Lee, Peggy born Norma Deloris Egstrom, 26 May 1920,
Jamestown, North Dakota, USA. Lee is of Scandinavian descent, her
grandparents being Swedish and Norwegian immigrants. She endured
a difficult childhood and her mother died when she was four; when
her father remarried she experienced a decidedly unpleasant relationship
with her stepmother. Her father took to drink, and at the age of
14 she found herself carrying out his duties at the local railroad
Despite these and other hardships, she sang frequently and appeared
on a local radio station. She took a job as a waitress in Fargo,
where the manager of the radio station changed her name to Peggy
Lee. In 1937, she took a trip to California to try her luck there
but soon returned to Fargo. Another California visit was equally
unsuccessful and then she tried Chicago where, in 1941, as a member
of a vocal group, The Four of Us, she was hired to sing at the Ambassador
West Hotel. During this engagement she was heard by Mel Powell,
who invited Benny Goodman to hear her. Goodmans regular singer,
Helen Forrest, was about to leave and Lee was hired as her replacement.
She joined the band for an engagement at the College Inn and within
a few days sang on a record date. A song from the period, "Elmers
Tune," was a huge success. Among other popular recordings she made
with Goodman were "How Deep Is the Ocean?," "How Long Has This Been
Going On?," "My Old Flame," and "Why Dont You Do Right?."
Later, Lee married Goodmans guitarist, Dave Barbour. After
she left Goodmans band in 1943, she had more successful records,
including "That Old Feeling" and three songs of which she was co-composer
with Barbour, "Its a Good Day," "I Dont Know Enough
About You," and "Mañana." She also performed on radio with Bing
In the [late 1940s and early] 1950s she made several popular recordings
for Capitol, the orchestral backings for many of which were arranged
and conducted by Barbour. Her 1958 hit single "Fever" was also a
collaboration with Barbour [sic]. Her "Black Coffee" album of 1953
was particularly successful, as was "Beauty and the Beat" a few
years later. On these and other albums of the period, Lee was often
accompanied by jazz musicians, including Jimmy Rowles, Marty Paich
and George Shearing.
Lee was also active in films, performing the title song of "Johnny
Guitar" (1954), and writing songs for others including "Tom Thumb"
(1958). She also made a number of on-screen appearances in acting
roles, including "The Jazz Singer" (1953), and for one, "Pete Kellys
Blues" (1955), she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting
Actress. However, her most lasting fame in films lies in her off-screen
work on Walt Disneys "Lady and the Tramp," for which Lee wrote
the song "Hes a Tramp" and provided the voice for the characters
of Peg, the Siamese cats, and one other on-screen feline.
Her recording successes continued throughout the period even if,
on some occasions, she had to fight to persuade Capitol to record
them. One such argument surrounded "Lover," which executives felt
would compete directly with the labels then popular version
by Les Paul. Lee won out [sic; she left Capitol for Decca] and her
performance of her own arrangement, played by a studio orchestra
under the direction of Gordon Jenkins, was a sensation.
Towards the end of the 1950s, the intense level of work began to
take its toll and she suffered a period of illness. Throughout the
1960s and succeeding decades Lee performed extensively, singing
at concerts and on television and, of course, making records, despite
being frequently plagued with poor health.
Her voice is light with a delicate huskiness, offering intriguing
contrasts with the large orchestral accompaniment that is usually
a part of a Lee performance. Over the years her repeated use of
previously successful settings for songs has tended to make her
shows predictable, but she remains a dedicated perfectionist in
everything that she does.
In the early 1980s she attempted a [Broadway] stage show, "Peg,"
but it proved unpopular and closed quickly. In the late 1980s she
again suffered ill health and on some of her live performances her
voice was starting to betray the ravages of time. For her many fans,
it did not seem to matter: to paraphrase the title of one of her
songs, they just loved being there with Peg.
In 1992, wheelchair-bound for the previous two years, Lee was persisting
in a lawsuit, begun in 1987, against the Walt Disney Corporation
for her share of the video profits from "Lady and the Tramp." A
year later, dissatisfied with the "paltry" £2 million settlement
for her six songs (written with Sonny Burke) and character voices,
she was preparing to write a book about the whole affair. Meanwhile,
she continued to make occasional cabaret appearances at New York
venues such as Club 53. In 1993 she recorded a duet with Gilbert
OSullivan for his album "Sounds of the Loop."
Lee is one of the greatest "classy" vocalists of the century, alongside
such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and