Lee, Peggy (1920—)
Lee, Peggy (1920—)
American jazz stylist, songwriter, and actress, defined by Down Beat as the "greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey." Born Norma Deloris Egstrom (some sources cite Norma Jean Engstrom) in Jamestown, North Dakota, on May 26, 1920; one of seven children of Marvin Egstrom (a station agent for a railroad) and Selma Egstrom (who died when Lee was four); married David Barbour (a guitarist), in 1943 (divorced 1952); married Brad Dexter (an actor), on January 4, 1955 (divorced); married Dewey Martin (an actor), on April 25, 1956 (divorced 1959); children: (first marriage) daughter, Nicki Lee Foster .
Began singing on local radio stations in high school, then in nightclubs in Chicago and California; hired to sing with Benny Goodman's band (1941), and became nationally known after appearances on network radio, in several musical films, and a string of bestselling records; began writing songs in collaboration with first husband; also wrote partial scores for motion pictures, was nominated for Best Actress for her appearance in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), and continued an active nightclub career into the mid-1980s; suffered a stroke (October 27, 1998).
"Let's Call It a Day," "Why Don't You Do Right," "Fever," "Alright, Okay, You Win," "Hallelujah, I Love Him So," "The Best Is Yet to Come," "Is That All There Is?"
"Mañana," "Golden Earrings," "It's A Good Day," "I Don't Know Enough About You"; also wrote "We Are Siamese" and "He's a Tramp" (music and lyrics for the movie Lady and the Tramp); also wrote music for other films, including Johnny Guitar, About Mrs. Leslie, George Pal's Jack and the Beanstalk, Sharkey's Machine, The Time Machine, and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
The Powers Girl (1943); (guest singer) Stage Door Canteen (1943); Mr. Music (1950); The Jazz Singer (1953); (lyricist and character voices) Lady and the Tramp (1955); Pete Kelly's Blues (1955); (lyricist and character voice) Tom Thumb (1958); (character voice) Pieces of Dreams (1970).
Bandleader Benny Goodman found himself with a problem one day in 1941. Just before he was to open a major gig at Chicago's swank College Inn, his singer had defected to Artie Shaw, and Goodman was on the hunt for a replacement. Thus he found himself at another Chicago nightspot, The Buttery, listening to one of the candidates suggested to him, a tall, slim blonde who stepped on stage and confidently embarked on a rendition of "Those Foolish Things." Long before she was done, Goodman knew he'd need no further auditions. Peggy Lee was hired on the spot. No one was more surprised than she was. "He was just staring at me and chewing his tongue," she remembered many years later, adding that she was sure Goodman did not care for her. But that night at The Buttery a national career was launched for a singer, songwriter, and actress who, just a few years earlier, had been heard only on a local radio station in her native North Dakota.
Before singing on Valley City's KVOC, Peggy Lee had been plain Norma Egstrom from Jamestown, one of the tiny railroad towns strung out along the windswept northern plains of North Dakota. Born in 1920, she was the youngest of the seven children of Marvin and Selma Egstrom , hard-working descendants of the sturdy Scandinavians who populated the plains during the last half of the 19th century. Like almost everyone else in Jamestown, Marvin worked for the Great Northern railroad, as a depot master. His remarriage, shortly after Selma died, marked the beginning of a troubled childhood for the Egstrom children, especially little "Hootchie," as everyone called Norma.
If that's all there is, my friend, Then let's keep dancing.
Marvin's unexpected choice for a new wife was Min Schaumberg . Even at a distance of 60 years, Lee's shorthand description of her stepmother retained the fear which seized a six-yearold girl. "Obese," Lee remembered. "Strong as a horse. Florid face, bulging thyroid eyes, long black hair to her waist pulled back in a bun. Heavy breathing." Even men were afraid of Min, including her new husband, who spent more and more time away from home and turned to alcohol for solace. The children had no such freedom. Min routinely beat them, especially Norma, whom she particularly disliked. Min's favorite weapon was a willow switch, which she often made Norma cut herself before using it on the child with enough force to break the skin. By the time the railroad transferred the Egstroms to a nearby town, even drearier than Jamestown, Lee had already helped an older sister run away from home—for which, of course, she was beaten.
By the time she was 11, Lee had been put to work, finding jobs tending cows, doing housework, or babysitting and cooking for other families. The abuse from Min finally came to an end when the railroad once again transferred Marvin to another railroad town, but offered Min a job elsewhere. Although the enforced separation became permanent, Marvin's drinking had gotten worse and Lee, now 14, often ran the depot for him. But by the time she was in high school, music came to the rescue.
"I had always sung," Lee once wrote. "I sang before I could talk. Although I was alone a lot, I was never really alone because there was always music." There had been the radio, of course, and a tiny theater where she had seen some of the opulent movie musicals of the day. Then, too, there was Doc Haines and his Orchestra, who came to town one year to play a dance at Lee's high school. Doc Haines, despite the mature name, was a college student only a few years older than Lee, but he had a good enough ear to suggest that she sing for him on his weekly radio show on KVOC in Valley City, to which she hitchhiked every weekend. Lee was paid 50 cents per appearance, and Doc Haines was soon calling her his "little blues singer." She moved back to Jamestown after graduating and found two jobs, one working in the coffee shop of the town's only hotel, and the other singing on KRMC, which had studios upstairs. Then came the chance to audition for KDAY in Fargo, the state capital, where a customer who frequented the coffee shop knew the station manager. The audition was successful, and Norma Egstrom had a new job with a new name, Peggy Lee, devised by the station manager who wanted something more sophisticated.
To Lee, Fargo seemed like the biggest city in the world, but she had little time to enjoy it. She took a job slicing and wrapping bread in a bakery from four in the afternoon until four in the morning, then slept until nine before going to the radio station in time to sing on the "Noonday Variety Show" at $1.50 an hour. For extra money, she played Freckled Face Gertie on the "Hayloft Jamboree" and sometimes sang with the Georgie Porgie Breakfast Food Boys, as well as working in the record library, where she became familiar with all the leading composers of the day—Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart.
In 1937, Lee took the biggest chance of her life and moved to California, where a friend from Jamestown had a place for her to stay. But work was even harder to find than back home, and the $18 in Lee's purse on her arrival disappeared with alarming speed. She took a job as a short-order cook and even worked as a barker at an amusement park before landing a singing job at a seedy nightspot, the Jade Club, known for hiring out-of-work singers desperate for a few dollars and a few hours' work. The club's clientele was quick to spot a naive smalltown girl, and one patron nearly succeeded in abducting Lee into a prostitution ring before the owner of the Jade Club came to her rescue. Badly frightened and plagued by throat trouble that only worsened the more she sang, Lee finally gave up and went back to Fargo, where she discovered she had tonsillitis. The ensuing operation was botched, leaving Lee open to infections that would plague her for years to come.
Once again in familiar territory, Lee soon found a new audience—the students from the University of North Dakota who crowded into the Coffee Shop at Fargo's Powers Hotel every weekend. A cross between an actual short-order restaurant and a pop nightclub, the Coffee Shop was Fargo's version of the Jade Club, with a cleaner, younger audience that loved the blend of blues, jazz, and pop that Lee had picked up in her travels through the underside of Los Angeles nightlife. She packed them in every weekend, singing their requests for $15 a week. But a love affair with a married man ended badly, and Lee felt compelled to leave once again, this time for St. Louis after she auditioned for Will Osborne and his orchestra. The new city treated her no better than Los Angeles had. Her throat began bothering her again, leading to another operation that only made the condition worse; and after only a few engagements, the band broke up, leaving Lee stranded with its manager and pianist. Undaunted, the three made their way back to California and to the very place where Lee had fared so badly less than two years before—the Jade. But this time, things would be different.
In the audience one night was a young song-writer named Jack Brooks, who in a few years' time would write the pop standard "That's Amore." Impressed with Lee's style, Brooks invited her to audition at The Doll's House, a nightery in Palm Springs owned by a friend, Frank Bering. Bering was a successful hotelier who also owned the elegant Ambassador Hotel in Chicago, and who numbered among his acquaintances Fred Mandel, the millionaire owner of Chicago's leading department store of the time, not to mention the Detroit Tigers baseball club. Bering hired her, the Mandels were impressed with her singing, and, before long, Lee found herself the featured attraction at Chicago's ritzy Ambassador Lounge, living in a luxurious suite with maid service, a different gown for each night's performance, and $75 a week in spending money. The Mandels introduced her to the best of Chicago society, which quickly formed the backbone of her nightly audience at
the Ambassador. After barely a year, she joined Benny Goodman's band.
Goodman had already taken the country by storm, starting with his legendary appearances at The Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1937 (just when Lee was arriving for her ill-fated Jade Club experience), at New York's Paramount Theater later the same year after a cross-country tour, and the historic Carnegie Hall concert of 1938. By 1939, when he was all of 29 years old, Goodman had audaciously published his life story; and in 1941, when Lee was hired, he had settled into a long reign as the "The King of Swing." In later years, Lee would always wonder why Goodman did not fire her, especially after the reviews of her first night's performance at the College Inn appeared—"sweet sixteen and will never be missed" being one of the milder comments. She even offered to quit, but Goodman refused and told her to show up two days later for a recording session for Columbia, turning a deaf ear to Lee's confession that she had never been in a recording studio and assigning her "Elmer's Tune"—a notoriously difficult number with frequent rhythm-and-pitch changes.
Audiotape was still years in the future. Sessions were recorded straight to a wax master disc, and a mistake meant scrapping the master and starting over from the top. Understandably, Lee was apprehensive. But the band's pianist came to her rescue. He told her to arrive at the studio early, rehearsed her, and even inserted in the score a pitch-setting tone that, to the ordinary ear, sounded like merely a piano riff during the band's opening bars. "You catch it from that," he told Lee, "that'll be the cue, count four, and go!" It was the first of literally hundreds of recordings that would turn Peggy Lee into a national phenomenon, notably when she recorded "Why Don't You Do Right?" for Goodman, the record that established her reputation as a jazz artist. Goodman paid her the usual ten dollars to record it, with all rights forfeited.
By the time Lee arrived in New York with the band, word had gotten around. Playing the New Yorker Hotel's Terrace Room, her audience would routinely include Duke Ellington (who nicknamed her "The Queen"), Fats Waller, and other notables of the jazz-and-blues scene, along with some of Broadway's and Hollywood's leading names—Joan Crawford , Gary Cooper, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. New York's nightbirds loved Lee's warm, personal delivery, which some compared to Billie Holiday ; and she was singing with some of the best sidemen in the business, for Goodman wanted only the cream of the crop in his band and dismissed prevailing racial attitudes by hiring such African-American jazz greats as Cootie Williams, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and Teddy Wilson. "If you don't feel a thrill when Lee sings," jazz critic Leonard Feather once wrote, "you're dead, Jack."
It was the band's guitarist, however, to whom Lee was paying the most attention. Goodman had hired David Barbour shortly after Lee joined the band, and it was obvious to everyone that the relationship was becoming more than professional. "My feelings for David grew and grew," Lee once wrote. "When I noticed he didn't eat very much, I would fix up his meals at the coffee shop counter; a little salt and pepper, a little butter, a little coaxing." The reason for Barbour's lack of appetite soon became apparent when, one night, he was late for the stage call. Running to his room, Lee found him close to passing out from drink. Despite his alcoholism, Lee was in love and married Barbour in Los Angeles in 1943, shortly after Goodman had fired him—not because of the drinking, the gossip went, but because Goodman was jealous. The rumors persisted, and even years later Lee would still feel compelled to deny there had every been any romantic attachment with Benny Goodman. "We were always just friends," she insisted.
Although her marriage would be plagued by Barbour's disease, it seemed to provide the love and security Lee hadn't felt since the death of her mother. She was careful to point out in later times that her husband had never been abusive to her and had had a "lovely, quiet disposition." A daughter, Nicki, was born to the couple in 1944. During the next several years, Barbour would encourage Lee's ambitions as a lyricist and write the melodies and arrangements for the tunes Lee said were largely based on her first real experience with a loving relationship—songs such as "It's a Good Day" and "I Don't Know Enough About You." Their most famous collaboration was the wildly successful "Mañana," a playful samba melody the couple wrote while vacationing in Mexico after one of the many operations for stomach ulcers and liver ailments that Barbour was forced to undergo. It was recorded with Carmen Miranda 's Brazilians doing backup vocals and, Lee claimed, was the first song to use a fadeout at the end, rather than coming to a coda and finale.
Lee's life took new turns in other ways during her marriage. She dabbled in politics, campaigning for Harry Truman in 1948, and served on the board of directors for the U.N.-based Meals for Millions program, which distributed food supplies to famine victims. In the late 1940s, she was introduced to Ernest Holmes, the founder and proponent of "The Science of Mind," a blend of psychology and spirituality and a precursor of many similar systems which have since come to prominence. "It wasn't until I met Ernest Holmes," Lee said, "that I realized we live in a universe that is primarily spiritual, and that it's possible to get everything we need … through the scientific application of prayer and meditation." Her beliefs were no doubt a great comfort during the later years of her marriage to Barbour, as his alcoholism grew more serious and his health more precarious. Finally, it was Barbour who pleaded with Lee for a divorce, saying he was afraid of unintentionally hurting Nicki one day. Under the laws then current, it was Lee who had to file and serve the papers which, ironically, occurred on the same night she recorded "Let's Call It a Day," a bittersweet song about the end of an affair which became all the more effective because of her own sadness. She and David were divorced in 1952, and two subsequent marriages—to Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin, both actors—were short-lived.
Despite such personal disappointments, Lee had become one of the country's most popular artists. No longer just a "girl singer" for a big band, she had established herself as a solo artist with a blues-tinged, seductive style that led one critic to label her "the queen of sultry." By the late 1940s, Lee was much sought after for the national radio shows of such stars as Bing Crosby (with whom she did two Hollywood musical films), Perry Como, and her old friend from her Chicago days, Jimmy Durante. She had a lucrative recording contract with Capitol, under which she would give new interpretations to such standards as "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Love Me or Leave Me." She had become versatile enough to record a spoof song like "Caramba! It's the Samba!" and, in the same session, turn out a sexy, sassy version of "Them There Eyes." Danny Thomas, with whom Lee appeared in 1953's The Jazz Singer, told an interviewer, "There's nobody like her. She drops her head down, leans on the piano and just falls back to it as she's finishing. Lee's style is her." In 1958, Lee's version of Little Willie John's "Fever," with only percussion and bass backing her up, took the nation by storm; that same year, she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as the alcoholic singer Rose in Jack Webb's Pete Kelly's Blues.
Lee's voice had become so familiar that movie audiences flocked to theaters to see an animated feature in which she did four of the voices, collaborated on much of the score, and even did some of the sound effects. The film was Disney's 1955 release Lady and the Tramp, the story of the dainty spaniel Lady who falls for the rough-and-ready mutt named Tramp. Lee found the experience a creative challenge. "Walt [Disney] let me have all the freedom anyone could possibly have," she recalled. "Every person who worked on that film was touched by Mr. Disney's genius." Lee went on to write music for many other classic films—Johnny Guitar, George Pal's Jack And The Beanstalk (for which she wrote the theme and to which she contributed a character voice) and, in later years, Sharkey's Machine and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.
By late 1958, the stress of her workload began to have its effects. Lee's old throat problems re-emerged, and she was forced into a seven-month retirement, only to return in 1959 in an entirely new venture, as part owner of New York's legendary supper club, Basin Street East. It would become a New York fixture for years to come, prompting Newsweek to comment that Lee was "singlehandedly reviving the supper club business" that had been in decline since before the Second World War. In addition to months-long appearances at the club, Lee embarked on a string of television specials and traveled to Europe for dates in Paris and London, among other places. But during a performance in New York in the early 1960s, Lee had to be rushed to the hospital after collapsing on stage from what turned out to be double pneumonia and pleurisy. Even worse, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Another lengthy recuperation followed, during which Lee collaborated with composer Paul Horner and playwright William Luce on a musical version of her life, Peg, which closed after negative reviews and just three performances at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theater.
But there was always the recording studio, and Lee's next national hit may have reflected her bitterness at the disappointment of a Broadway flop. It was 1969's "Is That All There Is?", written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (who had also come up with "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog" some years earlier for Elvis Presley), and Lee had a tough time convincing Capitol to let her record it, let alone release it. "They said it was too far out," Lee later remembered, although Capitol could hardly be blamed on the evidence of the lyrics. A spoken litany of life's disappointments—from a little girl's discovery that a circus wasn't all she thought it would be, to an old woman facing death with bored resignation—its only sung portion included the refrain:
If that's all there is, my friend,
Then let's keep dancing.
Lee's instincts, of course, were right on target, and she traded Capitol's insistence that she appear in a television special for their agreement to release the song. It remained at the top of the charts for months in 1969 and was re-released in 1973.
A much more serious battle awaited Lee, after the Disney Company announced the first release on videocassette of Lady and the Tramp in 1988. She had been paid only $3,500 for her work on the film, plus a $500 honorarium for promoting one of its many re-releases in theaters, and Lee felt she was entitled to a portion of the estimated $9 million Disney would make from a technology that had not existed in 1955. She sued Disney on the basis of a clause in her original contract that prevented Disney from selling any "transcriptions" of the film without her express consent, arguing that a videocassette qualified as a transcription. The court agreed, awarding her $3.8 million dollars and setting a precedent protecting artists' rights in their work, no matter in what future form that work is exploited. By the time the suit was settled in 1991, Lee was confined to a wheelchair, the result of her diabetes, double-bypass heart surgery, and a fall. She admitted that the trial had been hard for her, but told reporters that the settlement money would ensure a secure future for her three grandchildren, who were by then in their 20s.
With her retirement permanent, and before she suffered a stroke in 1998, Lee managed an art gallery with her daughter Nicki, enjoyed the success of several re-releases of her hundreds of recordings, and was honored at a "Celebrate Peggy Lee" concert in 1994, at which several singers influenced by her style paid her melodic tribute. It all proved something Jimmy Durante had told her years earlier, even though he knew nothing of her abused childhood. "Someday," he said, "you'll feel something come back from the audience, and then you won't ever feel afraid again."
"Black Coffee (review)," in Down Beat. Sept. 23, 1953.
Hoefer, George. "Peggy Lee: Girl in the Middle," in Down Beat. Vol. 26, no. 11. May 28, 1959.
Lee, Peggy. Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography. NY: Donald Fine Books, 1989.
"No Pussycat in Court, Peggy Lee Nips Disney for $3.8 Million," in People Weekly. Vol. 35, no. 13. April 8, 1991.
Stark, John. "The Peggy Lee Songbook (review)," in People Weekly. Vol. 34, no. 13. October 1, 1993.
Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York