A Hercule Poirot play, by Agatha Christie. When Ms. Christie's agent saw the script of the play, in the summer of 1929, he told her that the play was not good enough to be staged. She ignored his "constructive criticism" and the play was first staged at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, London. The play was well received by the viewing public and moved a year later to London's West End, where it ran for several months at St. Martin's Theatre. Hercule Poirot was played by Francis L. Sullivan, and his sidekick, Captain Hastings, was played by Roland Culver.

The film version of Black Coffee was released in 1931, with Austin Trevor in the role of Hercule Poirot.

In 1997, Charles Osborne, who had once played Dr. Carelli in a stage production of Black Coffee, convinced Agatha Christie's estate to allow him to craft the play into novel format, essentially producing a "new" Agatha Christie novel 20 years after her death.

The plot of the play is, as mysteries go, basic. A scientist who works on chemical devices (remember, this play was released in 1929, before the advent of nuclear warfare) suspects someone in his household is trying to steal his work. He calls Poirot to come to his estate outside of London. Before Poirot arrives, the scientist is killed when someone slips poison into his black coffee. Wackiness ensues, red herrings abound, and the killer is discovered before the end of the play. As usual, it is one of the last people to suspect, which means the killer should be obvious to spot. Black Coffee is an interesting work and if you are a fan of mysteries, quite a good story.

A more complete version of the song:

The recording on which this is based is sung by Ella Fitzgerald, on an album called Two Sides of Ella. The song was written by Paul Francis Webster and Reginald Burke. I don't know when it was written; the earliest recording I could find was from 1938.

It's a ballad and can be found, among other places, in "The New Real Book, vol. 2" (Sher Music co.). Singers who have recorded this song include: Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Diane Shuur, Janis Siegel, Sarah Vaughan, and Roseanna Vitro.

I'm feeling mighty lonesome
Haven't slept a wink
I walk the floor and watch the door
And in between I drink
Black Coffee
Love's a hand me down brew
I'll never know a Sunday
In this weekday room

I'm talking to the shadows
1 o'clock to 4
And Lord, how slow the moments go
When all I do is pour
Black Coffee
Since the blues caught my eye
I'm hanging out on Monday
My Sunday dream's too dry

Now a man is born to go a lovin'
A woman's born to weep and fret
To stay at home and tend her oven
And drown her past regrets
In coffee and cigarettes

I'm moody all the morning
Mourning all the night
And in between it's nicotine
And not much hard to fight
Black Coffee
Feelin' low as the ground
It's driving me crazy just waiting for my baby
To maybe come around

My nerves have gone to pieces
My hair is turning gray
All I do is drink black coffee
Since my man's gone away

Peggy Lee, Vocals

Original Release: Decca 78 (No. 5482 - April, 1953)
Decca LP Release: (No. 8358) adds 4 more songs (April, 1956)
Verve Remastered CD: (No. B000309302 - April, 2004)

Pop sensation Peggy Lee had cut quite a few hit singles and albums for Capitol when she finally called it quits. A&R man Milt Gabler lured her over to the Decca label in 1952 where she immediately started producing even better hit material. 1952's single "Lover" a Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart standard (the b-side was "You Go To My Head") rose to the top of the charts and stayed awhile. Lee's delivery was sultry, her voice distinctive, she oozed sexuality from every pore. She established herself as a distinctive, attractive standout in the crowd of female jazz and pop singers who were popping up all over the place at the time.

When Lee came up with the idea for a concept album, a jazz album, Decca bet some big bucks on it - and won. So successful was the original 78 rpm release, Lee and friends went back into the studio to record four more songs for a 1956 re-release on the new LP format.

The album art, which displays a copper coffee pot for one, a demitasse cup full of the title liquid, complete with cream and sugar set, looks more like it belongs on a box of fancy cookies than on a record album. The photography's innocence belies the sexy sizzle and adult longing that goes on on the records contained inside the jacket.

Lee's delivery on the title song, with sparse background assistance, conjures more the lonely, jilted lover. She could be sitting in her kitchen brewing pot after pot and chain-smoking. It's up to the listener's imagination whether or not this poor dame hits the gin after the clock strikes twelve noon. The combination of Lee's voice and the moaning of Pete Candoli's trumpet make for a head-turning blues that's just the beginning of this emotional roller-coaster.

One hard-boiled reviewer pooh-poohed the idea that this was a concept album, if only for the fact that she goes upbeat on two or three of the dozen tunes on the album. Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" is perky and up-tempo. So is Rogers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and Walt Donaldson and Gus Kahn's "Love Me or Leave Me." The rest, however, can be construed as a woman on the skids, crying to anyone who'll listen about the bad hand love's dealt her. But no whining here. She just purrs and overflows with emotion.

There's a little argument over why she included the then-risque "My Heart Belongs To Daddy," another great Porter tune, in this collection. But for whatever the reason it's executed in good taste, without the pyrotechnics of Eartha Kitt, who'd do it in her "sex kitten" mode years later and make a big hit with it.

The slow tunes are bluesy and smoky. Jay Gorney and Sidney Clare's "You're My Thrill" is performed in such a slow tempo it immediately evokes the style of Shirley Horn; but Lee's perfect timing keeps the listener's interest.

The uptempo songs are the stuff Lee was famous for. She swings hard on all of them, and despite the content of the lyric seems to be somehow audibly "winking" at the listener, re-assuring them she's having a ball with this fine material.

What's incredible about Verve Records' digital re-master of this record is the sound quality. Even though the original masters pre-date the high-fidelity which came on the scene in 1957 with the advent of the Ampex 1" tape recorder, the sound is absolutely impeccable. Every nuance of Lee's voice, then arguably at its best (she was a smoker) is captured, as well as the dynamics of the piano, the sharp clarity of the trumpet, and the distinctive tones of the vibraphone, used on some cuts.

Which brings us to the instrumentation. Lee, originally a big band singer, adapted a minimalist attitude for this album, orchestrating only with a small combo consisting mostly of her favorite players from records past. The album's arranged beautifully, and to add anything would just be gilding the lily. Some fans of female jazz vocalists say that in a perfect worls, it would've been Billie Holiday singing the songs on this album. But it was not to be. Holiday's 1958 Lady In Satin with Ray Ellis and his Orchestra was a concept album as well, but was too far ahead of its time (and Holiday too distracted by her demons) for it to be appreciated until its own re-release, before the re-release of this album.

Track List

"Black Coffee" (Paul Francis Webster / Sonny Burke) /" I've Got You Under My Skin" (Cole Porter) / "Easy Living" (Leo Robin / Ralph Rainger) / "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (Cole Porter) / "It Ain't Necessarily So" (George Gershwin / Ira Gershwin / DuBose Heyward) / "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" (Don Redman / Andy Razaf) / "A Woman Alone with the Blues" (uncredited) / "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" (Richard Rodgers / Lorenz Hart) / "When the World Was Young" (Johnny Mercer / M.Philippe) / "Love Me or Leave Me" (Walter Donaldson / Gus Kahn) / "You're My Thrill" (Jay Gorney / Sidney Clare) / "There's a Small Hotel" (Richard Rodgers / Lorenz Hart)

A Note About Some of the Songs

This album contains "I've Got You Under My Skin," which Frank Sinatra made "his own" after hitting the top of the charts with it, before this album was cut.

"Black Coffee" was recorded by no fewer than thirty singers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Maria Muldaur, Sarah Vaughan, Ray Charles, and even k.d. Lang.

Amazingly, "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" tops treatments by others with 53 artists including Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Vaughan, Carmen McRae and others.


  • All Music Guide http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=10:d9fyxq8sldte~T0 (accessed 7/14/07)
  • Website of ASCAP, ACE Search utility http://www.ascap.com/ace/search.cfm?requesttimeout=300 (accessed 7/14/07)
  • Peggy Lee Official Fan Site http://www.peggylee.com (accessed 7/14/07)
  • Verve Records http://www.vervemusicgroup.com/product.aspx?ob=prd&src=list&pid=11085 (accessed 7/14/07)

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