Look, date unknown, 1946
Peggy Lee – A Cinderella Grows Up
Everyone wondered what had happened to Peggy Lee? In 1942, when she was Benny Goodman’s star vocalist, Look described her as the girl with the electric-blue voice, heard on every juke-box in America. She was a Cinderella girl who had worked her way up to be a top singer with the country’s top band. She had made movies with the band, and had an army of enthusiastic fans. The critics predicted a great future. Then she dropped out of sight.
But today she has returned to the entertainment world singing better than ever. A triumphant engagement at New York’s Paramount Theater, a flock of new Capitol records, and bids for radio shows put Peggy Lee up again as a major music personality.
There are two reasons for the lull in Peggy’s career. They are her marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour, and their two-year-old daughter Nicki. Domesticity has been as satisfying as music for Peggy. She has bloomed in the role of wife and mother, and has not looked longingly back on the old days.
The road from North Dakota milkmaid to name-band thrush was not easy. “Sometimes,” she says, “things were so tough it was funny.” She was born Norma Egstrom of Swedish-Norwegian descent in Jamestown, North Dakota, 26 years ago. The “Peggy Lee” came from a radio station when she was 16. Her father, a railroad freight agent, raised his six children on the railroad. They learned arithmetic counting lumps of coal.
Peggy never has a music lesson till she came to New York with Goodman. But she started at seven doing a song and dance act in blackface for an all-state minstrel. At 14, she turned professional. She commuted each week end from high school to do a 15-minute radio spot on a small station in nearby Valley City. She was sponsored by the local café, earned $5 a week and meals. Then came a stint with a dance band, in a borrowed evening dress and free hair-do, courtesy of the local beauty shop. The band worked for part of the profits in the halls where they played. But still, singing seemed like a luxurious way of living. All the Egstrom children had hired out on farms during summers. Peggy had grown up milking cows and pitching hay.
In order to keep singing, she often waited on table too. With her first savings, she bought a ticket to Hollywood. Here, after months of waiting around, she won a job in the Jade Room. But the “sea-air” sore throats which had bothered her ever since coming to California grew worse. One night, in agony, she collapsed during her act. Then came a series of throat operations.
It was two and a half months before Peggy got out of bed. But the operations were successful. Just how successful nobody guessed at the time. For they had given Peggy a new voice. It was deep and husky. It was soft and whispery. It amazed Peggy. And it found her better jobs than she had ever had in her life.
In quick succession, she sang with Sev Olsen, Will Osborne, and at the Claridge in Palm Springs. The next step was Chicago’s smart theatrical hotel, the Ambassador. It was here Goodman heard her. He was pleased with her unusual tone and young dignity. And his vocalist Helen Forrest had just resigned. Peggy got the job.
It’s a frightening thing to have all your ambitions achieved when you have turned 21. It was almost too much for Peggy. The first night she opened with Goodman in New York, she froze up. She was stiff instead of poised. She sang lyrics like a mechanical doll. The critics had a field day, and the band urged Benny to send her packing. But he was sure of his first hunch. He was justified. In a few weeks her natural manner and sparkle came back. The critics became fans. The Goodman organization came to speak of her early failure the way that a fond mother tells of her pretty daughter having been an ugly baby.
Peggy looks like something made of candy. She has gardenia-petal skin, deep blue eyes, white-gold hair and dimples. But she sings like a slowly exploding firecracker. Her delivery and phrasing are similar to that of two singers she particularly admires, Billie Holiday and Maxine Sullivan. Her style is easy and controlled, and sizzling.
The Barbours live on top of a Hollywood hill. “Our house is on the sentimental side,” says Peggy, “lots of flagstones, chintz and copper. And we’re decorating the kitchen with Norwegian sayings.” Here they compose songs together: “You Was Right, Baby,” “What More Can a Woman Do?,” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” a Hit Parade number. A pretty fair poet who reads everything from Dorothy Parker to Keats, Peggy writes most of the lyrics.
One of Peggy’s outstanding qualities is her extreme serenity. This comes from a working philosophy in which she has great faith. “I believe,”she says, “in being optimistic always, in always thinking constructively.”
Today Peggy Lee stands at the threshold of a new career. She may decide to retire again or she may take her rightful place in the music world. Because she is one Cinderella who can take success or leave it alone.