The 1972 album Norma Deloris Egstrom From Jamestown, North Dakota was Peggy Lee’s 40th and final LP for Capitol Records. It was a team effort: Lee was joined by acclaimed producer Tom Catalano (Neil Diamond, Anne Murray), renowned arranger Artie Butler (Louis Armstrong, Barry Manilow), and Lee’s manager and album coordinator Brian Panella. The result is one of the most vibrant albums in her storied career. It was also a bit of a left turn. So much so that Tom Catalano thought a shocking and provocative album title might be the right choice for the material. In this excerpt from the liner notes to the 50th anniversary edition of the album, we hear the story from Brian Panella, with additional commentary from Peggy Lee expert Iván Santiago.
Brian Panella: Tom [Catalano], being a maverick and ahead of his time, had come up with an idea for the album title that had never quite been done before. “I think we can get away with it,” he mused. “She’s so good, and the album is so good.” I asked what title he had in mind. Then he told me: Super Bitch. “Super Bitch?!” I exclaimed. And then he says to me, “Yeah! She’s phenomenal. She can be a bitch, but it’s because she is so talented. She’s one of the top vocalists in the world. She’s incredible. And people will be so attracted to it.” And I said, “I won’t argue with that. People will be, like, we’ve got to buy it just to see what’s in it.” This was just at the time when blue language was starting to take hold with a lot of artists, mostly rock artists. But it was happening.
Iván Santiago: Indeed, it was. Jazz great Miles Davis, with whom Peggy Lee happened to share her May 26 birth date, gave the title Bitches Brew to the 1970 album that earned him both a Grammy and a spot on Billboard’s popular album chart. Across the pond, The Rolling Stones recorded the song “Bitch” (1970), which they included in their infamously zipped album Sticky Fingers. David Bowie soon followed suit with his provocative composition “Queen Bitch” (1971). The string culminated with the release of Elton John‘s self-referential “The Bitch Is Back” on a 1974 single.
Brian Panella: I knew how Peggy was going to react, but I told her anyway and added, “I do agree with him that it is a revolutionary idea: Nobody would expect it, which we believe will attract listeners even more to buy the album.” Peggy seemed almost ready to fire me! But then she said, “Brian, I’ve gone against you a number of times, and then I’ve changed my mind. But I won’t change my mind about this. I won’t have Super Bitch. I will not.”
She immediately called Tom and said, “I can’t do that, and I won’t do it, and I won’t have it.” So once again, it went on, back and forth and back and forth. In the end, he said, “Well, that’s what I want. You can talk to the Capitol people, and they can call me.” They did, and they explained, “This is Peggy Lee; she can’t be called ‘super bitch’ on a public album release.”
So, we went to the other extreme – Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown North Dakota. I can’t remember who came up with it; maybe it was Peggy’s daughter, Nicki. That is about as purified from Super Bitch as you could ever get. Tom was not wrong in his thinking, but it was beyond Peggy’s capability of acceptance. I mean, aside from a very occasional “hell” before a quip, you never heard her – at least I never heard her – swearing.
Iván Santiago: While the singer’s birth name was adopted for public consumption, vestiges of the original title linger deep in Capitol’s underground vaults. It has been reported that, right under the rubric “album title,” neatly typed in uppercase, the master tape proudly answers to the moniker Super Bitch.