintet, he was teamed with Ms Lee for a live recording in Miami at a DJ convention. Following an intense 72 hour rehearsal period, the result was a 12 song program presented on the album.
It’s an eminently tasteful affair, which shouldn’t be surprising given its two stars. Peggy Lee was known for absolute perfection in her recordings and George Shearing’s sound was always affable and sophisticated. It’s a winning collaboration with the quintet giving a perfect backing to the singer’s slightly breathy and always sensitive voice.
The repertoire they chose to perform includes three less frequently performed Cole Porter songs. A swinging Do I Love You? opens the album in great style and Get Out Of Town is taken at a faster tempo than usual, adding to the irony of the lyrics. An album highlight is a Latin-tinged version of Always True To You In My Fashion that adds an extra level of carefree sauciness to this comic number from Kiss Me Kate. In either context given the wit of the lyrics (“the Harris pat means a Paris hat”) you readily forgive the singer’s endless infidelities.
Not only does Ms Lee deliver sparkling supper-club Cole Porter material, she’s just at home with some blues including the location specific tracks I Lost My Sugar In Salt Lake City and You Came A Long Way From St Louis. Another highlight of the album is a resigned but surprisingly snappy Blue Prelude. “What is love but a prelude to sorrow?” coos Ms Lee, as the light but driving accompaniment by the quintet suggests the singer’s fate is sealed.
Speaking of the quintet, you can hear that classic George Shearing sound (trio plus vibes and guitar) best on their instrumental version of Isn’t It Romantic. They also spin a lively original, Mambo In Miami, by the guest conga player, Armando Peraza, as well as the evergreen Duke Ellington number, Satin Doll.
Given the album’s brief running time – just a little over half an hour – it’s remarkable how many various musical styles Mr Shearing and Ms Lee successfully cover, and all falling naturally within their own unique sound. Besides the Cole Porter, the blues and the instrumentals there are also a handful of tender ballads which become quiet showstoppers.
Peggy Lee’s own bittersweet There’ll Be Another Spring (debuted here) stands out as does Rodgers and Hart’s Nobody’s Heart. Nobody quite wrote lyrics of such crushing heartbreak like Lorenz Hart – even “hi ho” seems like two of the saddest words ever sung when delivered here. On Don’t Ever Leave Me, the intimacy is increased with only Mr Shearing’s restrained piano accompanying an almost whispering Ms Lee.
This is the only time George Shearing recorded with Peggy Lee so for that alone this is a special album. Their combined talents are huge and the songs are often giants of their genres – and yet there’s a sense of restraint at work here which keeps everything together. It’s an elegant album, pure and simple.
Recorded May 29, 1959
Peggy Lee – vocals
George Shearing – piano
Toots Thielemans – guitar
Ray Alexander – vibraphone
Jimmy Bond – double bass
Roy Haynes – drums
Armando Peraza – conga
In 1992 this “live” album was reissued by Capitol with two bonus tracks purportedly recorded after the convention in the studio: Don’t Ever Leave Me and Nobody’s Heart.
In fact the entire album was recorded in the studio because the quality of the live recording at the convention was not up to scratch. Announcements, introductions, applause, laughter and background noise had all been added for effect.
In 2003 the album was remastered and reissued again. This time the pretense of a live recording was completely removed and the sound quality was greatly improved.