Peggy Lee

The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Edited by Donald Clarke; Penguin Books, 1998

Lee, Peggy (born Norma Deloris Egstrom, 26 May 1920, Jamestown, North Dakota) – Singer; one of the most perennially popular of her generation; also songwriter and actress. Beaten by a stepmother for eleven years, instead of becoming abusive herself she became non-violent. Sang in North Dakota, on West Coast; joined Benny Goodman (1941) after gig with vocal trio at Chicago hotel; hits with Goodman began with “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” (1942, from Duke Ellington show “Jump For Joy”), followed by “Blues in the Night” (with sextet), “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place” (number 1), “The Way You Look Tonight” (all 1942); number 4 (1943) with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (they performed it in film “Stage Door Canteen,” 1943). Left Goodman, married guitarist Dave Barbour (1943, divorced 1952; he was an alcoholic and they remained close until he died).

She retired but could not stay away: Inveigled by Capitol’s Dave Dexter to sing two sides in a album of jazz 78s (unusual then) it was clear that she was a great interpreter; she played a character as she sang and made you believe it. With Capitol (1945-52), Decca (1952-57), back to Capitol (1957-72); had more than 40 hit singles through 1959 and came back to top 40 ten years later.

She and Barbour wrote “It’s A Good Day” (number 16, 1947) and “Mañana” (number 1, 1948), others; he led the orchestra on the latter and many others. Top ten hits: “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In” (1945), “I Don’t Know Enough About You” (1946), “Golden Earrings” (1947), “The Old Master Painter” (1950, duet with Mel Tormé). When she wanted to record “Lover” (1952) in Gordon Jenkins’s swirling impressionistic arrangement Capitol didn’t go for it, so she switched to Decca and the record remains a pop landmark. She had been reunited with Goodman on “For Every Man There’s A Woman” (1948), duetted with Bing Crosby on “Watermelon Weather” (1952). Decca 10″ LP “Black Coffee” was a classic, with Jimmy Rowles and Pete Candoli in the band (the latter as “Cootie Chesterfield”), later had tracks added to make a 12″ LP on Decca.

She appeared on film “Mr. Music” (1950) with Crosby; her portrayal of a complete breakdown in film “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955) was nominated for an Oscar; she appeared in “The Jazz Singer” (1953, remake of 1927 Al Jolson film); she contributed to the score and was heard in the soundtrack of Disney cartoon feature “Lady and the Tramp” (1955) and won a settlement from Disney when they reissued her work on video without offering more money. “Mr. Wonderful” (1956) was a top 20 hit on Decca, then back on Capitol (1958) for top ten “Fever;” her smoky yet cool, laid-back sexuality had something teasingly neurotic about it, vulnerable but also untouchable in the end; a comparison of her “Fever” with the original by Little Willie John is revealing.

She continued to write, with Quincy Jones (“New York City Blues”), Cy Coleman (“Then Was Then”), Ellington (“I’m Gonna Go Fishin’”), others.

Perhaps she was inveigled back to Capitol to make “The Man I Love” (1957) with Frank Sinatra conducting (top 20 LP); further notable albums were “Jump for Joy” (1956) with Nelson Riddle; “Beauty and the Beat” (1959) with George Shearing; “Blues Cross Country” and “If You Go” with Jones (1961); “Sugar ‘N’ Spice” and “Mink Jazz” (1961-62) with Benny Carter; she recorded all through the 1960s for Capitol including albums with Billy May (1960), Shorty Rogers (1967), Benny Golson (1970). Her top 40 hit (1969) was written by Leiber and Stoller; “Is That All There Is” might be a depressing song about the onset of disappointment, or might not: Her classy ambivalence could be interpreted as saying, “Yes that’s all, but maybe it hasn’t been so bad.”

There were only three albums in the 1970s [sic – Lee released a total of nine original albums between 1970-79]: “Mirrors” (1975) on A&M was an elaborate set with 90 musicians, nine [sic – ten] songs by Leiber and Stoller including “Ready to Begin Again,” but soon disappeared without a trace; “Let’s Love” (1974) on Atlantic had a title track written and produced by Paul McCartney, but that too soon vanished; “Close Enough for Love” (1979) on DRG had an orchestra arranged and conducted by Dick Hazard. To the relief of fans all over the world she returned with “Peggy Sings the Blues” (1988) and “There’ll Be Another Spring” on MusicMasters, and “Moments Like This” on Chesky, all with Mike Renzi; and “Love Held Lightly: Rare Songs by Harold Arlen” on Angel with the Keith Ingham Octet. In a wheelchair, 1994, she sold out London’s Royal Festival Hall with the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra.