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Peggy Lee: 1920-2002
Peggy Lee
Singer, songwriter, actress

Born: May 26, 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota
Died: January 21, 2002 in Bel Air, California

Cool and Sultry Star of Jazz and Pop

Copyright © 2002 

The Scotsman


Peggy Lee was best known for her massive hits with ‘Fever’ and ‘Is That All There Is?’, which won her a Grammy award in 1969. Her cool, sultry vocal style lent itself equally well to both pop and jazz settings, and she said in interviews over the years that she considered herself to be an interpreter of songs rather than a jazz singer.

She emerged to wide notice with the Benny Goodman Big Band in 1941, just as a new style of popular singing was about to sweep the country. It was natural, conversational, often spontaneous, and made international stars of its major practitioners, while the adulation heaped upon the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby created the mould for successive generations of teenage pop hysteria.

Peggy Lee became a major star in that form, but also made her mark in several other fields. She was born Norma Dolores Egstrom in the small town of Jamestown, and endured a harsh childhood at the hands of her stepmother, who regularly beat her, a traumatic upbringing which she recounted frankly in her autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee (1990).

She began her singing career as a teenager in Fargo, North Dakota, where she was featured on the local radio station, but her first attempt to break into a wider market in California ended in failure when she had to quit an exploitative job at The Jade Club in Hollywood and return to Dakota for a throat operation.

Undeterred, she resumed singing in Fargo, then in Palm Springs and Chicago. It was during the latter engagement at a hotel in the city that Benny Goodman heard her sing, and recruited her as a replacement for Helen Forrest, who was about to leave the band.

Her initial baptism as a replacement for the popular Forrest was a rough one, not helped, as she has acknowledged, by the fact that she was “scared to death”. She tried to leave the band on several occasions in the early months of her engagment, but Goodman prevented her from doing so, and was proved correct in his assessment of her talent.

She made her first recordings with the band in 1941, and sang on hits like ‘Blues In The Night’ and ‘Somebody Else Is Taking My Place’ in 1942 and ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?’ the following year. The singer also made her screen debut with the band in two films, The Powers Girl (1942) and Stage Door Canteen (1943).

In 1943, she married the band’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, and gave up singing for a time, but was tempted back into the recording studio by record executive Dave Dexter at Capitol Records in 1945. The sides she cut were very successful, and she found her career firmly underway again. She established a song-writing partnership with the guitarist which produced several hit songs, notably ‘Manana’ in 1948. Barbour also acted as musical director of her bands for a time, until they were divorced in 1951.

She recorded regularly for Capitol until 1952, and then for Decca until 1956, before rejoining Capitol again. In the process, she racked up a succession of hit records, from ‘Waitin’ For The Train To Come In’ in 1945 through to her most famous record, her sultry version of Little Willie John’s ‘Fever’, in 1958, as well as duets with Bing Crosby and Mel Torme.

She made notable albums with George Shearing, Quincy Jones and Benny Carter In the early 1960s, and had another chart success with her interpretation of ‘Is That All There Is?’ in 1969.

Her approach and her choice of material encompassed elements drawn from both jazz and pop singing, and if she made only limited use of jazz phrasing or improvisation, she had a natural sense of swing which carried her through any jazz-based setting with cool aplomb.

She possessed a refined musical intelligence, and if her voice was not a big one, it was deceptively rich, and she knew how to make the most of its qualities, especially on ballads. It proved to be an ideal vehicle for the confessional intimacy of the new style, while still capable of rising to the more strident challenge of songs like ‘I’m A Woman’.

That musicianly approach was reflected in her songwriting as well as her singing, an activity which was important to her. She amassed a considerable number of composing credits over the years, including collaborating with Sonny Burke on the film score for Disney’s The Lady and The Tramp in 1952, in which her voice is also featured. Her song-writing partners included Duke Ellington, Victor Young, Cy Coleman and Quincy Jones.

Her career as an actress had to fit around her musical one, but included a role in the re-make of The Jazz Singer in 1952, and an Oscar-nominated performance as a singer undergoing a breakdown in Pete Kelly’s Blues, her finest achievement on screen. She made no more films thereafter, but appeared in numerous television dramas in the 1960s, and into the 1970s.

She continued to record and perform in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, including an intriguing album of rare songs by Harold Arlen entitled Love Held Lightly in 1988, although her health eventually forced her to sing from a seated position on stage.

A diabetic, she suffered from serious health problems from the 1970s onward, including strokes and by-pass surgery. It was while laid up in hospital recovering from that operation that she decided to write her autobiography.

With typical determination, she resisted considerable pressures from her publisher to use a ghost writer, insisting that no one was better qualified than she to tell her story. She emerged from that account of her life as an incredibly resilient woman, and given the difficulties of her childhood and often troubled personal life, and her late ill-health, a surprisingly happy and fulfilled one.

She was married four times, and is survived by her daughter, Nikki Lee Foster; grandchildren David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells, and Michael Foster; and three great-grandchildren.

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With 1 reader comment, posted February 19, 2006