Lee, Peggy (originally, Egstrom, Norma Delores)

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Lee, Peggy (originally, Egstrom, Norma Delores)

Lee, Peggy (originally, Egstrom, Norma Delores), American singer, songwriter, and actress; b. Jamestown, N.Dak., May 26, 1920. Lee’s small, carefully employed voice and sometimes arch phrasing allowed her to bridge musical styles from the Swing Era to the Rock Era; she began scoring hits while singing with Benny Goodman, notably “Why Don’t You Do Right” cowrote some of her own novelty hits during her commercial peak in the late 1940s, among them “Mantildeana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” and continued to perform successfully for the next 50 years, scoring occasional hits such as “Lover,” “Fever,” and “Is That All There Is.”

Lee’s father, Marvin Olaf Egstrom, was a station agent at a railroad depot; her mother, Selma Emele Anderson Egstrom, died when she was a child. By the age of 14 she was singing with a local band and on local radio, and after graduating from high school she continued performing on radio and with territory bands in the Upper Midwest and in Calif. In 1941 she had an engagement at a hotel in Chicago, where she was seen by Benny Goodman, who hired her in August.

Lee’s first chart record came with Goodman’s recording of “Blues in the Night” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer) in February 1942. She also sang on the Goodman revival of the 1937 song “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” (music and lyrics by Dick Howard, Russ Morgan, and Bob Elsworth), which reached the charts in March 1942 and hit the Top Ten. Goodman’s cover of “Why Don’t You Do Right” (music and lyrics by Joe McCoy), with a Lee vocal, charted in January 1943, becoming a Top Ten hit. Lee appeared with Goodman in the films The Powers Girl (January 1943) and Stage Door Canteen (June 1943), but she left his band in March 1943 and married guitarist David Michael Barbour, temporarily retiring from show business. She bore a daughter, but was lured back to music by Capitol Records, which signed her to a contract in 1945.

Lee reached the charts for the first time as a solo artist with “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In” (music and lyrics by Sunny Skylar and Martin Block); it peaked in the Top Ten in December 1945. In June 1946 she began to appear on the weekly network radio series Rhapsody in Rhythm, remaining with the show until September 1947; during this period she also appeared on the show Meet Me at Parky’’s. Her next hit came with a song she wrote with her husband, “I Don’t Know Enough about You”: it peaked in the Top Ten in July 1946. Her recording of “It’s All Over Now” (music and lyrics by Sunny Skylar and Don Marcotte) reached the Top Ten in November 1946, and she returned to the Top Ten with “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep)” (music and lyrics by Mack David, Jerry Livingston, and Al Hoffman) in July 1947. That month she began hosting the network radio show The Electric Hour Summer Series, remaining with it through the end of August, then becoming the featured singer on The Jimmy Durante Show during the 1947-48 season.

Lee’s next hit, “Golden Earrings” (music by Victor Young, lyrics by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans), peaked in the Top Ten in January 1948. She scored five more chart hits during the year, making her second only to The Andrews Sisters as the year’s most successful recording artist. In March she hit #1 with the million-seller “Manana (Is SoonEnough for Me),” another song she had written with her husband. The same month Capitol released her first album, Rendezvous with Peggy Lee, which hit the Top Ten.

During 1948, Lee began substituting for Jo Stafford on one night of the five- nights-a-week musical variety radio series Chesterfield Supper Club. For the 1949-50 season the show broadcast once a week, with Lee as the hostess. She reached the singles charts four times in 1949, enjoying greatest success with her cover of “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” (music and lyrics by Stan Jones), which peaked in the Top Ten in June. She was back in the Top Ten in January 1950 with “The Old Master Painter” (music by Beasley Smith, lyrics by Haven Gillespie), a duet with Mel Tormeacute. She made her third film appearance in Mr. Music in December 1950.

Increasingly, Lee turned to nightclub work, making her N.Y. club debut at the Copacabana in March 1951. During the summer of 1951 she had her own weekly network radio series, The Peggy Lee Show, and she and Mel Torme cohosted a three-times-a-week, 15-minute musical program on network television, TV’s Top Tunes. She also spent a few months as a regular on the TV series Songs for Sale starting in December 1951. She and David Barbour divorced that year.

Lee left Capitol Records and signed to Decca in 1952. For the new label she recorded an unusual arrangement of the 1932 Richard Rodger s and Lorenz Hart song “Lover” the record reached the Top Ten in July. In January 1953 she essayed her first screen acting role in a remake of The Jazz Singer, also singing a song she had written. This was the first of nine feature films that would use her compositions. That same month she married actor Brad Dexter, from whom she was divorced before the end of the year. She did not appear in the film White Christmas, released in October 1954, but since Rosemary Clooney, who did, was contracted to another record company, Lee accompanied Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye on an album of songs from the film that made the Top Ten in early 1955. Her voice and her songs, written with Sonny Burke, were used in the animated feature Lady and the Tramp, released in June 1955, and she appeared in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues, released in August 1955, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and sharing the Top Ten album Songs from Pete Kelly’s Blues with Ella Fitzgerald.

Lee scored her first Top 40 hit in four years with “Mr. Wonderful” (music and lyrics by Jerry Bock, Larry Holofcener, and George David Weiss) in March 1956; the record reached the Top Ten in the U.K. In April she married actor Dewey Martin; they divorced in June 1959. Lee returned to Capitol Records in 1957 and began focusing on the album market, reaching the charts with the Nelson Riddle-arranged LPs The Man I Love in July 1957 and Jump for Joy in July 1958. But she also enjoyed a surprise Top Ten hit, as her drastically rearranged version of John Davenport and Eddie Cooley’s 1956 song “Fever,” for which she wrote several new verses, reached the Top Ten in August 1958. It earned nominations for Record of the Year and Best Vocal Performance, Female, at the first Grammy ceremony.

Lee next reached the charts with her Things Are Swingin’ LP in December 1958; it featured the chart single “Alright, Okay, You Win” (music and lyrics by Sid Wyche), and that song brought her another Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Performance, Female. Her last chart album of the 1950s was Beauty and the Beat!, a live LP on which she was accompanied by George Shearing and his quintet. During this period she appeared regularly in prestigious nightclubs in major cities as well as shows in Las Vegas, and made occasional television appearances in both singing and acting roles. Two of her 1960 albums, Latin à la Lee! (January) and Pretty Eyes (July), made it big, with the former staying in the charts more than a year and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Performance, Album, Female. “Heart” (music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross), a chart single drawn from Latin à la Lee!, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Vocal Performance by a Pop Single Artist, and Lee’s single “I’m Gonna Go Fishin”’ (music by Duke Ellington, lyrics by Lee), from the film Anatomy of a Murder, was a Grammy nominee for Best Vocal Performance, Single Record or Track, Female.

Lee began 1961 by recording a live album at Basin Street East, the club she played regularly in N.Y. The Basin Street East LP, released in May, spent five months in the charts and earned her seventh Grammy nomination for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female. She made her first tour of Europe during the year. In 1962 she charted with both the compilation album Bewitching-Lee!, which contained recordings from the 1940s, and the newly recorded Sugar ’n’ Spice. At the end of the year she released the single “I’m a Woman” (music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), which reached the charts and earned another Grammy nomination for Best Solo Vocal Performance, Female. During 1963 she charted with an I’m a Woman album (also a Grammy nominee for Best Vocal Performance, Female) and with the LP Mink Jazz. In February 1964 she married percussionist Jack Del Rio, from whom she was divorced within months.

While she continued to perform in the mid-1960s, Lee saw her record sales fall off, though she charted with the LPs In the Name of Love (1964), Pass Me By (1965), and Big Spender (1966), reaching the Top Ten of the easy-listening charts with the title song (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) from the last. She scored a considerable comeback on records with “Is That All There Is” (music and lyrics by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller), which topped the easy-listening charts in October 1969 and reached the pop Top Ten, winning her first Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female. An album titled after the single reached the charts, as did her next two albums, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Make It with You, both released in 1970.

The concept album Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota, released in June 1972, was Lee’s final chart album and final recording for Capitol. She continued to tour extensively and to guest-star in singing and acting roles on television, notably costarring with Anthony Quinn in the TV movie A Man and a Womanin 1972. Her next two albums, Let’s Love (October 1974), with a title song written for her by Paul McCartney, and Mirrors (November 1975), containing specially written songs by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, were major-label releases, but neither charted. Thereafter, she occasionally made records for small labels.

In October 1976, Lee was injured in a fall while appearing at the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel in N.Y. and sidelined for a couple of years. In December 1983 she wrote the book and the lyrics for the autobiographical Broadway revue Peg, in which she starred; it ran only five performances. She underwent heart surgery in October 1985 and spent years recovering. In 1988 she released a new album, Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues, and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female. Her 1990 album of her own songs, The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring, earned another Grammy nomination in the same category.

Lee continued to perform in the 1990s, frequently in a wheelchair. She recorded her last full-length album, Moments Like This, in September 1992, and it was released in 1993. In the summer of 1997 she appeared at Carnegie Hall in N.Y. as part of the JVC Jazz Festival. She suffered a stroke on Oct. 27, 1998.


(only works for which Lee was a credited, primary songwriter are listed): film:Lady and the Tramp (1955). musical:Peg (N.Y., Dec. 14, 1983).


Softly, with Feeling (1953); Miss P. L•: An Autobiography (N.Y., 1989).


R. Towe, Here’s to You: The Complete Bio- Discography of Miss PL. (1986).

—William Ruhlmann

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Lee, Peggy (originally, Egstrom, Norma Delores)

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