Peggy Lee

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Edited by Colin Larkin; Muze Inc., 1998

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 depot.

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. Goodman’s 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, “Elmer’s 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 Don’t You Do Right?.”

Later, Lee married Goodman’s guitarist, Dave Barbour. After she left Goodman’s band in 1943, she had more successful records, including “That Old Feeling” and three songs of which she was co-composer with Barbour, “It’s a Good Day,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” and “Mañana.” She also performed on radio with Bing Crosby.

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 Kelly’s 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 Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” for which Lee wrote the song “He’s 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 label’s 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 O’Sullivan 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 Betty Carter.