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The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography:
The Later Years

by Iván Santiago

Page generated on Jul 8, 2021


Peggy Lee's Recording Career, 1973-1995

After long tenures exclusively on two music labels (Capitol and Decca, from 1945 to 1972), the next three decades of Peggy Lee's career find her signing short-term contracts with eight different companies. (In between both periods, Lee seems to have made a very brief stop at Brut Records.) Here is a timetable of her recording activity during this period:

1973: Brut Records (full details unknown; at least one song recorded)
1974: Atlantic Records (one album and a handful of songs)
1975: A&M Records (one album and another handful of songs)
1977: Polydor Records (two albums) & Ken Barnes Productions (one album, taped in concert)
1979: DRG Records (one album)
1988: Harbinger Records (one album)
1988-1990: MusicMasters Records (two albums, plus a single)
1992: Chesky Records (one album); also two guest vocals on two other labels (Reprise Records, Park Records)
1995: one guest vocal for MusicMasters

For extensive details about each of those contracts, including the albums or singles that they produced, click on the respective years. For additional record negotiations which did not come to fruition, see section IV of the page that this discography dedicates to unissued recordings and unfulfilled record deals.

Three other factors characterize this last period of Peggy Lee's professional career. They are briefly discussed below.

1. Voice-altering Illnesses

Lee's adult life was plagued by health issues which were exacerbated by overwork and by punishing schedules. In November 1971, she went through her second serious bout with pneumonia. It required a three-month period of recuperation, starting with two weeks of hospitalization and continuing with 10 weeks of medically ordered rest at home. Lee was also forced to quit smoking, a habit which she had picked up decades earlier.

That critical period of illness seems to have had a direct effect on the quality of Lee's voice. From 1972 onwards, the light husk that had distinguished the singer's instrument in earlier decades (1950s, 1960s) is no longer in evidence. Between 1974 and 1985, the strength of her vocal cords fluctuate, too. They are at their weakest in the late 1970s, when she suffered paralysis on one side of her face, dealt with a temporarily compromised vision, and was diagnosed with Ménière's disease.

Lee's voice is at its strongest in the early 1980s. Leaving aside the change of vocal color, she sounds excellent in televised performances from 1981, in Broadway shows which took place during mid-December 1983, and in concert appearances from around the same time. Reviewing one such appearance at the Drury Lane Theater (May 1985), Larry Kart of The Chicago Tribune described Lee as "a singer of such special gifts, especially in the area where technique and emotion meet, that the term 'popular music' doesn't begin to describe her artistry."

Afterwards, poor health increasingly took a toll, though more so on the quality of the voice than on the interpretative gifts to which Kart referred. In October 1985, Lee had to be taken from a New Orleans stage to the hospital, where she ended up undergoing double bypass surgery, followed by two further operations due to infection. (Heart problems had actually been diagnosed in the second half of the 1970s. Between 1984 and 1985, her heart had been subjected to four angioplasties.) In 1987, after a fall into an orchestral pit while onstage, Lee suffered from a fractured pelvis; thereafter, she assisted herself with a cane or made use of a wheelchair. In the early 1990s, there were also battles with chronic inflammation (nerves, muscles and joints), arteritis and diabetes, the latter being the disease that had claimed her mother when Lee was four.

Such illnesses probably had an effect not only in the singer's voice but also in her performance style. From the mid-1980s onwards, Lee's concerts came across as familial or friendly gatherings presided by the singer, who would share anecdotes with the audience and would display her sense of humor more overtly than ever before. Whereas the songs' message remained as paramount as it had always been for her, from 1985 onwards she seemed less concerned with maintaining the technically high standards of earlier years, and more intent on keeping a strong rapport with audiences. Her voice sounded occasionally strained, and the notes were not always held. Still, the many other attributes of this Lee's craft (rhythmic dexterity, interpretative subtlety, excellent timing ... ) remained firmly in place for the duration of her years as a performing artist.

2. Precedent-setting Lawsuits

During the 1990s, some fans and members of the press took to nicknaming Peggy Lee "Litigious Lee." She and her lawyers set in motion various lawsuits that had considerable implications in the battle of music artists' rights to compensation from record companies.

The earliest and best publicized of such lawsuits was a charge against the Disney company. The plaintiff charged that, as someone who had substantially contributed to the artistic value of the Disney classic Lady And The Tramp and to its promotion, Lee had a right to profit from the sale of its videocassettes. (Back in 1952, Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke had received one thousand dollars for the compositions that they contributed to the animated film. Lee's additional voiceover work on the movie's soundtrack would net her the sum of $3,500. Asked to help with the promotion of the video's re-release in 1987, she had been paid an honorarium of $500 at that time, and not a penny from the actual sale of video copies. Therefore, the singer's monetary earnings from her work on behalf of the movie amounted to less than five thousand dollars. A frequently re-released children's classic and bestseller, the Lady And The Tramp video was estimated to have made over $72 million by the mid-1980s, $90 million by 1990.)

The lawsuit was filed in 1988 and brought to court in 1990, when it was won by Lee and her lawyers. The win did not mean that the case was over, however. The Mighty Mouse appealed in 1992, and lost again. A subsequent attempt to take the case to California's Supreme Court did not go through. Only then did Disney finally capitulate. Lee had been previously awarded $2.3 million for breach of contract (1991), to which Disney now had to add about one million as compensation on account of the succeeding, failed appeals.

Lee enjoyed precious little of the awarded sum, however. Once payment was rightfully collected by, on the one hand, her lawyers and, on the other hand, the Internal Revenue Service, not much was left. Additional legal wrangling resulted in Disney's payment of a tiny royalty fee for each DVD/VHS copy sold in the future, beginning with those from the edition of Lady And The Tramp that was released in 1997. (This payment is a song royalty fee, split between the estates of composer Sonny Burke and lyricist Peggy Lee.)

Ultimately, then, the rewards of this victory in court were not financial but symbolic. Thanks to what is sometimes referred to as "The Peggy Lee Decision," the singer's name entered the annals of legal history. Furthermore, a significant chip was dented on the armor of the powerful Disney corporation, a widely feared opponent with an (in)famously muscular legal arm. Before Lee, few had dared to take the corporation to court. After Lee, the corporation would tighten the legal language of its contracts even further, thereby insuring itself against any other comparable legal losses in the future. But Lee had effectively opened the door for other artists to follow suit, and so they did: between 1991 and 2001, royalty claims against Disney were separately filed by Mary Costa (Sleeping Beauty), Phil Harris (The Aristocats, The Jungle Book) and the estate of Louis Prima (The Jungle Book). In all cases, Disney ended up settling out of court (in Costa's case, though a judge-appointed mediator, just three days before the court's appointment date).

During the late 1990s, Peggy Lee led the way in two other lawsuits, both of which claimed insufficient royalty payment on the part of record companies. The earliest of such lawsuits (1998) was jointly filed by Lee and Les Brown along with the estates of Benny Goodman and Dinah Shore. Their suit was against Capitol. The later one (1999) was $5 million class action suit filed by Lee alone on behalf of all former Decca recording acts, whose royalties were allegedly being miscalculated or underreported by some of the catalogue's holders.

The lawsuit against Capitol (EMI) was privately settled, the one against Decca (Universal) adjudicated in Lee's favor just a week before she passed away. Universal was ordered to set up a trust fund to compensate not just Lee but also the nearly 300 other Decca recording artists on whose behalf she had filed as well (including Louis Armstrong, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Haley, but excluding a handful of artists -- e.g. Bing Crosby -- whose estates chose to sue Universal separately).

3. High-ranking Awards And Peer Recognition

As Peggy Lee became older, the music industry showed its awareness of her contributions to the music industry by bestowing a series of lifetime awards on her. Among them were the Songwriters' Guild of America President Award, the Grammy's Lifetime Achievement Award, ASCAP's Pied Piper Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Conference Of Christians and Jews' Brotherhood Award, and two honorary doctorates. There was even a flower named after her by The American Rose Society, back in 1983. In 1995, there was also a tribute in her honor from the Society of Singers. (It was only the fourth of its kind, following those that had been given in previous years to Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Martin.)

Recording Activity In 1973

Two years would elapse between Peggy Lee's last date for Capitol (April 28, 1972) and her first session for Atlantic (April 23, 1974). In that interim, some additional recording activity took place, but little is known about it. (See Brut Records page. See also section IV of the page that this discography dedicates to unissued recordings and unfulfilled record deals.)

Independently of how much she recorded during this period, Lee did remain professionally active between record contracts. She made about a dozen guest appearances on television and gave many concert performances around the country. In New York alone, she fulfilled not only her twice-a-year engagements at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel but also gave three outdoors concerts for the Schaefer Music Summer Festival in Central Park (one per year, from 1972 to 1974). During that same period, Lee made further concert appearances in Chicago, Florida, Las Vegas, London, Ohio, San Francisco, Saint Louis, Toronto, Wisconsin, and other cities.

Statistics: Total Number Of Masters & Titles Still Unissued

For the period of 1974 to 1995, this discographical page shows that Peggy Lee recorded a total of 151 masters and 9 alternate takes. In addition to those studio recordings, it should be noted that numerous concert and televised performances are extant, too. Various rehearsal performances are preserved as well, including some that Ken Barnes Productions has already released on CD. (See this discography's page for rehearsals.)

From these same years (1974-1995), the following seven titles, most of them on A&M, remain unissued: "Daddy Was Dah Do" (May 27, 1975), "Crazy Life" (May 29, 1975), "The Best Thing" (May 29, 1975), "Love Me Or Leave Me" (May 30, 1975), "Saved" (first week of June 1975), "Since I Fell For You" (February 8, 1988) and "How Long Has This Been Going On" (February 8, 1988). A few alternate takes of the A&M performances are also extant, and there is reason to believe that Lee recorded at least one number for Brut Records (not included in the 151 count), which may or may not be extant. Although I have no knowledge of any further unissued songs from this period, their existence is certainly a possibility, especially on MusicMasters.