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Lee, Peggylocked

(26 May 1920–21 January 2002)
  • Bruce J. Evensen

Peggy Lee.

c. 1950. A studio publicity photograph.

Lee, Peggy (26 May 1920–21 January 2002), jazz and pop singer, songwriter, and actress, was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, the seventh of eight children of Marvin Olaf Egstrom, a railroad station agent, and Selma Emele Anderson Egstrom. Both her parents were of Scandinavian descent. The town in which the Egstroms lived was small, boasting a population of sixty-six hundred, and located where the Midland Continental Railroad crossed the James River. Norma’s mother died when she was four years old. That December their house burned down. Within a year Norma’s father remarried. Beatings from stepmother Min resulted in bruises and cuts. A leather razor strap left a scar on one side of her face. The older children ran away, leaving seven-year-old Norma to keep house. At age ten Norma cooked, cleaned, milked cows, butchered farm animals, and did the wash. She barely survived a ruptured appendix. She started singing in the Lutheran church and, at the age of fourteen, in neighboring Valley City for the radio station KOVC. She toured locally with Doc Haines and His Orchestra for fifty cents a night. At age sixteen she was singing on KRMC and working in the Gladstone Hotel coffee shop. Ken Kennedy at WDAY in Fargo changed her name to Peggy Lee, where she made $1.50 a day on the Noonday Variety Show.

Lee arrived in Los Angeles in 1937 with eighteen dollars she had saved. She wrangled a job as a girl singer at the Jade for two dollars a night. Her act caught on and her salary was upped to thirty dollars a week. She needed a tonsillectomy and returned to North Dakota, where surgery left her voice huskier than ever. Eighteen-year-old Lee then sang at Fargo’s Powers Hotel for fifteen dollars a week and later with Sev Olson’s band over KSTP in Minneapolis. In November 1939 she joined Will Osborne’s band and sang a Christmas 1939 engagement at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri. Lee learned the power of singing softly at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. By May 1941 she had signed with the William Morris Agency and was working at the Buttery in Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, where she earned seventy-five dollars a week plus room service.

Benny Goodman discovered Lee in mid-August 1941 at the Buttery and hired her to replace his girl singer Helen Forrest. Her first nationwide broadcast with the band was on 21 August. Lee’s version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” was broadcast over CBS Radio on 16 September. She recorded the tune nine days later in a singing style that was a “blurring of the barrier between song and the spoken word” (Richmond, p. 98), a pattern repeated in her 2 October recording of Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” During the week of 15 November 1941, Lee’s version of the Ellington classic made Billboard’s top hits chart, a string she continued for thirty-three years.

A five-month booking in the Terrace Room of the Hotel New Yorker proved a tour de force for Lee and the Goodman band. An 8 October recording of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” followed by a 13 November interpretation of George Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” drew critical acclaim. Lee’s intimate and minimalist vocals helped make instant hits of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night” and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Where or When,” both recorded on Christmas Eve by the Benny Goodman Sextet. “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” was recorded in January 1942 and became the new year’s first big hit. Goodman recorded forty songs during his five months in New York and Lee, a rising star in the pop world, sang nearly two-thirds of them.

Lee had a keen ear for material that suited her talents. When she heard the vocalist Lil Green’s version of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” an updating of Kansas Joe McCoy’s “The Weed Smoker’s Dream,” she urged Goodman to do an arrangement that suited her and the band. The Columbia recording, made on 27 July 1942, sold more than a million copies. Lee sang the song in the all-star film Stage Door Canteen (1943). Lee’s lament “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” spent fifteen weeks at or near the top of Billboard’s chart. Look magazine observed Lee’s “electric-blue voice” could be heard “from every juke box in America” (Richmond, p. 120).

Lee’s boyfriend, the band’s guitarist Dave Barbour, was fired for breaking Goodman’s rule about dating the band’s female singer. Lee quit the band and married Barbour on 8 March 1943. The couple settled in Los Angeles. Their daughter Nicki was born in November 1943. On 7 January 1944 Lee recorded “Ain’t Goin’ No Place” and the classic torch song “That Old Feeling” for Johnny Mercer’s Hollywood-based Capitol Records, the beginning of a long collaboration with the company. Lee broke new ground for female swing and blues singers when she wrote the lyrics and Barbour the melody for “What More Can a Woman Do?” and “You Was Right, Baby,” recorded on 27 December 1944, and sold three-quarters of a million records. Their “I Don’t Know Enough about You,” first recorded in December 1945, became one of her standards. Lee became a frequent featured guest on Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall over NBC Radio and later his Philco show on ABC Radio. The Lee-Barbour song “It’s a Good Day,” released 11 November 1946, was a huge hit, and Lee was named DownBeat’s number one female singer of 1946.

Lee charted nine songs in 1947. “Golden Earrings,” recorded 24 September 1947, peaked at number two on the Billboard chart. On the October recording of “Ja-Da,” Lee doubled on drums. Her December recording of “For Every Man There’s a Woman,” was her thirteenth hit for Capitol Records. The couple’s “Mañana,” released in January 1948, was a twenty-one-week winner on Billboard, with nine weeks at number one, earning $2.5 million. That fall she packed New York’s Paramount Theatre and made her television debut on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town (later The Ed Sullivan Show). Lee was named Billboard’s number one vocalist of 1948.

The 1950s were a period of artistic success but personal disappointment for Lee. Barbour’s alcoholism and Lee’s touring led to their divorce in 1951. Lee married the actor Brad Dexter on 4 January 1953, when she was in Hollywood making The Jazz Singer (1952). The contentious union ended in divorce on 3 November 1953. Black Coffee, her first album for Decca, was a hit. She wrote the theme song for Johnny Guitar (1954) and followed it with six songs and four voices for Walt Disney’s animated classic Lady and the Tramp (1955). She received an Academy Award nomination for her role as a boozy blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955). Her 28 April 1956 marriage to the actor Dewey Martin ended in divorce on 1 September 1958, the year the seductive “Fever,” produced at her old studio Capitol Records, became a her signature song and the first of her twelve Grammy nominations.

During the 1960s Lee played clubs, including the Basin Street East, the Copacabana, and the Empire Room of the Waldorf-Astoria (her favorites); appeared on television guest shots; continued her Capitol recordings; and battled periodic bouts of pneumonia and the growing effects of diabetes. Her February 1964 marriage to the bongo player Jack Del Rio ended in divorce a year later. “Is That All There Is?” which Lee recorded in November 1969, shot to the top of the Billboard adult contemporary chart and won Lee a Grammy for best female vocal performance.

By her mid-sixties Lee’s diabetes, heart disease, and a back injury forced her to appear onstage in a wheelchair. In 1990 the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers gave Lee its Pied Piper Award for her contribution to music. Love Held Lightly, her sixty-fourth album, was released in 1993 to critical acclaim. “The voice holds,” the New York Post reported, “only the vessel has changed” (Richmond, p. 402). The jazz critic Leonard Feather put it simply: “If you don’t feel a thrill when Peggy Lee sings, you’re dead, Jack” (New York Times, 22 Jan. 2002). The jazz historian Will Friedwald considered Lee a rare auteur whose “gifts for interpretation and rhythmic versatility” made her America’s foremost “music stylist” (Friedwald, p. 334). Lee became a lifetime achievement award recipient at the 1995 Grammys. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1999.

The arts critic John Fordham considered Lee an unsurpassed singer “of wit, sensuality, intelligence and extraordinarily expressive minimalism” (Guardian, 22 Jan. 2002). In sixty years of public performance, few approached her evocation of “love, loss, and fortitude” (USA Today, 23 Jan. 2002). Duke Ellington called Lee “the Queen.” The vocalist Sylvia Syms said no singer knew better “what an exalted thing it is to be alive” (Guardian, 22 Jan. 2002). The English jazz critic Peter Clayton considered Lee “the finest singer in the history of popular music” (Variety, 22 Jan. 2002).

A massive stroke on 27 October 1998 left Lee unable to speak. She was at her home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles when she suffered a fatal heart attack. Lee’s biographer Peter Richmond describes her as one of “the voices of our lost American innocence” with its “dreams of romance,” “of sweetness and gentleness, of longing and melancholy” (Richmond, p. 8).

Bibliography

Lee wrote Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography (1989). The official Peggy Lee website (http://www.peggylee.com) is an indispensable source of information on Lee’s career. Peter Richmond wrote a major biography, Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee (2006). Significant biographical information can be found in Ronald Towe, Here’s to You: The Complete Bio-Discography of Miss Peggy Lee (1986); Fred Hall, Dialogues in Swing: Intimate Conversations with the Stars of the Big Band Era (1989); Paul Roland, ed., Jazz Singers: The Great Song Stylists in Their Own Words (2000); and Robert Strom, Miss Peggy Lee: A Career Chronicle (2005). Important background on Lee’s career can be found in Alec Wilder, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 (1972); Henry Pleasants, The Great American Popular Singers (1974); George T. Simon, The Big Bands (1967); Gene Lees, Singers and the Song (1987); Roy Hemming and David Hajdu, Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop (1991); Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945 (1989); Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories, 1890–1954: The History of American Popular Music (1986); Will Friedwald, Jazz Singing: America’s Great Voices from Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond (1990); and Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman (1993). Obituaries, along with the ones cited in the article, include the Los Angeles Times, 23 and 25 Jan. 2002.