Duke Ellington called her “the Queen.” Jazz critic Leonard Feather dubbed her “Miss Standing Ovation.” And Madonna practically curtsies in her presence.
Now 72, Peggy Lee regards herself above all as a survivor, who, through faith and grit, has triumphed over such formidable Goliaths as paralysis, an abusive stepparent and the Disney organization.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., in 1920, Lee knew she wanted to be a singer from childhood. Beaten both physically and emotionally by her stepmother, she began to cultivate the inner strength that would become the wellspring of her art.
Lee’s taste was forever inclined toward blues and jazz when, at age eight, she heard Bennie Moten’s band, led by Count Basie, on a Kansas City radio station.
“I was listening to it on a five-dial Atwater Kent radio in Nortonville, North Dakota,” recalled Lee, interviewed by phone at her home in Bel Air, Calif. Basie “always remained a big influence,” she said.
As a teenager, Lee began singing on a local radio station, which led to an audition for station WDAY in Fargo.
“We’ll have to change your name,” Ken Kennedy, the station head, told the young blonde singer. “Norma Egstrom just won’t do. You look like a Peggy — Peggy, Peggy — Lee!”
At 16, Lee began touring as a big band vocalist. Benny Goodman heard her in Chicago and hired her to replace Helen Forrest. With Goodman, she recorded her first big hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
She left the Goodman band in 1943 to marry guitarist Dave Barbour, with whom she collaborated on songwriting (“It’s a Good Day,” “Mañana”), performing, and a daughter, Nicki. Though Barbour’s alcoholism led to their divorce in 1951, and Lee remarried three times, he remains the love of her life.
Lee’s catalog of hits continued to grow: “Black Coffee,” “Lover,” “Is That All There Is?,” and, of course, “Fever,” to name a few of the hundreds of songs she has recorded.
Among contemporary American singers, Lee is renowned for her ability to interpret a song — to become the character behind the lyrics, in what critic Gene Lees has called “a Stanislavskian approach to singing.”
“In singing, it’s all in the mind, and that’s where everything starts anyway,” Lee said. “I just sort of go into my own little universe.”
Lee used that acting talent in several films, notably in “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955) for which she won an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress for her role as an alcoholic nightclub singer.
She co-wrote the songs for the Disney film “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) and performed four character voices, including the two Siamese cats. More than three decades later, she sued Disney for videocassette profits on the film and won $2.3 million in damages.
Though the award will go largely to taxes and legal fees, Lee, who plans to write a book about the case, doesn’t regret the action. “I felt it was a great moral victory,” she said. “It will at least show other artists that they should never be afraid, no matter how big the organization is.”
The singer has been recognized by many humanitarian causes for her generosity of time, money and spirit. The Women’s International Center gave her its Living Legacy Award, citing her as “the Renaissance woman with a conscience.”
She is also a painter, a poet and an author of children’s books. In 1989, she published her autobiography, “Miss Peggy Lee,” written without a collaborator.
Health problems have plagued Lee in recent years, including a broken pelvis and polymyalitis rheumatosis, an inflammatory condition that caused temporary paralysis. Today she feels “pretty good,” she said, vowing, “I’m going to get out of that wheelchair, I really am.”
Through it all, Lee continues to perform. Last year she played a sold-out, five-week engagement at the New York Hilton; Village Voice critic Gary Giddins lauded her as “still gloriously Lee… in an absolutely riveting set that will be talked about for years.”
Madonna, who covered “Fever” on her last album, came to see Lee in New York., and the senior legend pronounced the junior one “a perfect little lady.”
“She dressed impeccably,” said Lee. “She was quite shy. I can’t figure it out — is it just a role she’s playing, or what?”
Besides “Love Held Lightly,” Lee has spent a lot of time in the recording studio. And, Playhouse Square Center, take note: She’s starting to book concerts for this year, and has heard good things about the Palace Theater.
Just who is Peggy Lee singing to? “I sing to one, but universally,” she said. “I usually choose songs that have double meaning.”