by Hal Boyle
Peggy Lee, the golden songbird of her time, hates to be called a perfectionist.
“It makes me sound too much as if I were one of those fussy women who always bustle around seeing that the ashtrays are clean,” she sighed. “And I’m not that way.
“But I do pay great attention to detail in my work because I want to improve it, and it that makes me a perfectionist, then I suppose I am. But everybody enjoys a show better when it is done creatively.
Peggy invests from $25,000 to $30,000 preparing a show, a sum larger that is sometimes spent to launch an entire off Broadway play. Her investment has always paid off.
Over a career that spans three decades, the champagne-blonde singer has recorded more than 500 songs, 100 of which she wrote herself. Her weekly income is high in the five-figure bracket. Tops with the public, she is also a favorite with her fellow musicians. They tend to rate Peggy and Ella Fitzgerald as the best of the living pop singers.
She is also self-tutored, and like most of the truly great ones she came up the hard way – step by painful step.
“My sister said I hummed before I learned to talk,” she said.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, daughter of the railway station agent in Jamestown, North Dakota, she lost her mother when she was four. At 17, on a borrowed railroad pass and $18, she set out for Hollywood, and rode sitting up on a coach car all the way.
“I was terribly shy and naive, and didn’t even know where to go to find a place to sing,” she said. “I was a short order cook, a waitress and an amusement park barker. I was down to a dime, literally, when I got a job at a supper club for $3 a night and my meals.
Bronchial illness that has plagued her throughout her adult life forced her to return home. Then Ken Kennedy of Station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota, gave her a job and renamed her Peggy Lee.
“I like the name – it has been very good to me,” said Peggy “I like it better than some of the names you hear now – such as The Electric Prune.
After touring with several Midwest bands, Peggy was summoned by Benny Goodman to be his leading vocalist. in 1942, she recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right?” the first of a parade of smash hits. They include “Lover,” “Mañana,” “Golden Earrings,” “Fever,” “It’s a Good Day,” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.”
Gifted in many fields, Peggy is a skilled painter and poet. She is widely read and a sentence from Ralph Waldo Emerson has deeply inspired her in time of trouble: “God will not have his work done by cowards.”
“To me life is awareness,” said the silky-voiced singer, “awareness of everything possible – from music trends to world problems and the flowers in your garden.
“People who don’t stay aware eventually become vegetables. It would be awful – a waste of life not to be aware.
“Live with as much love, humor and courage as you can – and try to learn from your experience.
“I have the feeling sometimes that the public thinks I am sad because I sometimes sing sad songs,” she said. “I have had sad times” – her three marriages ended in divorce – “but I have a sense of humor and love to laugh.
“I do feel sad about some of the young people today who are so busy crusading for change that they aren’t equipping and training themselves to be proper adults. I’m afraid that will hurt them later.
“I’m not against change or progress, but I feel it’s better to look for a solution than just to keep stomping on the problem.”