If you don't feel a thrill when Peggy Lee sings, you're dead, Jack. Leonard Feather
Not just a jazz singer (although there is much jazz in her phrasing). Nor just a maker (and composer) of 'smash' success singles. Simply one truly outstanding singer whose vocal powers and artistry are, happily, undiminished. When she sang her up-tempoed version of "Lover" it reminded me that when I first became her slave I was still a teenager. Since then I've never once sought my freedom... Raymond Horricks
warned that Peggy Lee might prove temperamental. She turned out to be
an absolute sweetie. We wished her luck before she went on the first night
and she thanked each of us graciously and kissed us on both cheeks like
President de Gaulle. Normally with a big name, the early rehearsals are
used to knock the band in shape, and the star takes the floor only toward
the end. But Peggy was there from the word go. She rehearsed with the
band as if she were one of the instruments.
Peggy Lee has died of a heart attack at age 81, after a lengthy illness following a stroke in 1998.
She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, North Dakota. Peggy was of Scandinavian descent, her grandparents being Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. Her father was a local handyman and part-time railroad station agent. Her mother died when she was 4, and she thereafter endured a difficult childhood. When her father remarried she experienced an exceedingly unpleasant relationship with her stepmother, who regularly beat her, and of whom, she recalled, not only other women but also men were afraid.
In her autobiography, Miss Peggy Lee, she wrote, "I thought that everyone lived this way, in the grey chill of impending violence".
Her father eventually took to drink, and at the age of 14 she often found herself carrying out his duties at the local railroad depot. During this period she narrowly evaded being trapped into white slavery, then took a job as a fairground barker. At 17 she began singing at local gigs, later travelling to Fargo where she sang on a local radio station. There, acting under advice from the station director, she changed her name to Peggy Lee.
She soon moved to Hollywood to sing in various nightclubs, supporting herself by working as a waitress between engagements. During a performance at a Chicago hotel Benny Goodman heard her sing and hired her at once to sing with his band. By all accounts she was so nervous during her first recording session of Elmer's Tune that record producer and critic John Hammond advised Goodman to fire her right away. But Benny knew better and she had a big hit within a year with "Why Don't You Do Right." She went on from there to a career that mixed jazz and pop singing with television and movie work.
At the top of her stardom she fell in love with Goodman's guitarist,
Dave Barbour, and withdrew from the music world to be his wife and raise
their daughter, Nicki. †The marriage eventually collapsed through Barbourís
excessive drinking. She married three more times, with the actors Brad
Dexter and Dewey Martin, and the percussionist Jack Del Rio, but none
of her new relationships lasted, and she resumed her singing career. She
quickly became a household word, with recordings including "I'm a
Woman," "Lover," "Pass Me By," "Where or
When," "The Way You Look Tonight," "I'm Gonna Go Fishin"',
"Black Coffee" and "Big Spender."
Peggy was considered by many to be in a class with Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey, and Billie Holiday, but, unlike many of her contemporaries, she rarely improvised, although in her ventures into jazz she always swung with the best of them. She was especially known for her enormous sex appeal and the sultry tunes she recorded, in particular her hit song "Fever."
With Dave Barbour she wrote several catchy and immensely popular songs such as "It's a Good Day", "I Don't Know Enough About You" and "Manana". This last one was a tremendous hit and they were immediately sued for $3 million by Hats McKay, an elderly banjo-player, who claimed he had written the tune himself several years earlier. The couple won the case, partly due to evidence given by, among others, Jimmy ("Schnozzle") Durante.
Peggy recorded over 650 songs and more than 60 albums, many of which became golden records. Her many talents earned her the New York Film Critic's Award, and countless citations, including those from the Cancer Society, the Heart Fund and the National Brotherhood of Christians and Jews. She appeared in the film Mr Music, with Bing Crosby in 1950; The Jazz Singer in 1953 and received an Academy Award Oscar nomination for her role as a fading torch singer in Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955, with actor Jack Webb.
With Sonny Burke she wrote many of the original songs in Walt Disney's animated 1955 movie Lady and the Tramp, and was the voice of the cartoon dog Peg in the film. She later successfully sued the Disney studios in a much publicised battle over unpaid royalties. In 1959 she recorded the live album Beauty and the Beat with the George Shearing Quintet.
In addition to her enormous musical abilities Peggy was also a poet, screenwriter and author; adding to these talents those of fabric and greeting card designer, painter and humanitarian. Upon organising a benefit concert for Women's International Center, she raised sufficient funds for WIC to establish the Peggy Lee Music Scholarship. In 1994, Peggy helped present the Living Legacy Award to the film star Ginger Rogers. One of her biggest hits "Is That All There Is?" won her a Grammy award for best contemporary female vocal performance in 1969.
In matters of health Peggy was not so fortunate. Before she joined Goodman, she had been dropped face-downwards on to a marble floor while unconscious during a throat operation, suffering serious damage to her teeth. Her daughter Nicki was born prematurely by Caesarean section, and she was unable to have further children. In 1961 she almost died of double pneumonia and pleurisy, which damaged her lungs and obliged her to travel with a respirator for years afterwards.
As time went on, her medical condition worsened. In the 1970s she was diagnosed as having diabetes and a disease of the middle-ear, then suffered a heart condition and went temporarily blind. Later she had a near-fatal heart attack, and broke her pelvis, which led to her having to sing sitting down.
In spite of her dreadful childhood and a life-long struggle with injury and ill health, Peggy maintained a career that eventually brought her a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award. The music of this loving, kind and dedicated woman has earned her a place in the hearts of millions of people throughout the world.
†Copyright © 1998, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved