Two years after the planned celebration of Peggy Lee’s 100th birthday, Stacy Sullivan, arguably the artist’s torch bearer, is finally able to present her tribute. An eclectic roster of songs written or made famous by Lee arrive in varied interpretation by way of 11 male vocalists and Sullivan herself in pristine voice. The show runs like silk.
Sullivan opens with a bubbly rendition of the honoree’s signature “I Love Being Here with You.” (music- Bill Schluger.) Soft palm clap accompanies her breezy approach. The performer exudes warmth; she connects. Derek Davis’s “I Don’t Know Enough About You” (music-Dave Barbour) is understated. I miss more flirt. Guitarist Troy Fannin takes a gently swinging stroll.
The hall’s temperature rises with Todd Murray’s “There’ll Be Another Spring.” (music-Billy Edd Wheeler) One of our best crooners, the performer steps forward and leans out evoking a mass sigh. “If you will just believe in me,” he sings. And oh, we do! “Things Are Swingin” (music-Jack Marshall) is smooth and polished in the hands of Nicolas King. Weight shifts, shoulders tilt, natural bounce supports this infectiously happy version with a coda of expert scat.
“The Folks That Live on the Hill” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II) was a favorite of the songs Lee didn’t write. Sullivan’s delicate interpretation is curiously sad. I inquire about this afterwards. “…’and when the kids grow up and leave us’ always gets me,” she responds. “I think of my mom losing a son and the devastation of not being with your children.”
Sullivan tells us how the honoree reinvented herself from a difficult childhood as Norma Deloris Egstrom to international accomplishment as Peggy Lee. Trouble at home was somewhat ameliorated by the supportive community of Jamestown, North Dakota. The host observes that “The Folks Back Home” (music- Paul Horner) is a love letter to these good people. Stephen Davis’s reflective interpretation is sincere, grounded.
All but unknown, “New York City Blues” is performed by Mark Nadler whose “extravagance” is hardly associated with Lee’s “simplicity.” (Sullivan): “They say it’s a great place to visit/But my heart tells me it’s a better place to live…” he sings standing at an upright microphone. This verse is all heart, its style an admitted rarity for the artist. Nadler then commandeers the piano for an over-the-top, practically dancing rest of the song during which walls vibrate. I can’t help but regret not hearing it all in that first appealing low key fashion.
When Sullivan began her journey into all things Peggy Lee, she eschewed iconic numbers for those less familiar. Thus “Fever” (Little Willie John/Eddie Cooley and John Davenport with additional lyrics by Lee) and “Is That All There Is” (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller) were not added to shows until much later. With bassist Steve Doyle and guitarist Troy Fannin, we’re now treated to as sultry and seductive a rendering of the former as you’re ever likely to hear. Just the slightest hip shift, side step, and ssss insinuate. Here’s the actress- and woman.
In ersatz Peggy Lee drag, Elton John glasses, and superb manicure, Chuck Sweeney delivers a cool interpretation of “I Like Men” (music- Jack Marshall). Joined by Sullivan the two then playfully duet “I’m a Woman” (Jerry Lieber/ Mike Stoller) with high beam suggestion.
Sullivan suggests that “He’s a Tramp” (music-Sonny Burke) written for Disney’s 1955 animated ‘Lady and the Tramp’ may in fact have been a nod to Lee’s dear friend, Frank Sinatra. Replete with classy bowed bass, the song is sassy. There’s no question by whom “Johnny Guitar” (Music- Victor Young) was inspired, the host notes. Though Lee’s legendary guitarist husband Dave Barbour died young of alcoholism, she never stopped loving him. Still and grave, we hear grief, prayer, resolution, and commitment in Sullivan’s controlled quiver. Fannin leans into his weeping instrument. It’s thrilling.
At the piano and mic, Eric Yves Garcia offers a sophisticated “Where Can I Go Without You” (Music-Victor Young) as a romantic ballad, low key and a tad rueful. Danny Bacher’s “It’s a Good Day” (music- Dave Barbour) starts swell, but is swallowed up by Jon Weber’s complex piano.
One of the great pleasures of a Mercer Foundation show is the discovery of someone new. Tonight, it’s utterly captivating Gary Williams. “The Nickel Ride” (music- Dave Grusin) is about Lee’s (surprising) time as an 18 year-old carousel barker. A dreamy music box tune floats out from Jon Weber’s subdued piano. Williams’ tender, affecting rendition manifests a scene-in-one. In the jazz hands of Darius de Haas and Weber, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” (Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn) becomes an urban arrangement with lyrics about a country sport or perhaps a double entendre featuring an uptown gangster.
The beloved Sidney Myer sings “Angels On Your Pillow” (music- Paul Horner) with such depth of soul both Sullivan and I are in tears. (I can’t testify to those behind me) The host closes with “Is That All There Is?” (Jerry Lieber/Mike Stoller) taking us on a palpably emotional journey. She may never have been in better form. It’s hypnotic.
In the appreciative audience are Holly Foster Wells, Lee‘s granddaughter, her husband, Dan Wells, and their children, Carter and Keaton Wells who presented the host with flowers. Also in the audience were Lee’s grandson, Michael Wells, and his wife Rachel.
Opening photo (finale) by Jeff Harnar
All other photos ©Alan Nahigian
I Like Men– Celebrating 102 Years of Miss Peggy Lee
To Benefit The Mabel Mercer Foundation
Host- Stacy Sullivan
Music Director- Jon Weber
Bass- Steve Doyle; Guitar- Troy Fannin
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
154 West 57th Street
June 3, 2022
Heads Up: Happy Birthday, Judy with Carole J. Bufford and Stephanie Blythe A benefit for the Mabel Mercer Foundation
Friday June 10, 2022
Tickets and information www.birdlandjazz.com
Mabel Mercer – The 33rd Annual New York Cabaret Convention October 26-28 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
Stacy Sullivan and Todd Murray debut “The Musical Romance of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee.” at Birdland October 31, 2022