“Why Don’t You Do Right?” (1942) Benny Goodman and Peggy Lee

“Why Don’t You Do Right?”

Music and lyric by Joe McCoy; arranged by Mel Powell.

Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Columbia on July 27, 1942 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Tony Faso (Joseph Fasulo), first trumpet; Jimmy Maxwell and Benny Baker, trumpets; Lou McGarity and Charlie Castaldo, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Clint Neagley, alto saxophone; Jon Walton and John H. “Zoot” Sims,(1) tenor saxophones; Bob Poland, baritone saxophone; Mel Powell, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Cliff Hill, bass; Howard “Hud” Davies, drums; Peggy Lee, vocal.

The story:

Norma Deloris Egstrom, known professionally as Peggy Lee, was born in Jamestown, North Dakota on May 26, 1920, the seventh of the eight children of Selma Emele (née Anderson) Egstrom and Marvin Olaf Egstrom, a station agent for the Midland Continental railroad. She was raised a Lutheran. Her father was Swedish-American and her mother was Norwegian-American. After her mother died when Lee was four, her father married Minnie Schaumberg Wiese.

Lee and her family lived in several towns along the Midland Continental Railroad (Jamestown, Nortonville and Wimbledon). She graduated from Wimbledon High School in 1937. In Wimbledon, Norma Egstrom sang with a six-piece college band led by Lyle “Doc” Haines. She traveled to various locations with the Haines group on Fridays after school and on weekends. She first sang professionally over KOVC radio in Valley City, North Dakota  in 1936. She later had her own 15-minute Saturday radio show on KOVC sponsored by a local restaurant that paid her with meals. Both during and after her high-school years, Egstrom sang on local radio stations. (Above right: Norma Egstrom/Peggy Lee in her days as a radio singer in North Dakota.)

In October 1937, radio personality Ken Kennedy on WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota, the most widely heard station in that region, auditioned Egstrom and put her on the air immediately, and changed her name to Peggy Lee.

Lee left home and traveled to southern California in March 1938. Her first job was seasonal work on Balboa Island off Newport Beach as a short order cook and waitress at Harry’s Cafe’. When that job ended, she was hired to work as a carnival barker at the Balboa Fun Zone. She wrote about this experience in the song, “The Nickel Ride,” which she composed with Dave Grusin for the 1974 film of the same name.

Later in 1938, Lee auditioned in Hollywood for a job as the emcee at The Jade, a night club. She got the job, but her employment was cut short when she fainted onstage due to overwork and an inadequate diet. After she was taken to the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center she was told she needed a tonsillectomy. Lee returned to North Dakota for the operation.

in 1939, she remained in North Dakota and was hired to perform regularly at The Powers Hotel in Fargo. She also toured throughout the region with both the Sev Olson and the Will Osborne bands. (Above left: Peggy Lee – 1940: She was determined to be successful in the music business.)

She returned to California in 1940, and took a job singing at The Doll House in Palm Springs. While performing at there, Lee met Frank Bering, the owner of the Ambassador East and West hotels in Chicago. He offered her a job performing at the Buttery Room, a nightclub in the Ambassador West Hotel. It was there, in August of 1941, that she was noticed by Benny Goodman.(1A)

Benny and Alice Hammond, John Hammond’s sister, were staying at the Ambassador West while the Goodman band was ensconced in the Panther Room of Hotel Sherman in Chicago for the month of August. Although Alice’s marriage to an Englishman, George Arthur Duckworth, was over by then, she had not yet obtained a divorce from him. They had married in 1927 and their union had produced three daughters. In November of 1941, she filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada. Soon after the divorce was granted, she and Benny were married in Reno. (Above right: Benny and Alice Goodman – early 1940s.)

One evening, Alice was having dinner (without Benny, who was probably working) in the Buttery Room and was favorably impressed with Peggy Lee’s singing. As soon as Benny had an off-night, Alice brought him into the Buttery Room to listen to Lee. ( Mel Powell may also have been present.) Benny was in the midst of Helen Forrest quitting his band, and would soon need another female vocalist.(2) In typical BG fashion, he seemed underwhelmed by Peggy’s singing, still he sensed something that he found attractive about her as a performer. (She was an attractive young woman, and Benny knew that many people listened to his music with their eyes.) He soon offered her a job, which she accepted.

Peggy was extremely nervous and intimidated by the very high level of musicianship and swagger she encountered in the Goodman band. Mel Powell became her musical mentor, and worked with her on the songs she would be singing. Still, she was slow to hit her stride as a member of the Goodman ensemble. Nevertheless, the business of the Goodman band continued apace. Within days of joining BG, a recording session was scheduled for August 15. Peggy, who was practically frozen with fear, was assigned to sing the first tune to be recorded that day, “Elmer’s Tune.” The sound engineer Bill Savory was in the control room that day. Here are his recollections: “Peggy was extremely nervous, and Benny kept calling take after take, trying to get one that was acceptable. John Hammond (who had flown to Chicago to supervise the date for Columbia) …started hassling Benny about Peggy’s deficiencies: ‘Benny, she cahn’t sing. She just cahn’t sing.’ Finally, out of exasperation, Benny picked up a chair and hurled it across the studio at him. John was amazed and very upset.”(3) Welcome to the band Peggy! (Above left: Peggy Lee in 1941.)

Eventually, Peggy Lee did record an acceptable performance on “Elmer’s Tune.” But it took her a while after that for her to get enough confidence to perform at the level she knew she could. It seems that Benny’s disagreement with John Hammond over her ability as a singer caused BG to be more supportive and encouraging than he otherwise might have been. “I thought she had a terrific quality then. Unfortunately, when she came with the band, she was so scared for about three or four months I don’t think she got half of the songs out of her mouth. She was very young then. But I persisted in any event, which I was glad I did, and so was she, and finally we came up with a couple of hit records.” (4) (Above right: Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman in the Columbia recording studio in New York on March 12, 1942. Peggy is holding the sheet music for the song “I Threw a Kiss in the Ocean,” a song she recorded on that date.)

The first BG-Peggy Lee record to achieve substantial success was “Somebody Else Is Taking my Place,” which was recorded on November 13, 1941. Although Peggy made a number of excellent records with Benny Goodman, none came close to the popularity of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” It rose quickly to hit status upon its release in the late summer of 1942, and continued selling well throughout the years of World War II. Ms. Lee sang it in the United Artists film Stage Door Canteen with Benny Goodman and His Orchestra. (See note 5 below for a link to that performance.) The popularity of this recording provided Peggy Lee with a springboard from which she launched a successful career as an entertainer and songwriter.

The music: 

Why Don’t You Do Right?” (originally recorded as “Weed Smoker’s Dream“) is a blues written by “Kansas Joe” McCoy and Herb Morand in 1936. Both men were given composer credits on the original Decca 78 record label (recorded in Chicago on October 2, 1936 by the Harlem Hamfats), although Morand’s name is misspelled. (6) The recording of “Weed Smoker’s Dream” can be accessed by clicking on the link at endnote 6 below.)

Joe McCoy, who was a member of the Harlem Hamfats, later rewrote the song, refining the composition and lyric. The new tune, titled “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, was recorded in Chicago on April 23, 1941 by Lil Green on the Bluebird label, with guitar accompaniment by William “Big Bill” Broonzy.

The song originally dealt (from the masculine perspective) with a marijuana smoker’s regrets about lost financial opportunities. As it was rewritten, it takes on the perspective of his female partner, who chastises him for his irresponsible ways: “Why don’t you do right, like some other men do? Get out of here and get me some money too.” It was Lil Green’s recording that caught Peggy Lee’s fancy. (7) (The recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” by Lil Green can be accessed by clicking on the link at endnote 7 below.)

“When Peggy Lee was traveling with the Goodman band on its various tours, she spent much of her time on the band bus (and in her dressing rooms) listening to records on the wind-up portable she called ‘my road-runner phonograph.’ In addition to favorite selections by Ravel, Debussy and Tchaikovsky, she loved a record that had been given to her by Goodman trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell. It was by Lil Green, a singer little known by the general public but cherished by blues lovers, and it was called ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ ”  

On theater dates, …”Benny (whose dressing room was next to Peggy’s) used to hear me playing it all the time,” she said. “So one day he came into my dressing room and said: ‘you really like that, don’t you?’ I was rather shy and uncertain then, so I asked him if it bothered him. He said, ‘Oh no. But would you like it if we made an arrangement of it for you?’ Of course I wanted it, so he had Mel Powell write it.” (8)

Peggy Lee sings at an outdoor concert in Hartford, Connecticut on May 12, 1942 with Benny Goodman’s band. BG is standing to her left. The tenor saxophonist is Vido Musso; the guitarist, Tommy Morganelli. The alto saxophonist is either Sol Kane or Bud Shiffman. The hand with the drumstick probably belonged to Alvin Stoller.

This performance starts with an attention-getting eight-bar introduction that features the saxophones, punctuated by brief open brass bursts, and then a unified ensemble. The first twelve-bar chorus opens, after BG plays a downward figure in the break between the introduction and the first chorus, with the saxophones in their lower register playing the melody, but this time with Benny adding his clarinet to the reed mixture. The contrasting sounds are made by straight-muted brass.

Ms. Lee begins singing the first of her three blues choruses with a sassy and brassy attitude that contrasted with her cool Scandinavian heritage physiognomy. This was something that audiences, both in-person and for radio broadcasts and records (and in a Hollywood film), found most attractive. The backing she gets is simple: harmonic pads from the reeds; a bit of muted trumpets and open trombones. Benny once again fills in the break between choruses.

The ensemble perks up for the next sequence with the brass now open. Mel Powell scored this in the tried-and-true Fletcher Henderson call-and-response mode, building the dynamic level of the music as a dramatic prelude heralding the arrival of the King of Swing. Benny’s playing in front of the band here starts out in his high register generating plenty of voltage. He works his way down and then back up again, and finishes with two identical one-bar breaks that show him employing quasi-squeaks to heighten the musical tension even more.

The last chorus has Ms. Lee returning, but this time with Jimmy Maxwell adding a piquant obbligato on his plunger-muted trumpet behind her.

All of the elements that make up this performance fall together perfectly to create an exciting and memorable recording.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. NOTE: This is a composite recording comprised of segments from three separate takes of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

Notes and links:

(1) The tenor saxophonist John Haley “Zoot” Sims (1925-1985) began his career as a big band sideman in the very early 1940s in bands led by Kenny Baker, Bobby Sherwood, Sonny Dunham and Bob Astor. His first tenure as a regular member of Benny Goodman’s band occurred in 1943. Thereafter, Zoot Sims played frequently with Benny Goodman over the next thirty years. It is certainly possible that he subbed into the BG band before 1943 on one or more occasions before joining as a regular member. Various discographies list “Leonard Sims” as being present on the July 27, 1942 recording session that produced “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Leonard Sims may well be another musician. However, unless I receive evidence of that, I am going to make the assertion that John Haley “Zoot” Sims was the tenor saxophonist on that session.

(1A) The basic information about Peggy Lee’s early life comes from the Wikipedia post on her.

(2) The story of Helen Forrest leaving Benny Goodman’s band can be found here: https://swingandbeyond.com/2020/05/08/when-the-sun-comes-out-and-this-is-new-1941-benny-goodman-with-helen-forrest/

(3) Swing, Swing, Swing …The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone (1993), 302-303.

(4) Ibid. 302.

(5) Here is a link to the performance by Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” from the United Artists film Stage Door Canteen. This sequence was filmed in December of 1942 at either the Astoria, Queens, New York studio that was used by Paramount, or the Brooklyn studio that was used by Warner Brothers.  https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1145803005758678

(6) Here is a link to the Harlem Hamfats recording of “Weed Smoker’s Dream”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uyjW8FTGxbI

(7) Here is a link to Lil Green’s recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IRjvxllQMFw

(8) Giants of Jazz …Benny Goodman, notes on the music by George T. Simon (1979), 46.

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