JANUARY 21, 2002 – Singer/songwriter/songwriter PEGGY LEE (b. May 26, 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota as Norma Deloris Egstrom) died of complications from diabetes and a heart attack at the age of 81. She was cremated and her ashes were buried in a bench-style monument in The Garden of Serenity of the 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.
“Best known for her 1958 US #8 & UK #5 single “Fever” written by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport to which she added her own uncopyrighted lyrics, Lee wrote worked with Benny Goodman, Randy Newman, Quincy Jones and was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her 1969 hit “Is That All There Is?” Lee was also 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.Born the seventh of eight children to parents Marvin Olof Egstrom, a station agent for the Midland Continental Railroad, and his wife Selma Amelia (Anderson) Egstrom, Lee and her family were Lutherans. Her father was Swedish- American and her mother was Norwegian-American.
The town in which the Egstroms lived was small, boasting a population of sixty-six hundred, and located where the Midland Continental Railroad crossed the James River. Her mother died when Peggy was just a four year old toddler. That December their house burned down. Within a year, her father married her step-mother Min Schaumber, who treated her with great cruelty while her alcoholic but loving father did little to stop it. Beatings from Min resulted in bruises and cuts. A leather razor strap left a scar on one side of her face. The older children ran away, leaving seven-year-old Norma to keep house. At age ten Norma cooked, cleaned, milked cows, butchered farm animals, and did the wash. She barely survived a ruptured appendixLater, she developed her musical talent and took several part-time jobs so that she could be away from home to escape the abuse of her step-mother. She started singing in the Lutheran church and, at the age of fourteen, in neighboring Valley City for the radio station KOVC.
She toured locally with Doc Haines and His Orchestra for fifty cents a night. At age sixteen she was singing on KRMC and working in the Gladstone Hotel coffee shop. Ken Kennedy at WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota (the most widely heard station in North Dakota), changed her name to Peggy Lee, where she made $1.50 a day on the “Noonday Variety Show”.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 Fargochanged her name from Norma to Peggy Lee where she made $1.50 a day on the “Noonday Variety Show”Miss Lee later left home and traveled to Los Angeles at the age of 17 in 1937 arriving with only the eighteen dollars she had saved. She wrangled a job as a girl singer at the Jade for two dollars a night. Her act caught on and her salary was upped to thirty dollars a week. She needed a tonsillectomy and returned to North Dakota, where surgery left her voice huskier than ever.
Eighteen-year-old Lee then sang at Fargo’s Powers Hotel for fifteen dollars a week and later with Sev Olson’s band over KSTP in Minneapolis. In November 1939 she joined Will Osborne’s band and sang a Christmas 1939 engagement at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri. Lee learned the power of singing softly at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. By May 1941 she had signed with the William Morris Agency and was working at the Buttery in Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, where she earned seventy-five dollars a week plus room service.She returned to North Dakota for a tonsillectomy, and was later noticed by hotel owner Frank Bering while working at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. It was there 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 in mid-August 1941 and hired her to replace his girl singer Helen Forrest. Her first nationwide broadcast with the band was on 21 August. Lee’s version of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love” was broadcast over CBS Radio on 16 September. She recorded the tune nine days later in a singing style that was a “blurring of the barrier between song and the spoken word” (Richmond, p. 98), a pattern repeated in her 2 October recording of Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good).” During the week of 15 November 1941, Lee’s version of the Ellington classic made Billboard’s top hits chart, a string she continued for thirty-three years.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.Her first published song was in 1941 called “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 #1 for 9 weeks on the Billboard singles chart in 1948, from the week of March 13th to May 8th.In 1942 Lee had her first #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 #1 best-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 1952, Lee starred opposite Danny Thomas in “The Jazz Singer” (1952) a Technicolor remake of the early Al Jolson part-talkie film “The Jazz Singer”(1927). Lee then 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 also contributed songs and did the speaking and singing voices for several characters in Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) playing the human “Darling” (in the first part of the movie), the dog “Peg”, and the two Siamese cats “Si and Am”. In 1957, Lee guest starred on the short-lived ABC variety program, “The Guy Mitchell Show”.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. 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.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.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 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.