Born: May 26, 1920 | Died: January 21, 2002 Primary Instrument: Vocal
More than two decades have passed since Peggy Lee sang with Benny Goodman’s swing band and made her first hit recording. Yet so inexhaustible is her talent and so intense her application to her work that, almost a generation later, she stands at the peak of her career. A product of the big-band era, she derived from that apprenticeship her ability to sing anything from jazz to blues, to sing it with a beat, and with enough volume to be heard above the band. Few vocalists have had her staying power. Peggy Lee is also a successful composer, lyricist, arranger, actress, and businesswoman. To all her careers she brings a perfectionism that leaves the stamp of professionalism on everything she touches.
Of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, Peggy Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, a farm town on the Great Plains, on May 26, 1920. She was the seventh of eight children born to Marvin Egstrom, a station agent for the Midland Continental Railroad, and Mrs. Egstrom, who died when the child was four years old. Encouraged by the recognition she had received for her singing with the high school glee club, the church choir, and semi-professional college bands, Norma headed for Hollywood after she graduated from high school in 1938. With her she took $18 in cash and a railroad pass she had borrowed from her father. Although she got a brief singing engagement at the Jade Room, a supper club on Hollywood Boulevard, she made little impression on the film capital, and she was reduced to working as a waitress and as a carnival spieler at a Balboa midway.
Deciding to try her luck nearer home, she found work as a singer over radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota, whose manager, Ken Kennedy, christened her Peggy Lee. (To supplement her income she worked for a time as a bread slicer in a Fargo bakery.) Her prospects for a career brightened when she moved to Minneapolis, where she sang in the dining room of the Radisson Hotel, appeared on a Standard Oil radio show, and sang with Sev Olsen’s band. Miss Lee broke into the big time when she became a vocalist with Will Osborne’s band, but three months after she joined the group it broke up in St. Louis, and she got a ride to California with the manager.
It was at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California that Peggy Lee first developed the soft and cool style that has become her trademark. Unable to shout above the clamor of the Doll House audience, Miss Lee tried to snare its attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang the quieter the audience became. She has never forgotten the secret, and it has given her style its distinctive combination of the delicate and the driving, the husky and the purringly seductive. One of the members of the Doll House audience was Frank Bering, the owner of Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, who invited her to sing in his establishment’s Buttery Room.
Benny Goodman discovered Peggy Lee’s vocalizing in the Buttery Room at a time when he was looking for a replacement for Helen Forrest. Miss Lee joined Goodman’s band in July, 1941, when the band was at the height of its popularity, and for over two years she toured the United States with the most famous swing outfit of the day, playing hotel engagements, college proms, theater dates, and radio programs.
Much of her present success Miss Lee credits to her apprenticeship with the big bands. I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else, she has said. They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train…. Band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians. And we had to work close to the arrangement. In July, 1942, Peggy Lee recorded her first smash hit, Why Don’t You Do Right? It sold over 1,000,000 copies and made her famous.
In March, 1943, Peggy Lee married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman’s band; shortly thereafter she left the band. After her daughter, Nicki, was born in 1944, Peggy Lee and her husband worked successfully on the West Coast. In 1944 she began to record for Capitol Records, for whom she has produced a long string of hits many of them with lyrics and music by Miss Lee and Dave Barbour. Among them are Golden Earrings, which sold over 1,000,000 copies [sic; song not written by Lee and Barbour]; You Was Right, Baby; It’s a Good Day; Mañana (which sold over 2,000,000 records); What More Can a Woman Do?; and I Don’t Know Enough About You. Today Peggy Lee has a top rating as a songwriter with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
In 1950 Peggy Lee made a first, brief screen appearance [sic; she had previously appeared in Stage Door Canteen, The Powers Girl and several shorts] in Paramount’s Mr. Music, starring Bing Crosby. In 1953 she played a featured role opposite Danny Thomas in Warner Brothers’ remake of the early Al Jolson talking picture, The Jazz Singer, and won praise from a critic of the New York Wolrd-Telegram and Sun for a very promising start on a movie career as a poised and ingratiating ingenue. Her performance as a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues (Warner Brothers, 1955) won her a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the 1955 balloting conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, moviegoers voted her the Audie statuette.
Peggy Lee has not only appeared in motion pictures but she has also written music and lyrics for them. She wrote the theme music for Johnny Guitar (Republic, 1954) and for About Mrs. Leslie (Paramount, 1954). She contributed the musical score to two George Pal cartoon features, Tom Thumb (MGM, 1958) and The Time Machine (MGM, 1960), and wrote the lyrics and supplied several voices for the Walt Disney full-length animated cartoon Lady and the Tramp (Buena Vista, 1955). For Anatomy of a Murder (Columbia, 1959) she wrote the lyrics for I’m Gonna Go Fishin’ to music by Duke Ellington.
In the respect she commands from the critics both as a popular vocalist and as a jazz artist, Peggy Lee is a rarity among singers. Critic George Hoefer of Downbeat magazine has called her the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey, and Leonard Feather in The Encyclopedia of Jazz (Horizon, 1960) has described her as one of the most sensitive and jazz-oriented singers in the pop field. Miss Lee won the 1946 polls as best female vocalist of both Metronome and Downbeat magazines, wisely read by jazz buffs, and the 1950 citation as the nation’s most popular female vocalist from Billboard, a trade magazine of show business. A frequent performer on television, she sang on the Thursday night Revlon Revues over CBS-TV in 1960, and has appeared on televised musical variety shows starring Perry Como, George Gobel, Steve Allen and Bing Crosby. In March, 1960 she undertook a straight dramatic role in So Deadly, So Evil on the General Electric Theater over CBS-TV.
In September, 1962 Miss Lee reached what she has called the high spot in her career when she was selected to appear in Philharmonic Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, an auditorium usually available to those whom the management considers as serious artists. Miss Lee conducted research for, and wrote a program called The Jazz Tree, tracing the origins and development of jazz as a native American art form. Originally scheduled for December, 1962, the booking was postponed until March, 1963 to give Miss Lee enough time to perfect her presentation.
This perfectionist approach to her programs is typical of Miss Lee. She polishes and perfects every aspect of her performances her special coiffures, her costly wardrobe, her lighting, her entrances and exits, and her musical arrangements. Her perfectionism may derive from her association with Benny Goodman, who always demanded the best from his performers. Rejecting the improvisatory approach of most jazz singers, Peggy Lee plans every detail of her delivery in advance, including even the movement of her hands. This perfectionism has taken its toll of her health on several occasions; she was hospitalized with virus pneumonia in July, 1958 and in November, 1961. As a result, Miss Lee has reduced her schedule, confining her public appearances to six weeks each year in New York and Las Vegas, a few television shows, and one or two charity benefits.
Although Miss Lee continued to collaborate with Dave Barbour on words and music, their marriage ended in divorce in 1951. On January 4, 1955, Miss Lee married Brad Dexter, a movie actor. Ten months later they were divorced. Miss Lee’s third marriage, to actor Dewey Martin on April 25, 1956, also ended in divorce in 1959. [A fourth marriage, 1964-1965, was to percussionist and bandleader Jack Del Rio.] She is 5’7 in height, with hazel eyes and champagne-blonde hair. With her daughter, Nicki, she lived in Coldwater Canyon, near Hollywood, California. It contains not only a soundproof studio with tape units, microphones, grand piano, and other equipment for writing and recording music, but also an artist’s studio in which she paints and sculpts the hands of musicians and the heads of great men like Albert Schweitzer whom she admires. A book of her verse, Softly, With Feeling, was published in 1953. In 1958 Miss Lee consolidated her various activities, which include music publishing firms and a production unit for television and films, into a company called Peggy Lee enterprises. Noted for her generosity, she has been active in such philanthropies as CARE and WAIF, and in November, 1962 was appointed national chairman of the Tom Dooley Foundation.