Wine and Music: Features
By Brian Panella
Few things of value to the human element stand the test of time. Even fewer improve in substance and worth, both from an emotional and aesthetic sense, with the passage of time. Among these precious few items are wine, music and art. Since music is an integral part of art, it leaves "Wine and Music" to bring us to the core of our inner selves from the depths of our souls to the subtle joys of our palates. When wine and music are combined, each is always more spiritually elevated when experienced in the company of the other. If we then add our own personal favorites of each that attach themselves to our psyches over the years, then so much the better.
When I was asked to write a feature story for "Wine and Music" about my experiences and memories of my first client, Miss Peggy Lee, I was thrilled. However, I must admit the idea of pairing her music with wine was such a new concept that I found it to be a daunting task at first. I agonized over how to best join the two elements and do each of them justice. Finally, I realized that I could readily compare this legendary performer to the best of wines. Since a great wine only gets better with time, and Peggy's vocal performances sound as unique and sensual today as they did the day she recorded them, this actually turned out to be an intriguing and rather fun assignment. Peggy's star continues to shine long after her passing and will forever. She was a vocalist, songwriter and a great performer. One of those rare artists that only come along once in a long while. And just as no two fine wines are the same, no two artists are alike. So, I pulled out my old records, dusted off my turntable and opened a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse as I prepared myself to take a wonderful trip down memory lane.
From the first time I heard her sing "It's A Good Day" and "I Don't Know Enough About You" and of course, the classic "Fever," I was hooked! Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would ever meet her, let alone be hired by Capitol Records as Director of Artist Relations in charge of booking all of her East Coast performances! But meet her I did, and such was the beginning of a long and interesting friendship and business relationship. The first time I saw her perform live was in New York City in 1968 when she performed on the Kraft Music Hall and Ed Sullivan Television Shows. As a young record executive, I saw for the first time, close up and personally, what great artistry, timeless good taste, brilliant showmanship and unique vocalizations coupled with dazzling good looks could do to an audience. Like experiencing a great bottle of wine, her presence and unmatched level of performance became the standard, by which I compared all vocalists from that point on.
In late 1968, when Peggy heard that I was thinking about leaving Capital, she requested I fly to Los Angeles to meet with her at her Beverly Hills mansion. As the staff served up a fabulous three course dinner, complete with her favorite wine, Pouilly Fruisse, Peggy suggested that we might make a good team and wondered if I would like to manage her. I was both shocked and thrilled and gladly accepted her proposal. We formed what would prove to be a successful and exciting alliance. Just months later, we were back at her lovely home as she practiced a few numbers with another icon, Tony Bennett, for their upcoming performance on the Carol Burnette Show. Watching these two legends at work was a fantastic treat I will never forget. Peggy's next release on Capital Records "Is That All There Is?" was a huge success and was nominated for two Grammy awards - Record of the Year and Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, the latter for which she won the Grammy. At this point, her amazing career had already spanned two decades and seemed to just be getting stronger with time.
At the tender age of eighteen, armed with one gown and a tiny suitcase and iron, Peggy boarded the Benny Goodman Orchestra Bus and left Jamestown, North Dakota on a life's journey that, like fine wine, would age fabulously well and bring her to the pinnacle of success and world wide acclaim. She could be sweet and soft and both bold and brazen, not unlike the world's finest wines. And in her very best "vintage years", she was unequalled in her capacity to entertain and unparalleled in her musical accomplishments. She was and is to me the epitome of the class and elegance of a 1940 Cheval Blanc, the 1967 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet, and the finest Petrus and Batard Montrachet Vintages ever!
Peggy's voice was so rich and memorable that many people do not realize that she was also a great songwriter. In the 1940's it was rare for singers to perform their own material. Peggy was unique in this way. One of her first songs, "What More Can a Woman Do?" written in 1945, was recorded by Sarah Vaughn whose band included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Then in 1948 Peggy wrote "Mañana," which topped the charts for nine weeks and was Capitol Records' biggest hit single by a singer-songwriter until the Beatles. Peggy's first complete score for a movie was for the movie "Lady and The Tramp." That same year she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in "Pete Kelly's Blues" and an Emmy for Best Female Singer on Television. She was truly a consummate artist, and her music and artistry can only be compared to the finest of wines. Although she wrote the music for a number of her compositions, Peggy usually wrote the lyrics, and has collaborated with such great composers as Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Cy Coleman, Johnny Mandel and Dave Grusin. Artists in almost every field of music have recorded Peggy's songs, including Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat "King" Cole, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr., even Elvis Presley, K.D. Lang and Madonna. These compositions have withstood the test of time, along with her own recordings as a vocalist.
It is difficult for me to pick just one recorded album she did that stands above all others. For, just like each annual vintage, there is something new and different to savor while still being true to the soil and the art of the Vintner. In comparing her artistry to fine wine, each is subject to similar superlatives. One can pick up any Peggy Lee album and find timeless and tasty gems throughout. Her brilliant 1958 Capitol Album "Things Are Swingin" kept reaching out to me from my extensive Peggy Lee collection. So to test my theory, I picked it up and played it yet again for the umpteenth time. Like great vineyards, it never fails to please! From the downbeat of the bright, smooth and sassy "It's a Wonderful World," it conjures up the easy drinkability of a well made Merlot, as it dances across the tongue to delight the palate. Her bold and sexy "Alright, Okay, You Win" makes you sit up and take notice like a robust and brilliant Cabernet from the Heitz and Far Niente Cellars! Peggy's version of "Ridin' High" is as fresh, light and airy as the first bottles of Beaujolais released in the market place, while her "It's Been A Long, Long, Time" is as sexy as the finest Pinot Noir you have ever tasted. "Alone Together" is like a rainy night in a smoke filled club in Casablanca with a brilliant 1977 Port and that girl you never could forget. Cap it all off with her unbeatable version of "Fever" and you have crossed the bridge between mood and elegant sensuality like the taste of the finest Bordeaux Grand Crus you have ever had the good fortune to experience. However, if I had to pick one bottle of wine that could sum up the whole album and enhance the listening experience I would have to pick the 1994 Fonseca Vintage Port Cellar selection, which received a 100 point rating from the Wine Spectator; "this is the best Fonseca since 1977, and it's probably even better than that classic vintage - more like the breathtaking 1948." This fabulous port from Portugal which costs about $170 a bottle, is rich in color, aroma and taste. The nose boasts of crushed grape, violet and berry character. It is big, full-bodied and very sweet, with tons of tannins and a sweet finish. It is a long-term, great Port and is best from 2002 to 2012. Much like Peggy's music, this port will have you melting with pleasures! After an elegant dinner, I suggest serving this delicate Port as you sit back and enjoy this aluring vocal classic. A tu salute!
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