Singer, songwriter, composer, actress
With her soft, rhythmic voice and purring sensuality, singer Peggy Lee has been intriguing audiences for more than half a century. Beginning as a vocalist with Benny Goodman’s band in the early 1940s, she learned to sing everything from swing to blues, using her voice like an instrument—always with an emphasis on the beat. Considered one of the most jazz-oriented vocalists in popular music, Lee “swings as intensely and eccentrically as Billie Holiday,” observed Witney Balliett in the New Yorker. Yet “she is a stripped-note singer,” added the critic; she “keeps her vibrato spare and her volume low [and]… avoids long notes and glissandos.” Balliett concluded that, unlike the many vocalists who “confuse shouting with emotion,… Lee sends her feelings down the quiet center of her notes.” In a similar assessment, People interviewer J. D. Reed quoted an unnamed critic who wrote of Lee’s silky stylings: “Never has so much been delivered from so little.”
Lee was born Norma Dolores Egstrom in a North Dakota farm town in 1920. Raised by a stepmother who was abusive, Norma at least found approval when singing with the church choir or the high school glee club. She headed for Hollywood immediately after graduation to pursue a professional singing career, but after limited success she decided to try her luck a little closer to home. She found work as a singer with the Fargo, North Dakota, radio station, WDAY, where the program director renamed her Peggy Lee. Singing stints with bands led by Jack Wardlaw and Will Osborne brought Lee further recognition, and she began to appear in some major clubs. It was while performing at the Doll House, a noisy Palm Springs, California, jazz spot, that the vocalist forged her quiet, cool style: unable to sing above the din, she softened her voice, which resulted in riveting the audience. “I’ve been easy on my voice.… That’s why I’m still around,” Lee reflected in her 1984 interview with Reed. “Vocal chords wear out. Besides, if you shout, you can’t converse with your audience, and that’s what I do best.”
Soon after the Doll House stint, swing bandleader Goodman discovered Lee while she was performing at Chicago’s Buttery Room. Replacing singer Helen Forrest, Lee joined the ensemble in 1941, touring the United States when the band was at its peak of popularity. In 1942 she recorded her first big hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” a song that sold more than one million copies and launched her into stardom. Though she left the band the following year—to marry Goodman guitarist Dave Barbour and start a family—Lee deemed her two years with the group invaluable, for she learned the importance of practice, discipline, and the interplay between singer and musician. During that time Lee also began to cultivate the seeds that would germinate
Born Norma Delores Egstrom, May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, ND; daughter of Marvin (a railroad station agent) and Selma (Anderson) Egstrom; married Dave Barbour (a guitarist and songwriter), 1943 (divorced, 1951); married Brad Dexter (an actor), January 4, 1955 (divorced, 1955); married Dewey Martin (an actor), April 25, 1956 (divorced, 1959); fourth marriage ended in divorce; children: (first marriage) Nicki Lee Foster.
Began singing in school glee clubs and with church choir; worked as a waitress, carnival concessionaire, and bakery help while trying to launch career as vocalist; sang as Freckle-Faced Gertie on “Hayloft Jamboree,” WDAY-radio, Fargo, ND; vocalist at clubs in Hollywood, CA, Minneapolis, MN, and Chicago, IL, and with bands like Jack Wardlaw’s and Will Osbome’s; singer with Benny Goodman’s band, 1941-43, touring nationally and performing on radio; recording artist, 1942—; songwriter, early 1940s—; film actress, 1950-55. Concert and club solo performer, touring the United States and abroad.
Film appearances include Mr. Music, 1950, The Jazz Singer, 1953, and Pete Kelly’s Blues, 1955; frequent television performer; star of Broadway musical autobiography Peg, 1983. Involved in music publishing and film and television production.
Awards: Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress, 1955, for Pete Kelly’s Blues; two Grammy awards, both 1969, for “Is That All There Is?”; Aggie Award, Songwriters Guild, 1986.
into her second major career, that of songwriter. Sitting on the stage in her chair, waiting for her vocals with the band, she started to compose and form lyrics in her head.
Lee began her long association with Capitol Records in 1944, writing many of her songs with husband Barbour. Their numerous hits include “It’s a Good Day” and “Manana,” which sold more than two million copies; Lee also collaborated with such composing talents as Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Sonny Burke, and Victor Young. In addition, she supplied music and lyrics for motion pictures; her work included the theme music for Johnny Guitar and lyrics and several voices for the 1955 Disney animated classic Lady and the Tramp. (In 1991 the performer was awarded 3.8 million dollars as her share of the enormous profits the movie has earned in video-cassette sales, a decision that has other Disney vocal talents rushing to file suit.) Lee also had a brief but distinguished acting career in the early 1950s, her performance as an alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues earning her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in 1955. “I loved acting, but my agents never brought me another script,” she recalled for Reed. “I was worth a lot more to them on the road.”
Indeed, it was Lee’s singular singing that ensured her legendary status. Her rhythmic croonings of tunes like “Lover,” “Fever,” and “Is That All There Is?”—which won her two Grammys in 1969—made such songs instantly identifiable with her. By 1960 Lee was considered a female equivalent of superstar Frank Sinatra; playing before sell-out crowds at home and abroad, she counted among her fans such twentieth-century luminaries as Albert Einstein and author Aldous Huxley. Also as prolific as Sinatra (by the mid-1980s she had recorded 59 albums and 631 numbers), Lee has always endeavored to remain musically current, performing the songs of contemporary composers or collaborating with them. Still, in these contemporary pieces the singer looks for the “haunting melodies and engaging word-pictures” that she was “trained to appreciate,” according to Eliot Tiegel in Down Beat; these are qualities that, in Lee’s words, make an audience “walk away humming.”
Along with her meticulously chosen repertoire, Lee plans her performances with exacting precision. For decades she has detailed every appearance in a notebook: from lighting and props to the weather, her elaborate costumes, and the color of her nail polish. She even devises the arch of an eyebrow, a laugh, or the flip of a hand; eschewing the improvisatory nature of jazz, she plots every note. The result of this carefully crafted stage persona has been considered dazzling—and a bit larger than life. Lee’s driving perfectionism has been blamed in part for the ill health that has plagued her most of her life. A diabetic, she was hospitalized for pneumonia in 1958 and 1961 and for a time had to travel from club to club with a respirator. Four failed marriages and a near-fatal fall in 1967 that left her temporarily blind, partially deaf, and unable to stand compounds her list of travails. (She recounted these personal tragedies in the musical autobiography Peg, which struggled on Broadway in 1983.) Limiting her performances in the early 1990s to a few club dates and recording sessions, Lee is being rediscovered by a new generation of listeners and appreciated anew by performers like Elvis Costello and k.d. lang. Discussing Lee’s 1980 album Close Enough for Love in Stereo Review, Peter Reilly stated that her style is “still one of the seven wonders of the world of popular entertainment.” Seconding that sentiment in a Stereo Review critique of the vocalist’s 1990 album There’ll Be Another Spring, Roy Hemming wrote, “Lee sings with the same kind of sparkle, lilt, and sexily purring style that have been her trademarks for some five decades.”
Softly, With Feeling (verse), 1953.
Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography, D. I. Fine, 1989.
Has written and co-written numerous songs, including “It’s a Good Day,” “Manana,” “Where Can I Go Without You,” and “Fever”; collaborators have included Dave Barbour, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, and Paul McCartney. Composer of theme music for motion pictures Johnny Guitar and About Mrs. Leslie, both 1954; and of musical scores for cartoon features Tom Thumb and The Time Machine, both 1960. Contributed lyrics to Disney feature Lady and the Tramp, 1955; contributor to score of stage musical Peg, 1983.
Peggy Lee With David Barbour and Billy Jay Bands, 1948, Hindsight, 1985.
Peggy Lee Sings With Benny Goodman, Columbia, 1988.
Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues, Musicmasters, 1988.
Miss Peggy Lee (reissue), Columbia, 1988.
Mirrors (reissue), A&M, 1989.
All-Time Greatest Hits, Volume 1, Curb/CEMA, 1990.
Peggy Lee, Volume 1: The Early Years, Capitol, 1990.
(With George Shearing) Beauty and the Beat!, Capitol Jazz, 1992.
Close Enough for Love, DRG.
You Can Depend on Me, Glendale.
The Best of Peggy Lee, MCA.
Peggy Lee: Collector’s Series, Capitol.
Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring, Music-masters.
Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
Lee, Peggy, Miss Peggy Lee, Berkley, 1989.
Simon, George T., and others, The Best of the Music Makers, Doubleday, 1979.
Down Beat, June 1990.
New York, December 26, 1983.
New Yorker, August 5, 1985; July 18, 1988.
People, January 9, 1984; October 1, 1990; April 8, 1991.
Stereo Review, May 1980; September 1982; December 1988; July 1990.
Time, April 1, 1991.