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The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography:
Observations About The Song "Why Don't You Do Right?"

by Iván Santiago

Page generated on Sep 17, 2021

I. Contents And Authorship

This page contains an essay about the song "Why Don't You Do Right?" and its connection to singer Peggy Lee. The essay's first section focuses on the original version of the tune, which was actually set to a different set of lyrics ("Weed Smoker's Dream"). The essay's other sections deal more directly with "Why Don't You Do Right?," covering not only Peggy Lee's interpretation but also an earlier version by blues singer Lil Green. For the purposes of the present discography, the relevance of Green's record stems from the fact that it served as direct inspiration for Lee's rendition(s).

II. "Weed Smoker's Dream"

Composer And Lyricist

On October 2, 1936, the Chicago-based blues group Harlem Hamfats recorded a song titled "Weed Smoker's Dream (Why Don't You Do Now?)" for Decca Records. The company would release Harlem Hamfats' record at least twice during the 78-rpm era, once on its Vocalion branch and once on its main brand (i.e., Decca). On the label of the Vocalion 78-rpm disc, the writing of "Weed Smoker's Dream" is credited to two members of the group: pianist Joe McCoy and trumpet player Herb Morand.

However, that authorship credit is open to question. During his lifetime (1910-1990), country blues guitarist Ted Bogan claimed to have been the one who actually wrote the music for the tune. Bogan explained that he had composed it at the request of Joe McCoy himself, who would later sell the number to the music publishing firm Melrose. Understandably, Bogan held Melrose responsible for giving sole credit to McCoy. (My thanks to folk musician/singer/comedian Larry Rand for sharing the remarks made by Bogan. "He was not one to fictionalize or exaggerate," further commented Rand, who knew Bogan for over a decade, "but there is no way to document his claim, alas.")

Vocalist And Personnel

The identity of the vocalist on "Weed Smoker's Dream (Why Don't You Do Now?)" is yet another credit that is up for debate. Some sources state that Joe McCoy sang the number. Other sources assert that Herb Morand fulfilled double duty on this recording and on other Harlem Hamfats recordings as well. (The more general impression gleaned from these sources is that the group counted with more than one musician-singer, and that, consequently, vocals were alternated.) To further complicate matters, the credited vocalist on the 78-rpm single itself is neither Joe McCoy nor Herb Morand.

Found below are the credits given on the Vocalion single -- credits not only for the vocals but also for the instruments. (I have typed them just as they appear on the label of the shellac. My aim has been to closely replicate the order and style in which the names and instruments are printed in the label, so that readers may better understand the speculative comments that I will be making immediately afterwards.)

Herb Morand, trumpet; Odell Rand, clar.;
Horace Malcomb, piano; Joe McCoy,
Charles McCoy (Hamfoot Ham) guitar
and mandolin; John Lindsay, bass;
Fred Flynn: drums Hamfoot Ham: vocal

In short: the label's listing credits Hamfoot Ham with the vocal. The label also identifies "Harlem Ham" as a nickname for Charles McCoy. The group's guitar and mandolin player, Charles was Joe's brother, too.

There is one significant problem with the vocal credit found in the Decca 78 rpm. Elsewhere, the nickname "Hamfoot Ham" is said to belong to Joe, not to Charles McCoy. (Joe was apparently fond of using nicknames on record credits. He is known to have employed quite a few others: Georgia Pine Boy, Hallelujah Joe, etc.). Furthermore, singing is not listed among brother Charles' abilities in the sources that I consulted.

We thus have to question the accuracy of the record company's credit. Did Decca make a mistake on the personnel information printed on the label of the 78-rpm disc? Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to this question at the present time; it is my hope to find out one eventually.

Lyrics And Semantics

Also somewhat confusing is the tenor of the lyrics. Here they are, as I hear them from the record (with the caveat that some words are hard to distinguish in the audio of the single that I sampled; these lyrics are thus open to correction):

Sitting on a million
Sitting on it every day,
Can't make no money
Giving your stuff away.

Why don’t you do now
Like the millionaires
Put your stuff on the market
And make a million, too.

Faye is a betting woman,
Bets on every hand.
Trickin’ mother for you
Everywhere she land.

Why don’t you do now
Like the millionaires
Put your stuff on the market
And make a million, too.

May's a good-lookin’ frail
She lives down by the jail
On her back though she got
Hot stuff for sale.

Why don’t you do now
Like the millionaires
Put your stuff on the market
And make a million, too.

In listening to these lyrics, my initial impression -- partially influenced by the song's title -- was that they were being muttered by a character to himself, while in a marijuana haze. (In such an interpretation, the 'speaking' character would be addressing himself every time that he uses the pronoun "you"). After having listened to the record many additional times, I still consider this initial interpretation a valid one.

But there is a second possibility that strikes me as equally valid: the same character, in the same marijuana haze, could be uttering the lyrics to someone nearby, rather than to himself. That someone would be a female. Notice the lyrics' references to "tricking," "jail," and "hot stuff," all of which open the field to the possibility that the two female names to which the lyrics allude (Faye and Mae) are prostitutes. The weed smoker could even be their pimp. His words would be meant as a complaint and as plea to the third female: she should put her body to good, financially rewarding use, like the other women have done.

Yet a third sensible possibility would be that the lyrics are a conversation between a man and a woman, in which the man would utter the first chorus, the woman the second chorus, and so on, in alternation. However, this possibility is harder to support because the extant recording is entirely sung only by a male. Since he uses the same masculine voice throughout, there are no suggestion of a second speaker. (For a point of comparison, take Little Jimmy Rushing's rendition of "Tricks Ain't Walkin' No More," in which Rushing attempts a feminine voice while singing the lines that are clearly meant to be uttered by a woman.)

Generally speaking, and independently of which interpretation is followed, it would seem that the weed smoker is entertaining the possibility of striking it rich either by selling pot ("stuff") or, if the addressed person is a woman, by having her sell sexual favors ("hot stuff").

Given my limited acquaintance with the group's repertoire, I would not discard the additional possibility that the pseudonym under which the song was recorded -- Hamfoot Ham -- points to a specific, fully realized character in the group's song canon. (I have listened to only a few of the group's numbers. Perhaps listening to additional songs and finding common ground in them would help clarify the meaning of this particular lyric.)

In a nutshell: the meaning of the lyric of "Weed Smoker's Dream" is yet another matter needing further research. (Such a lyric is not, however, the main concern of this essay.)

III. "Why Don't You Do Right?"

At some point between 1936 and 1940, another set of lyrics was attached to the melody that The Harlem Hamfats had recorded as "Weed Smoker's Dream." Fashioned in the traditional woman blues genre, this second incarnation of the song received the title "Why Don't You Do Right? (Get Me Some Money, Too)."

Yet again, authorship credits for this re-incarnation of "Weed Smoker's Dream" are a matter of contention. At ASCAP, the song is credited to McCoy only. At BMI, music and lyrics are credited instead to Lil Green, the vocalist who recorded "Why Don't You Do Right?" first. (More on this particular topic will be found in another section below.)

Here is my transcription of the lyrics, as they are heard in Green's version:

You had plenty money in 1922
But you let other women make a fool of you
Why don't you do right like some other men do
Get out of here and get me some money too.

You're sittin' down wonderin' what it's all about
You ain't got no money, they're going to put you out
Why don't you do right, like some other men do
Get out of here and get me some money too.

If you had prepared twenty years ago
You wouldn't have been drifting from door to door
Why don't you do right, like some other men do
Get out of here and get me some money too.

I fell for your jive and I took you in
Now all you got to offer me is a drink of gin
Why don't you do right, like some other men do
Get out of here and get me some money too.

If we are to interpret the lyrics of "Weed Smoker's Dream" as a man's request on his woman to sell pot (or to sell herself), we can conversely say that "Why Don't You Do Right?" is an answer song -- the female viewpoint. The woman would be telling her weed-smoking man to get up and away from his haze, to go out and make the money that he was expecting her to collect. (I am mentioning this parallel only as food for thought; the lyrics of the Lil Green version can and should stand on their own.)

IV. Peggy Lee's Acquaintance With "Why Don't You Do Right?"

According to Brian Peerless in his notes for the Columbia LP All The Cats Join In, Peggy Lee first became acquainted with "Why Don't You Do Right?" when trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell gave her a copy of the Victor 78-rpm single, sung by Lil Green. A bona fide fan of the blues genre, she promptly became fascinated with the number and with Green, of whom Peggy Lee continued to speak admiringly well into her (Lee's) elderly years.

Peggy Lee's recording of "Why Don't You Do Right?" evinces her avowed admiration for the Lil Green version to which she so obsessively listened. As Larry Kart mused in a 1983 article about Lee, "the reason her version of the tune was so popular had a lot to do with the honest ease with which Lee borrowed Green's salty, rhythm-and-blues mannerisms and turned them to her own ends." Critic Gunther Schuller has made a similar point, saying that despite the stylistic borrowing, the young Lee "still somehow turn[ed] it into her own unique manner." For her part, Peggy Lee consistently gave credit to Lil Green whenever Lee's recording of "Why Don't You Do Right?" came up for discussion in interviews. Lee also expressed great affection for Green's singing, even if stylistically the influence of the blues singer on the classic pop/jazz singer is hardly discernible beyond the couple of Joe McCoy songs that both recorded. (In the estimation of a fellow fan, Green' influence is also noticeable in another early Peggy Lee master, "Ain't Goin' No Place." However, Lee's version of that number precedes Green's by two years. The Peggy Lee recording was made for Capitol on January 7, 1944. The Lil Green version was waxed for Victor on July 31, 1946.)

V. Lil Green's Recording (And Songwriting?) Of Why Don't You Do Right?

On April 23, 1941, blues singer Lil Green recorded "Why Don't You Do Right? (Get Me Some Money, Too)" for Victor's Bluebird label. Green and her record company promptly found themselves with a hit in their hands -- her second, following on the heels of Green's own composition, Romance In The Dark (1940). "For the next ten years," states Barry Lee Pearson in a short but well-written biographical sketch about the singer, "she enjoyed a successful career touring theaters and clubs and recording for RCA, Aladdin and Atlantic." Unfortunately, pneumonia claimed Green's life in 1954, at the ripe age of 34.

A few secondary accounts credit the lyrics of "Why Don't You Do Right?" to Lil Green. Peggy Lee herself often referred to Lil Green not only as the one who first recorded it but also as the song's author. Nevertheless, this credit lacks corroboration. What's more, the label on her own original single identifies Joe McCoy as the sole songwriter. ASCAP and other authoritative sources also list only McCoy as writer of both the lyrics and the music. Only BMI credits Green with the number -- and since it does not give joint credit to either Joe McCoy or Ted Bogan, BMI undermines its credibility.

Still: I for one would not discard the possibility that Lil Green might have penned the lyrics, and that she had to remain uncredited for one reason or another. Given their womanly point of view, we might feel inclined to expect the song's words to come from the pen of a female lyricist. (Then again, expectations and reality do not always meet. Also worth considering is Joe McCoy's reputation as a prolific writer of blues; I am unaware of any reason to discard the possibility that he might have chosen to adopt a female point of view when re-writing this particular song.)

VI. Benny Goodman's Acquaintance With "Why Don't You Do Right?"

The Goodman-Lee version of "Why Don't You Do Right?" (and its subsequent success) happened as a fluke. In a 1995 interview for Goldmine, Lee explained that she never considered the possibility that Goodman would entertain the idea of recording this number. Hence Goodman's invitation to do so took her by surprise. In various other interviews, she detailed the exact circumstances that prompted the waxing of a piece so uncharacteristic of the bandleader's repertoire. "I used to play that record over and over in my dressing room, which was next door to Benny's," the singer reminisced in 1984. Lee gave repeated, frequent playing to that particular shellac disc not only because she "just liked to hear it" but also because she "didn't carry very many records." (She didn't and she couldn't. Touring and traveling on a bus forced band members to limit the weight and quantity of belongings that they brought with them.) Continued Lee, while giving her aforementioned 1984 interview: "Finally he said, You obviously like that song. I said, Oh, I love it. He said. Would you like me to have an arrangement made of it? I said, I'd love that, and he did."

Although the same essential details can be found in other accounts that Lee gave to the press over the years, some of those accounts are more telling than others. Goodman's "dressing room was right next to mine and I drove him mad with it," she good-naturedly confessed during a 1988 interview. This perspective is also echoed in an earlier article for People magazine (1984): "I listened to this blues record by Lil Green all the time and I think it made Benny nervous. He finally agreed to have an arrangement of it done." Still earlier, in 1969, Lee made the following statement, in which she obliquely alluded to Goodman's humorous absent-mindedness: "I used to play her record over and over backstage at the Paramount. After a week, Benny finally noticed and made some profound remark like, I guess you like that."

VII. Recording Of The Goodman-Lee "Why Don't You Do Right?" Version

On July 27, 1942, The Benny Goodman Orchestra and Peggy Lee recorded "Why Don't You Do Right?" for Columbia Records. By that time (a year later), Lil Green's Victor recording of "Why Don't You Do Right?" was no longer current as a hit, but it had certainly remained a favorite of Lee's.

As shown in the sessionography's Benny Goodman page, four takes from the recording session are extant. When heard sequentially, those takes convey a general mood of enthusiasm amidst participating musicians. Also noticeable is Peggy Lee's game disposition, offering divergent vocal approaches to selected words and phrases. To my ears, the overall effect is that of a musical gathering where the players are having a good time, maybe because they have been allowed to perform in more than one strict tempo and style. (I should stress that this is a merely an opinion of mine. We do not know what actually transpired during the session. The general portrait of Goodman that his biographers have constructed is that of a serious, stern, even controlling taskmaster at his recording sessions. But it could still be that this particular number -- "Why Don't You Do Right?" -- was perceived almost as a throwaway, and that some latitude was given to Lee due to her hand in the finding of the song.)

VIII. Columbia's, Goodman's, And Lee's Various Reasons For Recording "Why Don't You Do Right?"

The Goodman-Lee version was initially perceived as not much more than an indulgence. At recording time (July 27), bandleader and label were probably willing to record just about anything, due to the Petrillo record ban that was about to go into effect (August 1). Lee told to an interviewer that the number was "thrown into the record date. There was a record ban, so they were recording everything they could find in the library. It didn't make anything of an impression on anyone really, until that point, which I think is kind of an interesting thing, considering the success it did have later, fortunately, for all of us."

To an extent, the recording of the number was an amicable concession to Peggy Lee and her tastes in music. Goodman presumably wanted to keep a pleased and inspired canary under his grasp. After all, Lee had accounted for much of the band's success on radio airplay during the previous months, when she had not only placed various numbers in the charts but had also taken one song to the top spot of the best-selling lists ("Somebody Else Is Taking My Place").

Over the months which followed the band's recording of "Why Don't You Do Right?," Lee would notice that Columbia was releasing just about everything else that Goodman had recently waxed. In December 1942, when the master was finally picked for issue on 78-rpm disc, Lee assumed that the reason for the release was that Columbia had run out of any other suitable alternatives. Contemporaneous commentary in magazines such as Billboard and Gramophone point to the instrumental "Six Flats Unfurnished," on the other side of the single, as the performance originally receiving the heavier amount of promotion. Before its release, "Why Don't You Do Right?" might have been expected to be the lesser side of the single.

IX. Reception Of "Why Don't You Do Right?"

Once "Why Don't You Do Right" was finally chosen for issue on record, the band started to perform it live. Goodman and Lee's earliest extant concert performance of the tune dates from December 2, 1942, at the New Yorker Hotel. (Of course, there might have been earlier renditions that remain undocumented.) Enthusiastic response from concert audiences probably led to the decision to film an enactment of the number, complete with dancers surrounding the band and vocalist, for the then-upcoming movie Stage Door Canteen. Filming took place some time in December of 1942. The eventual release of the movie (mid-1943) would further boost and extend the record's popularity.

In an article published by Downbeat many years later (1959), George Hoefer asserted that "[w]hen the Goodman band recorded the tune with Peggy’s vocal early [sic] in 1942, no one thought there would be much interest in it outside the trade. And nothing much did happen -– at first. But when the band got to California in the fall of ‘42, Peggy and Benny were amazed to hear that more than 200,000 copies of the record were on order in Southern California alone." (n.b.: Herein and also in a few other sections, Mr. Hoefer's article is slightly off, both chronologically and factually.)

In its March 20, 1943 issue, Billboard magazine listed the issue among those coming up and "rapidly gaining in popularity across the nation." Tellingly, the magazine's review starts out as follows: '[t]his ditty took quite a while to make up its mind but by now it's clear that it means to do right by coin machine ops. As its lyrics demand, it has been "getting some money" -- and it's still spinning fast, working its way to the top of Coming Up. Now that it's on its way, this waxing by maestro BG looks as tho it's all set to follow in the footsteps of many of his others.' For the months of March, April, and May, additional issues of the weekly magazine also listed the number among the most promising, popular or "going strong" ones. It ended up spending nearly five months in Billboard's jukebox, disc jockey, and sales charts, which at the time consisted of 30 (or less) slots.

X. "Why Don't You Do Right?" In The Music Charts

The Billboard debut of "Why Don't You Do Right?" took place during in the January 2, 1943 issue of that magazine. It went on to a #4 peak in the National bestsellers chart for the week ending January 14, 1943, which was published on the January 23, 1943 issue. Their number spent 11 weeks on that encompassing chart.

Billboard' also published regional bestsellers chart on each of its weekly issues. "Why Don't yYu Do Right?" entered all five of them. The song's earliest debut took place on the East chart of the January 2, 1943 issue, which showed the results for the week ending December 23, 1942. On all but the West Coast region, the total of weeks logged by "Why Don't You Do Right?" was noteworthy: 11 in the South, 15 in the East, and 16 in the Midwest. It peaked at #2 in the Midwest (week ending March 4, published on March 13 issue),#3 in both East and South (week ending January 7, published on January 16 issue), #4 in the Harlem Hit Parade (week ending March 11, published on the March 20 issue; five-week total), and #7 in the West Coast (week ending January 28, published on February 5 issue; six-week total).

According to David Kent's Australian Chart Book 1940 - 1969, "Why Don't You Do Right?" also made an appearance on that country's state-by-state airplay charts. At that time, Australian radio stations put together such charts only on a monthly basis. The Peggy Lee-Benny Goodman hit is listed for only the month of January 1945, with a #12 peak within a top 20 countdown.

In 2010, "Why Don't You Do Right?" returned to the charts under the guise of a club house version simply titled "Why Don't You." For additional details, see the Issues notes under session dated November 19, 1947, in this page.

XI. The Rewards Of "Why Don't You Do Right?"

Besides the songwriter and his heirs, the entities who financially benefitted the most from the success of the recording were Columbia Records and Benny Goodman, who shared performance rights. As for Peggy Lee, the vocalist had received a minimal fee when she recorded the number, and was not entitled to ask or receive any additional compensation. Hence she did not directly partake in any other earnings from the Columbia recording.

Lee's main reward was instead the increase in popularity that the song brought to her. It is estimated that "Why Don't You Do Right" climbed 'only' to #4 in the music charts, but it should be repeated that it stayed n them for a considerable amount of time (19 weeks). It should also be noted that, in her role as canary with the Goodman orchestra, Lee had already had a big hit, the #1 "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place." Hence "Why Don't You Do Right?" was by no means her first taste of chart success, nor would have it qualified as her greatest one then. But the number afforded Lee with the opportunity to become not only an aural but also a a visual presence nationwide. The visual part of the equation stemmed from the filming of the aforementioned, well-received performance for the popular flick Stage Door Canteen.

With the passing of the years, "Why Don't You Do Right?" ended up becoming a much-requested staple of Lee's repertoire. Besides countless reprises in concert performances (some of which were taped and released on her live albums), she re-recorded the song twice as a solo artist, in styles that were more amenable to her tastes than the earlier, Goodman-orchestrated version. The first of those recordings was for Capitol, on November 19, 1947. The other one, made on September 8, 1992, was for her very last album, on Chesky Records -- and is arguably one of the more interesting interpretations from what might rank as the least appealing of her album efforts. Furthermore, Lee taped a small combo, jazzy and tasteful video version in 1950. That version has become widely known during the present century, thanks to its rotation in YouTube and similar video sites. In its Capitol version, Lee's vocal has also survived the test of time: it became an international hit all over again during the early twenty-first century, after it was heavily sampled by the dj Gramophonedzie for a mix that he called "Why Don't You."

(Lee's 1943 movie version can be sampled here, the 1947 Capitol recording here, and the 1992 version here. Additional versions available on audio clip include a 1947 radio interpretation (here), the aforementioned 1950 video version (here), a 1959 TV performance (here), and a 1984 concert performance (here). The official video for Gramophonedzie's "Why Don't You" can be viewed here, and an excellent, highly recommended re-edit from DeeJayKTel is available here.)