The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

7 May 2006

So hard to bear

Terry Teachout was twelve when he first heard Peggy Lee's take on Otis Blackwell's "Fever," and this was the result:

Peggy Lee taught me all about sex. I was twelve at the time, and had just made the earth-shaking discovery that my fatherís record collection was of more than merely historical interest. This was in 1968, the year of the White Album, and I was still trying to figure out how to play "Rocky Raccoon" on my brand-new guitar, but I was also chewing my way through the selected works of Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, whose recording of "Fever" was — shall we say — instructive.

Not that she was obvious about it, or anything else. If a Hitchcock blonde could have raised her voice in song, then Peggy Lee, who died [in 2002] at the age of eighty-one, would have sounded pretty much like that, cool and self-possessed and ... amused. But even at twelve, I got the message, and then some: what the lady on the record had in mind was pretty much what I had in mind twenty-four hours a day, except that her point of view was more informed. That was when I realized my father knew a thing or two about music.

I wasn't, um, glandular at twelve, at least not to any degree worth mentioning; what's more, when I was twelve, the first version of "Fever" that I had heard was not Peggy's, or Little Willie John's R&B version, which had hit first, but a remake by the McCoys, the immediate follow-up to "Hang On Sloopy." It was a fun record, but not the least bit sexy. (Come to think of it, "fun, but not the least bit sexy" could be my tagline on a dating site, were I actually any fun.)

It took me a while to realize that while all this stuff may have been played on the radio for my adolescent self, the songs themselves, especially those from the R&B side of the shelf, were aimed at someone older and more worldly-wise. Probably why I liked so many of those bubblegum tunes: they assumed less of me.

But Peggy won me over, too. And when she died, while Terry Teachout was writing that, I wrote this:

Peggy Lee has left us, and were I a proper R&B purist, I'd probably feel compelled to point out that Little Willie John did "Fever" first, and of course he did it better. Approximately half of that is true. Not to slight Willie John, who never made a bad record in his short, unhappy life, but Peggy utterly redefines the tune. Confronted with the same temperature imbalance, Willie sounds like his usual bereft self, while Peggy, instrumentation stripped to the bare minimum, comes off as threatening, as though she were saying "You did this to me, and you will pay." Come to think of it, she said that to Walt Disney and Decca/Universal Records too. Clearly this was a woman with whom you did not mess.

I am not, I need hardly add, a proper R&B purist. And the fact that two guys about the same age (I turned fifteen in '68) could have such wildly-disparate responses to the same record — well, maybe this is some of what Sly meant by "different strokes for different folks."

And one thing more: on a homemade CD, I once segued Peggy's "Fever" into Cream's "Badge," thinking that the prominent bass lines in both might form some sort of logical link. Not so; Max Bennett simply overwhelms Jack Bruce, and no amount of tweaking levels would equalize matters.

Posted at 2:14 AM to Tongue and Groove