Homage to Peggy Lee
by George Soule
Peggy Lee was from North Dakota. The first time I heard of her was when my mother and father returned from a social occasion in Fargo in the late 1930's, and my mother told me that there was a girl singer with the band who was terrific-destined to be a star. That singer was Peggy Lee. About the same time across town (as I discovered later) a friend of mine was interrupted when he practiced the piano by two large young women who wanted to us it. They picked him off the piano bench and took the piano over to rehearse. One of those women was Peggy Lee. A few years later, I remember walking back home from Fargo High basketball games on cold winter nights. My friends Bob and Doug and I would sing "Why Don't You Do Right" over and over again-PeggyLee's first big hit. That's why I wanted to write this biography of her for a reference work.
Norma Deloris Egstrom was born of Scandinavian ancestry on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, a small city in central North Dakota. She grew up there and in nearby towns: Nortonville and Wimbledon. Lee had a hard childhood. After her mother died, Norma was badly beaten by her sadistic stepmother. Her beloved father, a railroad station agent, was an alcoholic. Even when he was home, Lee ran the Wimbledon depot for him. She also worked on farms and washed blackboards at school. But Norma loved music, and from the time she was ten, she knew she wanted to be a singer. Before graduating from Wimbledon high school in 1938, she sang in the glee club and came in second in a state-wide vocal contest. Her career in show business dates from when she was 14. Legend has it that she impulsively entered an amateur contest in nearby Valley City--and won; the prize was a singing job in a local restaurant. What is certain is that at age 14 she joined a college band there and sang on radio station KOVC. Even then, success was not easy. One Wimbledon neighbor recalls that when her stepmother disparaged her singing and forbade her to travel to Valley City, he gave Norma a ride and helped start her career.
After graduation, radio gave Norma Egstrom her breaks. She moved back to Jamestown and sang on station KRMC. A friend insisted that she audition at Radio Station WDAY in Fargo, where Program Director Ken Kennedy (a.k.a. Kenneth Sydness) hired her in the morning, put her on the air in the afternoon, and suggested a new name: "Peggy Lee." [A few years later, Ken Kennedy gave me my break on radio. I briefly became a local quiz kid, but he didn't change my name.] In Fargo, Peggy supported herself, not only by singing, but by slicing and wrapping bread for Regan's bakery. Kennedy teamed her with male vocalists as Four Jacks and a Queen; she wore a gingham dress and a straw hat. The quintet appeared weekly on the Hayloft Jamboree program and toured the region. Then she headed for Los Angeles to become a star. She worked as a waitress and as a carnival barker until she landed a singing job at the Jade Room, a Chinese restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard. But her throat gave her trouble, and she returned to North Dakota for a frightening tonsillectomy. She was 18 now, and when she recovered she sang at the Belmont Cafe in Grand Forks, then in Fargo over WDAY again and for a collegiate crowd at the Powers Hotel and Coffee Shop. In Fargo she is remembered affectionately by her fellow musicians and fans to this day.
Peggy Lee hit the Big Time when she left her native state. Kennedy got her an audition in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and she became the vocalist with Sev Olson and his orchestra at the Radisson Hotel and at the Marigold Ballroom. In November, 1940, she joined the Will Osborne band, but it folded a few months later. Trying her luck in California, Lee next sang at the Doll House in Palm Springs. She was spotted there and hired by the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago. Then came the break that would lead her to fame. On August 1, 1941, Benny Goodman, the great clarinetist and big band leader, heard her at the Ambassador; he hired her the next day. So "Pretty Peggy Lee" replaced Helen Forrest with the Goodman band, then at the height of its popularity. Despite Lee's initial nervousness, and despite having to sing arrangements written for Forrest, by December critics were praising her work. Although Goodman's was a "swing" band, to compete with bands like Glenn Miller's he began to feature Lee's vocals on hits like "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "Somebody Else is Taking My Place," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "Where or When." During a memorable engagement at the New Yorker Hotel, Lee first met a number of jazz greats, including Fats Waller, Count Basie, and Louis Armstrong.
Lee toured with Goodman for two years, playing hotels, theaters, and college dances and making radio broadcasts. She sang with the band in two motion pictures: The Powers Girl (1942) and Stage Door Canteen (1943). The cast list for this wartime extravaganza reads like a Who's Who of popular music, stage, and screen. Lee sang her greatest early hit, "Why Don't You Do Right? (Like Some Other Men Do)." To this day, her appearance provides a bright light in an otherwise dated film. The song, which she had suggested to Goodman, established her as a woman who could belt out songs that were anything but cute and sweet. "Why Don't You Do Right?" had a jazz beat, and its lyrics were frank and colloquial. In 1943, Lee married her first husband, Goodman's guitarist Dave Barbour, the love of her life. The Barbours quit the band and settled in Los Angeles. Their daughter, Nicki, was born in 1944. While she was pregnant, Lee began to write songs for which Barbour fleshed out the harmonies. She began to record again, eventually signing a contract in 1944 with Capitol records. But Barbour's alcoholism strained their marriage (though in the euphoria of his recovery from bleeding ulcers, they wrote "Manana" together). When his condition deteriorated, Barbour realized their marriage had to end; they were divorced in 1951. Lee's subsequent marriages have been to actor Brad Dexter (1955, divorced the same year); actor Dewey Martin (1956, divorced 1959); and Jack Del Rio (1964, divorced the same year). In 1965, she and a sober Barbour decided to remarry, but he died four days later.
With Capitol, Lee recorded such hits as "Golden Earrings," "I'll Dance at Your Wedding," "I'm a Woman," "Don't Smoke in Bed," and several of her own songs, such as "It's a Good Day!" and "I Don't Know Enough About You." [I once met the man who wrote "Don't Smoke in Bed"; he is not listed as the composer because he gave the song to a friend's widow.] "Manana," in which Lee was accompanied by Carmen Miranda's Brazilians, was The Barbours' biggest and most profitable hit of that era; it may have been the first recording to end in a fade out, created by having the band samba out of the studio. When someone claimed to have written the song, Jimmy Durante's evidence in court gave the Barbours a victory. Lee was named Best Female Vocalist by both Metronome and Downbeat magazines in 1946 and Most Popular Vocalist in 1950. Her later best-selling records include an up-beat Latin version of Richard Rodgers' waltz "Lover" (with Decca) and the steamy "Fever" (with Capitol again), for which she wrote additional lyrics. In 1969 Lee won a Grammy for "Best Contemporary Vocal Performance by a Female Artist." In 1990, she became only the ninth recipient of the Pied Piper Award, the highest honor given by ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).
Beginning in the 1940's, Lee appeared regularly on radio and television shows starring such performers as Durante, Sinatra, Johnny Mercer, Perry Como, Steve Allen, Jackie Gleason, and Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Julie Andrews, and Ed Sullivan. And she continued to appear in clubs like the Copacabana in New York City and Ciro's in Hollywood. In 1960, she had a dramatic role in "So Deadly, So Evil," a General Electric Theater presentation over CBS-TV. Not counting her appearances with the Goodman band, Lee's film career began in 1950 with in Mr. Music, starring Bing Crosby. In this forgettable film, Lee sang a duet with Crosby, "Life is so Peculiar." Her next film (in 1953) was a remake of The Jazz Singer starring Danny Thomas; Lee sang "This is a Very Special Day." Her last appearance on film was her most memorable. In 1955, she played a down-and-out club singer in Pete Kelly's Blues, directed by and starring Jack Webb. The cast also included Janet Leigh, Edmund O'Brien, Lee Marvin, and Ella Fitzgerald. Although the melodramatic plot was panned by some critics, Lee's singing and acting were praised. She recalls that it was hard playing an alcoholic vocalist, for she had to sing off-key. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1955, the same year film patrons voted her an "Audie" award.
She not only acted in films, but she wrote for them. She provided theme music for Johnny Guitar (1954) and About Mrs. Leslie (1954) and songs for the animated cartoon features tom thumb (1958) and The Time Machine (1960). She collaborated with Duke Ellington in writing "I'm Gonna Go Fishing" for Anatomy of a Murder (1959). The film for which she is best known is Walt Disney's animated feature Lady and the Tramp (1955). She and Sonny Burke wrote the score, and she provided voices for four of this film's characters (two cats, a dog, and a human); in the Siamese cats duet, hers are the lyrics, sound effects, and voices. In 1987, when Disney released the film as a videocassette, Lee (who had been paid $3,500 for her work) sued for a share of the profits. A California court awarded her about three million dollars, and this award was confirmed on two appeals. In her later years, despite several life-threatening medical conditions, Lee regularly performed in clubs in New York (Basin Street East, the Ballroom), New Orleans, Toronto, Atlantic City, and Las Vegas. She appeared in London, Amsterdam, Monaco, and Japan; in Britain she was the Sugar Plum Fairy in a jazz version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. She sold paintings and designed fabrics. In 1962, she followed Marilyn Monroe on stage at President Kennedy's famous birthday party in New York. She did research for, wrote, and performed in The Jazz Tree (New York, 1963), which told the story of the beginnings and development of jazz in America. In 1983, she and Paul Horner created the musical presentation Peg for Broadway; drama critics panned it, and it closed after four performances. Her songs have been issued on a great number of LP records and compact discs.
All the while, Lee lived in and around Los Angeles; she gardened enthusiastically (a rose is named after her), and her autobiography (Miss Peggy Lee, 1989) is jammed with the names of friends, many of them famous. Yet her health was never good. In 1987 she suffered a fall in Las Vegas and later had double bypass surgery. In 1999 she suffered a stroke. She died on January 21, 2002. She leaves her daughter Nicki, three grand-children and three great-grandchildren.
Peggy Lee was one of the great female popular vocalists of her era. She began as a big band singer, but her style showed many jazz influences. Jazz critic Whitney Balliett describes her singing as low in volume. "She avoids long notes and glissandos," he writes, "and if she uses a Billie Holiday bent note, she lets it dies almost immediately. . . . She does not carry a tune; she elegantly follows it." Her style was always distinctive, and the songs she recorded have often gone well beyond the conventional, both in their words and their melodies.
She was much more than a singer. She wrote popular songs when there were few other female song-writers, and she branched out into another male-dominated field, music for motion pictures. Although she appeared on radio, on television, and in films, unlike many popular artists she continued to perform in public. In short, she worked in many sides of the music and entertainment business with great success. What was most remarkable about Lee's career has been her energy and daring. She herself saw her life as a series of triumphs over adverse situations. Unlike most popular singers, she did not fade into obscurity. She was not afraid to put her hand to new projects, and she succeeded in almost everything she has attempted. She showed that with courage and talent a female artist can rise quickly from great obscurity. And she diversified her goals to become a loved and respected force in American popular music and popular culture for more than four decades.
Balliett, Whitney. "Still There" in The New Yorker, Vol. 68, No. 24 (August 5, 1985, Pages 64-67). An engaging interview which includes thoughtful description of Lee's singing style by Balliett, perhaps the best writer to be a jazz critic, and by three musicians.
Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Proscenium Publishers, 1984. Dahl has appreciative references to Lee while discussing big band "canaries," jazzwomen, solo singers and instrumentalists from 1890 to the mid 1980's. She treats their working conditions and their problems in general.
Firestone, Ross. Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. Contains a brief and unflattering account of Ms. Lee's joining the Goodman band and her early months with it. Some interesting photographs.
Lee, Peggy. Miss Peggy Lee. New York: Donald I. Fine, 1989. Her autobiography, which provides details of her career, her unhappy childhood, her loves, and her successes. She describes her religious life and her throat, lung, and heart problems. Discography.
Mellers, Wilfred. Angels of the Night: Popular Female Singers of Our Time. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. A readable and evocative survey of several generations of female singers. Lee is treated in the "Jazz Singer as Little Girl Lost" category, along with Anita O'Day and Blossom Dearie.
Based on material from Great Lives from History: American Women. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1995.