In the words of British jazz critic Peter Clayton, Peggy Lee is quite simply the finest singer in the history of popular music. Thats quite a claim, but Clayton is not alone in his views. Others have called her a living legend and an American tradition. None other than Frank Sinatra said, her talent should be studied by all vocalists, and her regal presence is pure elegance and charm. Most importantly, her illustrious career, spanning over six decades, speaks for itself. Her contributions to American music not only as a lyricist, composer, and musical innovator exemplify popular music at its best through the eras of jazz, blues, swing, Latin and rock.
Miss Lee has recorded well over 600 songs and sixty albums, a number of which have become gold records. Peggy Lee’s awards range from recognition of her musical achievements to citations for humanitarianism, and include Lifetime Achievement awards from ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and the Society of Singers, Grammy awards that include Best Female Vocalist and another Lifetime Achievement award, two honorary doctorates in music, an Oscar nomination, a Laurel Award from the motion picture exhibitors, and Audience Award from theatergoers. In 1999 Miss Lee was proudly inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Miss Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, North Dakota. While growing up she sang in the church choir and was singing professionally by the time she was fourteen. Within a few years, Miss Lee ventured from Jamestown to Fargo, and it was there that she met Ken Kennedy, program director of radio station WDAY. He was so impressed by her talent that he put her on the air within an hour of meeting her, but decided that the name Norma Egstrom just wouldnt do so he christened her Peggy Lee.
It was the age of the big band, and in 1936 Miss Lee joined the Jack Wardlow Band, stepping up a few years later to the Will Osborne Band. In her many travels, she caught the ear of none other than Benny Goodman. He quickly signed her up with his orchestra, arguably the most popular and influential big band ever.
Miss Lee stayed with Goodman from 1941 to 1943. During this time she sang a number of his hit recordings, including I Got It Bad and That Aint Good, Blues in the Night, Somebody Else is Taking My Place, and Jersey Bounce. But the recording that made her a household name was Why Dont You Do Right, in 1942. It was a song she had chosen, and it offered a glimpse of the independence and creative sense that have driven her entire career.
In 1943 Miss Lee married Goodmans guitarist, Dave Barbour, and retired from performing. She gave birth to a daughter, Nicki, and was intent on being a full-time wife and mother. As a married woman, she was washing dishes one day, and the words for What More Can a Woman Do? came pouring out of her thoughts. When Barbour came home that evening, she told him the lyric, and in a few hours they had the first of the numerous songs they wrote together. It was the beginning of Miss Lee’s career as a professional songwriter a career that would produce over 300 songs, many of them hits.
It was with Barbour that Miss Lee wrote many of her early hits, including I Dont Know Enough About You, Manana, and Its a Good Day. In the years following, she has written a wide and varied range of musical material with some of the greatest musicians and songwriters in America, including Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel, Cy Coleman, Victor Young, Sonny Burke, Dave Grusin and Quincy Jones. In writing her own material long before it was fashionable to do so, Miss Lee established herself as a trendsetter.
The 1950s found Miss Lee’s career expanding to include the world of motion pictures. In 1950 she appeared in Mr. Music with Bing Crosby. She played opposite Danny Thomas in the 1953 remake of The Jazz Singer, and also wrote and performed the song This is a Very Special Day for the movie. And her portrayal of Rosie, an alcoholic blues singer, in Pete Kellys Blues (1955) earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Her involvement with movies didnt end when she stopped playing parts. She has written words or music for a number of motion pictures, including Johnny Guitar, About Mrs. Leslie, Tom Thumb and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Perhaps Miss Lee’s proudest moment in the movies came with Walt Disneys feature-length cartoon Lady and the Tramp (1954). In addition to writing the songs with Sonny Burke, she gave voice to four of the roles in the picture: the mischievous Siamese Cats Si and Am, the young human mother Darling and the down-on-her luck ex-showdog Peg. That last character, a vampy Pekinese, was originally named Mamie, but since Mamie Eisenhower was the First Lady at the time, Walt asked Miss Lee whether shed mind if the character were renamed after her. She was delighted. The animators even asked Miss Lee to walk for them, as a model for Pegs walk.
In 1958 Miss Lee released one of her biggest and most influential hits, Fever. And in 1969 she recorded the song Is That All There Is, for which she won a Grammy Award.
Widely recognized as one of the most important musical influences of the 20th century, Miss Lee has been cited as a mentor to such diverse artists as Bette Midler, Madonna, k.d. lang, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Dusty Springfield, Dr. John, and numerous others. Sir Paul McCartney has been a longtime fan of Miss Lee’s, and in 1974 wrote and produced a song for her called Lets Love.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Miss Lee kept up a hectic touring schedule, performing at venues such as Carnegie Hall and The Hollywood Bowl. She also continued to record CDs, write music and poetry, and paint.
On January 21, 2002, Miss Lee passed away at her home in Bel Air, California. Upon learning of her death, the distinguished jazz critic Nat Hentoff told the Baltimore Sun: “Her main quality was a marvelous sense of subtlety. She never overpowered you. You could hear her voice after it stopped.”