Peggy Lee

Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop

By Roy Hemming and David Hajdu; Newmarket Press, 1991

Chatting and laughing, clanging cocktail glasses, the audience was louder than the band, as Peggy Lee tells the story. It was 1941, at a swanky club in Palm Springs called the Doll House. Lee was booming out her songs, but nobody seemed to care much about hearing her. Then she got a thought. For the next tune, whose title she doesn’t recall, she lowered her voice to a hush, quieter than the crowd, and the audience started settling down and listening. Apocryphal or not, the story nicely dramatizes the inverted emotional physics at work in Peggy Lee’s singing. By reducing how much she gives her listeners, she increases how much they get.

Few people seem to know about it, because it’s been fifty years since she’s let anybody hear it, but Peggy Lee’s natural voice is quite full and strong (or was until the late 1980s, when her health declined severely). When she sings with that alluring purr of a voice, she’s revealing a bare hint of everything she’s got, like most alluring women. Of course, many of the best classic-pop vocalists sing at conversational volume. But Peggy Lee never tries to dominate the conversation. As F. Scott Fitzgerald described Daisy Buchanan, she brings others close to her with the softness of her voice.

Once she’s pulled you in, Peggy Lee is able to communicate much more intimately and subtly than singers who belt out tunes in the big, broad theatrical style. There she is, nose-to-nose with you. She can’t very well start mugging like a stage ham, when a half-smile or a wink would make her feelings clear. All Peggy Lee needs to do is pause a half-beat on a lyric or bend a note a quarter-tone, and she has you intrigued. One of the most hypnotic of all pop singers, she knows the power of suggestion.

Lee has been entrancing concert audiences, record buyers, and moviegoers for half a century now, still maintaining an active schedule of recording, performing, and songwriting as she passed her seventieth year in 1990. She’s more than a survivor; she’s also a victor. Through several life-threatening illnesses, four troubled marriages, and rock ‘n’ roll, Lee has prevailed as the only woman to have Top Ten hits in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s. Beyond her singing, too, Lee is the only major female singer in the classic-pop style to emerge as an important songwriter of songs not only for herself but also for other major singers. And, as a sideline, she’s acted well enough to be nominated for an Academy Award.

“People wonder how you can survive in show business,” she mused in her later years. “My strength came from the training I got as a girl, working as a hired hand on a farm. I shucked grain. I pitched hay. I drove the water wagon for a threshing ring.” Raised in Jamestown, North Dakota, where folks know what a threshing ring is, Norma Deloris Egstrom was the seventh of eighth children born to a Norwegian railroad worker and his Swedish wife, who died when Norma was four years old. Before her adolescence, Lee had started working at grown-up jobs, first with her father for a small railroad company, then on the local farms, and, by the time she was fourteen, singing on the Jamestown radio station. “My teachers told me I had a good voice, so I put it to work,” she later explained. “It beat shucking grain, although I still did some waitressing in between my spots on the radio.”

From her earliest days as a singer, Lee showed the potent combination of independent spirit, appetite for work, and natural talent that would fuel her for some fifty years. Renamed Peggy Lee by a program director at a radio station in Fargo, North Dakota, she bolted for Hollywood after high-school graduation with her accumulated savings of $18. She landed a job – waitressing – and even managed to do a little singing at the Jade Club before heading back north to Minneapolis, where she sang with Sev Olsen’s regional band for a while. From the Olsen group, Lee soon moved up to her first glimmer of the big time with Will Osborne’s orchestra. It was around this period that she played that date at the Doll House in Palm Springs, which would prove to be only slightly more important in the making of Peggy Lee than a subsequent gig in Chicago in 1941. That’s when Benny Goodman heard Lee at the Ambassador Hotel and brought her all the way into the very big time, signing her to replace Helen Forrest.

“I learned more about music with the bands I worked with than I learned anywhere else,” she says. From performing dance music with swing bands, she developed an especially acute sense of time. Even on ballads and contemporary material, Peggy Lee sings with a light, rhythmic lilt that’s rooted in her dance-band days. As she puts it, “I really have no sense of time except swing time.”

Because of both her sense of rhythm and her understated phrasing – to say that she understates is an overstatement – Peggy Lee is often associated with Billie Holiday. While an admirer of Holiday, Lee credits Maxine Sullivan as her strongest influence. “I wasn’t drawn to any particular singer until I heard Maxine Sullivan. I like the simplicity and the economy of her work,” she explains. “She communicates so well that you really get the point of her songs right away.”

There is more to Peggy Lee’s singing that simplicity and economy, or she would be the Hyundai of pop singing instead of the jaguar. She is, of course, one of the sexiest of pop singers, and not only because of her exquisite Nordic looks. There’s a creamy warmth to the tone of her voice that gives it a sensually conspiratorial quality. Most of her hits have been songs that play on this sexiness, including the lusty 1943 release with the Goodman band that first launched Peggy Lee to national prominence, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (which had been released far less successfully by Lil Green four years earlier). With “Lover” (1952) she transformed what composer Richard Rodgers called “my little waltz” into a driving sexual assault. And then there’s “Fever” (1958), a song that separates sex from love altogether and set a standard for pop eroticism that has yet to be surpassed, no matter how explicit and raunchy contemporary pop songs get.

While the public that makes million-selling records may always associate Peggy Lee with her sexiest hits, she would prefer to be thought of as a respected composer of pop standards and film scores. The only major female pop singer to achieve note as a songwriter, Lee has been crafting songs from the mid-1940s to the present day. Her songs, for which she usually writes lyrics in collaboration with composers, are generally as straightforward as her singing, if not quite as sophisticated and rich in subtext. She has recorded most of her songs herself, and scored hits with several, including “Mañana” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” both written with her first husband, Dave Barbour. Her specialty has been adapting songs from movie themes, [for films] such as “Johnny Guitar” and “About Mrs. Leslie,” both written with Victor Young; “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” written with Dave Grusin; “The Shining Sea,” the theme for “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” written with Johnny Mandel; and the entire score for the Disney cartoon feature “Lady and the Tramp,” written with Sonny Burke. (In mid-1990 Peggy Lee released a newly recorded compilation of original songs she had written over the course of her career, titled “There’ll Be Another Spring: The Peggy Lee Songbook.”)

As she’s felt fit, Lee has dabbled in acting from time to time as well. She’s good at dabbling – she’s done some sculpting and some painting, with a fondness for rendering the hands of famous men such as Albert Schweitzer; she’s written some verse, compiled in a book that sounds as if it’s about her singing, called “Softly, With Feeling.” As an avocational actress, she made her debut with a brief appearance with Bing Crosby in “Mr. Music” (1950) [sic – her first feature film appearances were in 1943, in “Stage Door Canteen,” released first, and “The Powers Girl,” filmed first]. A little later she took on a featured role opposite Danny Thomas in the 1953 version of “The Jazz Singer.” She’s done a bit of dramatic TV, including parts in “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.” (1967) and “Owen Marshall, Counselor-at-Law” (1972). Yes she clearly had the potential to become a successful actress, had she wanted, as her performance in the 1955 drama “Pete Kelly’s Blues” demonstrates. She was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her finely shaded portrayal of an alcoholic blues singer in the early days of jazz.

Peggy Lee’s life has not been charmed, however. For all of her hits, she’s had her share of misses – most notably her one and only appearance on Broadway, in 1983, in an original autobiographical musical, “Peg.” A painfully honest piece of personal expression (and we mean painfully), the show featured numbers such as a song about Lee’s childhood, “One Beating a Day, Maybe More.” It didn’t leave ‘em laughing, and “Peg” closed in one night.

Her love life hasn’t been all fun, either. Lee has married four times: Dave Barbour in ‘43, Brad Dexter in ‘55, Dewey Martin in ‘56, and Jack Del Rio in ‘64. In addition, she’s long suffered from a variety of health problems, including diabetes, various lung ailments, and a failing heart, for which she underwent double bypass surgery in the 1980s. Since breaking her pelvis in a fall on a slippery Las Vegas stage in the 1980s she has rarely been able to walk on her own and relies on a wheelchair. Moreover, respiratory problems have made her dependent on a transportable oxygen apparatus that she travels with and uses in her dressing room during breaks in live performances.

Wheelchair and portable oxygen and tent and all, Peggy Lee was writing songs, recording, and performing regularly as she began her second half-century in music in the early 1990s. “I don’t like time. I think of everything as now,” she says simply. Then again, she was never one to overstate her point.