If you’re searching for a song that truly epitomises the magic of Christmas, then you’ll struggle to better Peggy Lee’s ‘The Tree’. There are no shortage of Peggy Lee Christmas recordings, but ‘The Tree’ stands tall among them. A joyous celebration of all things fun and festive, it’s an enduring Yuletide classic brimming with innocence and a childlike wonder that challenges the most cynical of Christmas humbugs.
During ‘The Tree’’s chorus, Lee gleefully reveals, “We’ll trim it up with shining lights for everyone to see!” And she clearly means every word. Indeed, the famous ‘Fever’ hitmaker adored the festive season and was renowned for dressing her own Christmas trees in a particularly ornate fashion.
Often erroneously referred to as merely a jazz singer, Lee will always be recalled for timeless hits such as ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’, ‘Somebody Else Is Taking My Place’ and ‘Golden Earrings’, but during her remarkable 60-year career, the versatile North Dakota native also put her indelible stamp on a selection of Christmas hits – many of which are still aired on an annual basis.
Few would argue that Peggy Lee recorded the bulk of her legend-enshrining music for Capitol Records, yet she first made her mark on the festive season during her sojourn with Decca during the mid-50s, when she sang several tracks – including ‘Sisters’ and an all-star version of the ubiquitous ‘White Christmas’, with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye – on the 1954 collection Selections From Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
One of the last 78rpm albums Decca released, Selections From… was based upon the much-loved movie White Christmas. While Lee didn’t appear in the film, she sang on the spin-off album when contractual difficulties prevented Crosby’s co-star, Rosemary Clooney, from appearing on the record.
The most enduring Peggy Lee Christmas recordings were, however, made for Capitol – most significantly for 1960’s Christmas Carousel: an inspired collection of covers and self-penned yuletide tunes arranged by Billy May (Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald) and produced by Woody Herman acolyte Dave Cavanaugh.
Surely Lee’s ultimate festive statement, Christmas Carousel includes extremely cool, jazzy versions of standards – ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’, ‘Deck The Halls’ and Mel Tormé
and Bob Wells’ ‘The Christmas Song’ (aka ‘Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)’ – but also quirky, self-penned numbers such as ‘The Christmas Tree’, the sleigh bell-assisted ‘Don’t Forget To Feed The Reindeer’ and, of course, ‘The Tree’.
Christmas Carousel is still out there on CD and through digital platforms, as is the album’s updated 1965 reissue, Happy Holiday (a slightly reworked tracklist adds Lee’s suitably nimble versions of ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’), and Capitol’s 2006 collection Peggy Lee Christmas, which also includes a poignant Yuletide tune from her later years, ‘My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year)’.
As warm as a cozy fireside, these Peggy Lee Christmas classics are delightful gifts that keep on giving.
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