Peggy Lee (born Norma Deloris Egstrom; May 26, 1920 – January 21, 2002) was an American jazz and popular music singer, songwriter, composer and actress, in a career spanning six decades. From her beginning as a vocalist on local radio to singing with Benny Goodman's big band, she forged a sophisticated persona, evolving into a multi-faceted artist and performer. She wrote music for films, acted, and created conceptual record albums—encompassing poetry, jazz, chamber pop, and art songs.
Lee was born as Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, the seventh of eight children of Marvin Olof Egstrom, a station agent for the Midland Continental Railroad, and his wife Selma Amelia (Anderson) Egstrom. She and her family were Lutherans. Her father was Swedish American and her mother was Norwegian American. Her mother died when Lee was just four years old. Afterward, her father married Min Schaumber, who treated her with great cruelty while her alcoholic father did little to stop it. Later, she developed her musical talent and took several part-time jobs so that she could be away from home.
Lee first sang professionally over KOVC radio in Valley City, North Dakota. She later had her own series on a radio show sponsored by a local restaurant that paid her a salary in food. Both during and after her high school years, Lee sang for small sums on local radio stations. Radio personality Ken Kennedy, of WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota (the most widely heard station in North Dakota), changed her name from Norma to Peggy Lee. Miss Lee left home and traveled to Los Angeles at the age of 17.
She returned to North Dakota for a tonsillectomy, and was noticed by hotel owner Frank Bering while working at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. It was here that she developed her trademark sultry purr – having decided to compete with the noisy crowd with subtlety rather than volume. Beringin offered her a gig at The Buttery Room, a nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel East in Chicago. There, she was noticed by bandleader Benny Goodman. According to Lee, "Benny's then-fiancée, Lady Alice Duckworth, came into The Buttery, and she was very impressed. So the next evening she brought Benny in, because they were looking for a replacement for Helen Forrest. And although I didn't know, I was it. He was looking at me strangely, I thought, but it was just his preoccupied way of looking. I thought that he didn't like me at first, but it just was that he was preoccupied with what he was hearing." She joined his band in 1941 and stayed for two years.
In 1942 Lee had her first No. 1 hit, "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place", followed by 1943's "Why Don't You Do Right?" (originally sung by Lil Green), which sold over a million copies and made her famous. She sang with Goodman's orchestra in two 1943 films, Stage Door Canteen and The Powers Girl.
In March 1943 Lee married Dave Barbour, a guitarist in Goodman's band. Peggy said, "David joined Benny's band and there was a ruling that no one should fraternize with the girl singer. But I fell in love with David the first time I heard him play, and so I married him. Benny then fired David, so I quit, too. Benny and I made up, although David didn't play with him anymore. Benny stuck to his rule. I think that's not too bad a rule, but you can't help falling in love with somebody."
When Lee and Barbour left the band, the idea was that he would work in the studios and she would keep house and raise their daughter, Nicki. But she drifted back to songwriting and occasional recording sessions for the fledgling Capitol Records in 1947, for whom she produced a long string of hits, many of them with lyrics and music by Lee and Barbour, including "I Don't Know Enough About You" (1946) and "It's a Good Day" (1947). With the release of the US No. 1-selling record of 1948, "Mañana", her "retirement" was over. In 1948, Lee's work was part of Capitol's library of electrical transcriptions for radio stations. An ad for Capitol Transcriptions in a trade magazine noted that the transcriptions included "special voice introductions by Peggy."
In 1948 Lee joined Perry Como and Jo Stafford as a rotating host of the NBC Radio musical program The Chesterfield Supper Club. She was also a regular on NBC's Jimmy Durante Show and appeared frequently on Bing Crosby's radio shows throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s.
She left Capitol for Decca Records in 1952, but returned to Capitol in 1957. She is most famous for her cover version of the Little Willie John hit "Fever" written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, to which she added her own, uncopyrighted lyrics ("Romeo loved Juliet," "Captain Smith and Pocahontas") and her rendition of Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?". Her relationship with the Capitol label spanned almost three decades, aside from her brief but artistically rich detour (1952–1956) at Decca Records, where in 1953 she recorded one of her most acclaimed albums, Black Coffee. While recording for Decca, Lee had hit singles with the songs "Lover" and "Mister Wonderful".
In her 60-year-long career, Peggy was the recipient of three Grammy Awards (including the Lifetime Achievement Award), an Academy Award nomination, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Award, the President's Award, the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the Living Legacy Award from the Women's International Center. In 1999 Lee was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Lee was a successful songwriter, with songs from the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, for which she also supplied the singing and speaking voices of four characters. Her collaborators included Laurindo Almeida, Harold Arlen, Sonny Burke, Cy Coleman, Duke Ellington, Dave Grusin, Quincy Jones, Francis Lai, Jack Marshall, Johnny Mandel, Marian McPartland, Willard Robison, Lalo Schifrin and Victor Young.
She wrote the lyrics for:
Her first published song was in 1941, "Little Fool". "What More Can a Woman Do?" was recorded by Sarah Vaughan with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. "Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)" was no.1 for 9 weeks on the Billboard singles chart in 1948, from the week of March 13 to May 8.
Lee was a mainstay of Capitol Records when rock and roll came onto the American music scene. She was among the first of the "old guard" to recognize this new genre, as seen by her recording music from The Beatles, Randy Newman, Carole King, James Taylor and other up-and-coming songwriters. From 1957 until her final disc for the company in 1972, she produced a steady stream of two or three albums per year which usually included standards (often arranged quite differently from the original), her own compositions, and material from young artists.
Lee played an alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Lee did the speaking and singing voices for several characters in Disney's Lady and the Tramp (1955): she played the human "Darling" (in the first part of the movie), the dog "Peg", and the two Siamese cats "Si and Am".
Lee was married four times; each marriage ended in divorce:
- Guitarist and composer Dave Barbour (1943–1951); daughter Nicki Lee Foster (1943 - 2014)
- Actor Brad Dexter (1953)
- Actor Dewey Martin (1956–1958)
- Bandleader and percussionist Jack Del Rio (1964–1965)
Retirement and death
In addition to owning a Sparks, Nevada restaurant called the 50 Yard Line, Miss Lee continued to perform into the 1990s, sometimes in a wheelchair. After years of poor health, Lee died of complications from diabetes and a heart attack at age 81. She was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles' Westwood, Los Angeles, California neighborhood. On her marker in a garden setting is inscribed, "Music is my life's breath."
Academy Awards memorial omission
She was not featured in the memorial tribute during the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony. When her family requested she be featured in the following year's ceremony, the Academy stated they did not honor requests and Lee was omitted because her contribution to film and her legacy were not deemed significant enough, although she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Pete Kelly's Blues. Her family pointed out that, although she had been omitted, R&B singer/actress Aaliyah, who had died a few months earlier, was included, despite having been in only one moderately successful film, Romeo Must Die (Queen of the Damned had yet to be released). The Academy provided no comment on the oversight.
Lee was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?" In 1995 she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Lee is a recipient of North Dakota's Rough Rider Award; the Pied Piper Award from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); the Presidents Award, from the Songwriters Guild of America; the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement, from the Society of Singers; and the Living Legacy Award, from the Women's International Center. In 1999 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Carnegie Hall tribute
In 2003, "There'll Be Another Spring: A Tribute to Miss Peggy Lee" was held at Carnegie Hall. Produced by recording artist Richard Barone, the sold-out event included performances by Cy Coleman, Debbie Harry, Nancy Sinatra, Rita Moreno, Marian McPartland, Chris Connor, Petula Clark, and others. In 2004 Barone brought the event to a sold-out Hollywood Bowl, and then to Chicago's Ravinia Festival, with expanded casts including Maureen McGovern, Jack Jones and Bea Arthur. The Carnegie Hall concert was broadcast on NPR's "Jazz Set".
In popular culture
- The Peggy Lee Rose is a light pink hybrid tea rose with a "touch of peach" that was introduced in 1983 and named in her honor. Lee considered peach to be her favorite color.
- Peggy Lee was known as "Miss Peggy Lee", and was the inspiration for the Muppets' Miss Piggy, a stylish self-assured blonde with a sense of romance.
- Peggy Lee's song "He's a Tramp" has been covered by many artists including The Chipettes, The Beu Sisters, Bette Midler, Dianne Reeves, Liza Minnelli, and Steve Tyrell.
- In 2015, the musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon added a new song featuring a man in drag (Stephen Brennan) as Caitlyn Jenner; the song is a parody version of Peggy Lee's "I’m A Woman, W.O.M.A.N."
- Peggy Lee, Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography, 1989, Donald I. Fine, ISBN 978-1-5561-1112-9
- Peter Richmond, Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, 2006, Henry Holt and Company, ISBN 0-8050-7383-3
- Robert Strom, Miss Peggy Lee: A Career Chronicle, 2005, McFarland Publishing, ISBN 0-7864-1936-9
- James Gavin, Is That All There Is? - The Strange Life Of Peggy Lee, 2014, Atria Books, ISBN 978-1-4516-4168-4
- Album liner notes
- Will Friedwald, Album liner notes The Best of Peggy Lee, The Capitol Years
- Rendezvous with Peggy Lee (set of 78s: 6 songs)
- Rendezvous with Peggy Lee (10-inch LP: 8 songs; 12-inch LP: 12 songs)
- Black Coffee (10-inch version)
- Songs in an Intimate Style
- Selections from Irving Berlin's White Christmas (w/ Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, 1954)
- Songs from Pete Kelly's Blues (Soundtrack, with Ella Fitzgerald, 1955)
- Black Coffee (12-inch version, 1956)
- Dream Street (1957)
- Songs from Walt Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" (1957)
- Sea Shells (recorded 1955, 1958)
- Miss Wonderful (recorded 1956, 1959)
- Lover (recorded 1952, 1964)
- The Fabulous Peggy Lee (recorded 1953–56, 1964)
- Peggy Lee Sings with Benny Goodman (Recorded in 1941-1942, Harmony)
- The Man I Love (1957)
- Jump for Joy (1959)
- Things Are Swingin' (1959)
- I Like Men! (1959)
- Beauty and the Beat! (1959)
- Latin ala Lee! (1960)
- All Aglow Again! (1960)
- Pretty Eyes (1960)
- Christmas Carousel (1960)
- Olé ala Lee (1960)
- If You Go (1961)
- Basin Street East Proudly Presents Miss Peggy Lee (1961)
- Blues Cross Country (1962)
- Bewitching-Lee (1962)
- Sugar 'N' Spice (1962)
- Mink Jazz (1963)
- I'm a Woman (1963)
- In Love Again! (1964)
- In the Name of Love (1964)
- Pass Me By (1965)
- Then Was Then – Now Is Now! (1965)
- Guitars a là Lee (1966)
- Big $pender (1966)
- Extra Special! (1967)
- Somethin' Groovy! (1967)
- 2 Shows Nightly (Live, 1968)
- A Natural Woman (1969)
- Is That All There Is? (1969)
- Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970)
- Make It With You (1970)
- Where Did They Go (1971)
- Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota (1972)
- Let's Love (1974)
- Mirrors (1975)
- Live in London (Live, 1977)
- Peggy (1977)
- Close Enough for Love (1979)
- Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues (1988)
- The Peggy Lee Songbook: There'll Be Another Spring (1989)
- Love Held Lightly: Rare Songs by Harold Arlen (Recorded 1988, released 1993)
- Moments Like This (1993)
Film, television and gaming
- The Powers Girl (1943)
- Stage Door Canteen (1943)
- Banquet of Melody (1946) (short subject)
- Jasper in a Jam (1946) (short subject) (voice)
- Midnight Serenade (1947) (short subject)
- Peggy Lee and the Dave Barbour Quartet (1950) (short subject)
- Mr. Music (1950)
- The Jazz Singer (1952)
- Lady and the Tramp (1955) (voice, songwriter)
- Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)
- Celebrity Art (1973) (short subject)
- Mystery guest on What's My Line? (February 28, 1960)
- The World of Peggy Lee – documentary film produced for National Educational Television (October 16, 1969)