Peggy Lee (May 26, 1920 — January 21, 2002) as seen in LIFE magazine, 1948. Photo by Allan Grant
She was billed throughout most of her career as Miss Peggy Lee (and, in fact, she insisted on it). In the golden age of big bands she was a singer of renown with Benny Goodman’s orchestra and she went on to become a top nightclub singer, a prolific recording artist, a successful songwriter and an actress skillful enough to be nominated for an Oscar.
Duke Ellington called her “the Queen.” She was a weaver of moods and colors, her misty voice conveying impeccable rhythmic subtlety and smoldering sexuality. In a world of belters, she was a minimalist who eliminated any hint of the extraneous in both her voice and gestures, and she could stir audiences with an understated phrase more than most singers could by shouting and stomping.
Stephen Holden, a movie and cabaret critic for The New York Times, described her image as “Billie Holiday meets Mae West.”
Miss Lee made more than 700 recordings and more than 60 albums. Her own favorite album, “The Man I Love,” was recorded in 1957 with arrangements by Nelson Riddle and an orchestra conducted by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was so intimately involved with the album that he obtained some menthol to make Miss Lee’s eyes look properly misty for the cover photograph.
She is credited with having a hand in writing more than 200 songs, in most cases as a lyricist. Among the hits she wrote were “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “It’s a Good Day,” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me).” Her name is indelibly linked with a number of songs, including “Golden Earrings,” “Fever,” “Lover,” “Big Spender,” “You’re My Thrill,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Them There Eyes” and the haunting Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tune that became her signature in later years, “Is That All There Is?”
“She makes her listeners feel cherished,” Whitney Balliett wrote of her in The New Yorker. “Her singing lulls you, and it is easy to forget how daring it is. Many singers confuse shouting with emotion. Peggy Lee sends her feelings down the quiet center of her notes.”
“She is a subtle and brilliant showman,” he added. “She can slink, arch an eyebrow, pull out a hip and rest a hand on it, half smile, wave wandlike arms, bump, tilt her head and slouch – all to dazzling, precise effect.”
Miss Lee was named Norma Deloris Egstrom at her birth on May 27, 1920, in Jamestown, N.D. She was the sixth of seven children of Marvin and Selma Egstrom. Her father was a railroad station agent who drank too much. His job kept the family moving from town to town in lonely parts of North Dakota. Her mother died when she was 4 and her father remarried. Five-year-old Norma was brutally abused by her stepmother, who would hit her over the head with an iron skillet, beat her with a razor strap and drag her around by her hair. By the age of 7, she was keeping house, baking, cooking, cleaning and milking cows.
There was never any doubt in her mind that she would become a singer. ’‘I had always sung – I sang before I could talk,“ she reminisced in her 1989 autobiography, ’'Miss Peggy Lee” (Donald I. Fine). She was 14 when she made her professional debut at a local radio station in Jamestown and was still a teenager when a program director at a radio station in Fargo gave her a job and her stage name. The job paid $1.50 for each noonday show. To make ends meet, she worked a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift in a bakery, slicing and wrapping bread for 35 cents an hour.
A friend who had gone to California suggested she join her. She sold the watch her father had given her at her high school graduation for $30, bought a train ticket and arrived in Hollywood with $18. She got a brief singing engagement in a supper club but mostly worked as a waitress before returning to North Dakota. She found work singing for a radio station in Fargo, then as a singer in Minneapolis with Will Osborne’s band.
Miss Lee was discovered in Chicago in 1941 by Benny Goodman, who was looking for a replacement for his vocalist, Helen Forrest, who was leaving to join Artie Shaw’s band. He heard her sing “These Foolish Things” at the Ambassador West Hotel and called the next day, offering her the job. She had a cold the first night she appeared, the critics were unkind, and she wanted to quit. Goodman refused to let her go and she stayed on, at $75 a week.
Later that year, the band played the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, and Miss Lee recalled in her autobiography how awed she had been to see Franchot Tone dancing by with Joan Crawford, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne chatting at their table with Katharine Cornell, and Gary Cooper joking with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
It was Miss Lee’s sulky rendition of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” with the Goodman band in 1942 that made her a star. She sang the Joe McCoy song in a voice that demonstrated she could sing of hard times as well as anybody; her version became one of the the biggest selling records in the country:
You had plenty money nineteen twen'y-two You let other women make a fool of you Why don’t you do right Like some other men do? Get out of here and get me some money, too.
Peggy Lee’s tour with the Goodman band lasted less than two years but the collaboration made her one of the most famous female vocalists of the time and put her on the road to fame. [x]
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