Author unknown; March 1963
Lee, Peggy – May 26, 1920. Singer,
More than two decades have passed since
Peggy Lee sang with Benny Goodman’s swing band and made her first
hit recording. Yet so inexhaustible is her talent and so intense
her application to her work that, almost a generation later, she
stands at the peak of her career. A product of the big-band era,
she derived from that apprenticeship her ability to sing anything
from jazz to blues, to sing it with a beat, and with enough volume
to be heard above the band. Few vocalists have had her staying power.
Peggy Lee is also a successful composer, lyricist, arranger, actress,
and businesswoman. To all her careers she brings a perfectionism
that leaves the stamp of professionalism on everything she touches.
Of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry,
Peggy Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota,
a farm town on the Great Plains, on May 26, 1920. She was the seventh
of eight children born to Marvin Egstrom, a station agent for the
Midland Continental Railroad, and Mrs. Egstrom, who died when the
child was four years old. Encouraged by the recognition she had
received for her singing with the high school glee club, the church
choir, and semi-professional college bands, Norma headed for Hollywood
after she graduated from high school in 1938. With her she took
$18 in cash and a railroad pass she had borrowed from her father.
Although she got a brief singing engagement at the Jade Room, a
supper club on Hollywood Boulevard, she made little impression on
the film capital, and she was reduced to working as a waitress and
as a carnival spieler at a Balboa midway.
Deciding to try her luck nearer home,
she found work as a singer over radio station WDAY in Fargo, North
Dakota, whose manager, Ken Kennedy, christened her Peggy Lee. (To
supplement her income she worked for a time as a bread slicer in
a Fargo bakery.) Her prospects for a career brightened when she
moved to Minneapolis, where she sang in the dining room of the Radisson
Hotel, appeared on a Standard Oil radio show, and sang with Sev
Olsen’s band. Miss Lee broke into the big time when she became a
vocalist with Will Osborne’s band, but three months after she joined
the group it broke up in St. Louis, and she got a ride to California
with the manager.
It was at the Doll House in Palm Springs,
California that Peggy Lee first developed the soft and "cool" style
that has become her trademark. Unable to shout above the clamor
of the Doll House audience, Miss Lee tried to snare its attention
by lowering her voice. The softer she sang the quieter the audience
became. She has never forgotten the secret, and it has given her
style its distinctive combination of the delicate and the driving,
the husky and the purringly seductive. One of the members of the
Doll House audience was Frank Bering, the owner of Chicago’s Ambassador
West Hotel, who invited her to sing in his establishment’s Buttery
Benny Goodman discovered Peggy Lee’s
vocalizing in the Buttery Room at a time when he was looking for
a replacement for Helen Forrest. Miss Lee joined Goodman’s band
in July, 1941, when the band was at the height of its popularity,
and for over two years she toured the United States with the most
famous swing outfit of the day, playing hotel engagements, college
proms, theater dates, and radio programs.
Much of her present success Miss Lee
credits to her apprenticeship with the big bands. "I learned more
about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned
anywhere else," she has said. "They taught me discipline and the
value of rehearsing and even how to train…. Band singing taught
us the importance of interplay with musicians. And we had to work
close to the arrangement." In July, 1942, Peggy Lee recorded her
first smash hit, "Why Don’t You Do Right?" It sold over 1,000,000
copies and made her famous.
In March, 1943, Peggy Lee married Dave
Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman’s band; shortly thereafter she
left the band. After her daughter, Nicki, was born in 1944, Peggy
Lee and her husband worked successfully on the West Coast. In 1944
she began to record for Capitol Records, for whom she has produced
a long string of hits – many of them with lyrics and music by Miss
Lee and Dave Barbour. Among them are "Golden Earrings," which sold
over 1,000,000 copies [sic; song not written by Lee and Barbour];
"You Was Right, Baby;" "It’s a Good Day;" "Mañana" (which sold over
2,000,000 records); "What More Can a Woman Do?;" and "I Don’t Know
Enough About You." Today Peggy Lee has a top rating as a songwriter
with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
In 1950 Peggy Lee made a first, brief
screen appearance [sic; she had previously appeared in "Stage Door
Canteen," "The Powers Girl" and several shorts] in Paramount’s "Mr.
Music," starring Bing Crosby. In 1953 she played a featured role
opposite Danny Thomas in Warner Brothers’ remake of the early Al
Jolson talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," and won praise from a
critic of the "New York Wolrd-Telegram and Sun" for "a very promising
start on a movie career" as "a poised and ingratiating ingenue."
Her performance as a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in "Pete
Kelly’s Blues" (Warner Brothers, 1955) won her a nomination from
the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the 1955 balloting
conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, moviegoers
voted her the "Audie" statuette.
Peggy Lee has not only appeared in
motion pictures but she has also written music and lyrics for them.
She wrote the theme music for "Johnny Guitar" (Republic, 1954) and
for "About Mrs. Leslie" (Paramount, 1954). She contributed the musical
score to two George Pal cartoon features, "Tom Thumb" (MGM, 1958)
and "The Time Machine" (MGM, 1960), and wrote the lyrics and supplied
several voices for the Walt Disney full-length animated cartoon
"Lady and the Tramp" (Buena Vista, 1955). For "Anatomy of a Murder"
(Columbia, 1959) she wrote the lyrics for "I’m Gonna Go Fishin’"
to music by Duke Ellington.
In the respect she commands from the
critics both as a popular vocalist and as a jazz artist, Peggy Lee
is a rarity among singers. Critic George Hoefer of "Downbeat" magazine
has called her "the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred
Bailey," and Leonard Feather in "The Encyclopedia of Jazz" (Horizon,
1960) has described her as "one of the most sensitive and jazz-oriented
singers in the pop field." Miss Lee won the 1946 polls as best female
vocalist of both "Metronome" and "Downbeat" magazines, wisely read
by jazz buffs, and the 1950 citation as "the nation’s most popular
female vocalist" from "Billboard," a trade magazine of show business.
A frequent performer on television, she sang on the Thursday night
"Revlon Revues" over CBS-TV in 1960, and has appeared on televised
musical variety shows starring Perry Como, George Gobel, Steve Allen
and Bing Crosby. In March, 1960 she undertook a straight dramatic
role in "So Deadly, So Evil" on the "General Electric Theater" over
In September, 1962 Miss Lee reached
what she has called the "high spot" in her career when she was selected
to appear in Philharmonic Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center for
the Performing Arts, an auditorium usually available to those whom
the management considers as serious artists. Miss Lee conducted
research for, and wrote a program called "The Jazz Tree," tracing
the origins and development of jazz as a native American art form.
Originally scheduled for December, 1962, the booking was postponed
until March, 1963 to give Miss Lee enough time to perfect her presentation.
This perfectionist approach to her
programs is typical of Miss Lee. She polishes and perfects every
aspect of her performances – her special coiffures, her costly wardrobe,
her lighting, her entrances and exits, and her musical arrangements.
Her perfectionism may derive from her association with Benny Goodman,
who always demanded the best from his performers. Rejecting the
improvisatory approach of most jazz singers, Peggy Lee plans every
detail of her delivery in advance, including even the movement of
her hands. This perfectionism has taken its toll of her health on
several occasions; she was hospitalized with virus pneumonia in
July, 1958 and in November, 1961. As a result, Miss Lee has reduced
her schedule, confining her public appearances to six weeks each
year in New York and Las Vegas, a few television shows, and one
or two charity benefits.
Although Miss Lee continues to collaborate
with Dave Barbour on words and music, their marriage ended in divorce
in 1951. On January 4, 1955, Miss Lee married Brad Dexter, a movie
actor. Ten months later they were divorced. Miss Lee’s third marriage,
to actor Dewey Martin on April 25, 1956, also ended in divorce in
1959. [A fourth marriage, 1964-1965, was to percussionist and bandleader
Jack Del Rio.] She is 5’7" in height, with hazel eyes and champagne-blonde
hair. With her daughter, Nicki, she lives in Coldwater Canyon, near
Hollywood, California. It contains not only a soundproof studio
with tape units, microphones, grand piano, and other equipment for
writing and recording music, but also an artist’s studio in which
she paints and sculpts the hands of musicians and the heads of great
men like Albert Schweitzer whom she admires. A book of her verse,
"Softly, With Feeling," was published in 1953. In 1958 Miss Lee
consolidated her various activities, which include music publishing
firms and a production unit for television and films, into a company
called Peggy Lee enterprises. Noted for her generosity, she has
been active in such philanthropies as CARE and WAIF, and in November,
1962 was appointed national chairman of the Tom Dooley Foundation.
In spite of her many commitments, Peggy
Lee makes a point of finding enough time for reading, especially
the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, she feels, has a special
significance for Americans today. "I wouldn’t still be working today
if it weren’t for the strength I’ve derived from some of his essays,"
she once told Neil Hickey in an interview for "American Weekly"
(July 3, 1960). "He said: ‘God will not have his work done by cowards.’
To me that means: ‘Don’t let your personal problems get in the way
of your life’s work.’ I’ve had to remember that rule several times
during my career.