American, October, 1948
Wild About Peggy
With a song in her heart, a sweet small-town girl from North Dakota has set the nation humming and playing her tunes. Will this Prima Donna of the Platters soon be a Queen of the Screen?
by Jack Long
I may as well confess it publicly – I’ve fallen in love with a girl named Peggy Lee. Of course, there are certain obstacles between us, such as the fact that the young lady in question is happily married, is rich, famous, beautiful, and the object of wild devotion by several million ardent admirers besides myself. Peggy Lee is, in fact, the nation’s new number one singing star, current prima donna of popular music, the radio sponsor’s dream girl, the disc jockey’s idol, and the cause of a minor war being waged over her right now between the motion picture and television industries.
It’s obviously hopeless, but at least I’m in good company. I’ve learned that a fellow named Bing Crosby was also crazy about her, until another man with a more interesting profile – Jimmy “Schnozzola” Durante – won her away from him. Please move over, gentlemen, and make room for one more. I love Peggy, too.
The affair between us started out badly, as such things always do in movie scripts. It began six or seven months ago, when a song called “Mañana” moved into my neighborhood, gradually monopolized every radio, phonograph and jukebox in the block, and finally got through my locked bedroom and penetrated the ear stoppers I’d bought so I could get some sleep.
It was probably a very nice tune at first, with a gay melody and a philosophy I’m inclined to agree with: “Mañana is good enough for me.” However, by the time I had heard it for approximately the 1,500,000th time, the people in this world most likely to suffer violent death at my hands were “Mañana’s” composers, its performers, and any or all relatives of same by blood or marriage.
Then, a few weeks ago, everything changed and I discovered that “Mañana” was really a wonderful song. I was watching a television broadcast with some friends, when a Broadway columnist named Ed Sullivan introduced a guest star to the video audience. I don’t remember what he said about her, because a moment later she began to sing. “What is the name of that lovely voice and that lovely face?” I asked. “And why haven’t I heard it before?”
My friends gave me the look that Rip Van Winkle must have got when he came back from his nap. “That,” I was told, “is Peggy Lee, the girl who composed and recorded ‘Mañana.’ Please don’t start throwing things at the television screen.”
I had no intention of throwing anything. “Mañana” had changed from a number one nuisance to one of my favorite tunes. Let me explain at once that I am not a hep cat, nor even a “gone character,” when it comes to jazz. I do not feed nickels to juke boxes, and I’m not charmed by young women who stand on a stage and swing their hips in front of a microphone. This may explain why I was a dead duck the first time I listened to Peggy Lee, a girl who can sing a song better than anyone I know and leave her hips alone.
Miss Lee, I discovered, has brought sweetness and light to the swing trade, and a new dignity to popular music. The youngsters of America had the good sense to discover her several years before I did, and today even the rocking-chair audience is beginning to listen. During the past two seasons she appeared on two of radio’s biggest programs – the Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante programs. By the time these words reach the printer Miss Lee will be in the radio business for herself, with her own weekly coast-to-coast broadcast on NBC network. As soon as the movie producers settle their argument over who should have the privilege of filming her for television, you will probably see Miss Lee’s name up in lights as the new queen of Hollywood musicals.
All this I found out after my brief introduction to Peggy Lee via television. Then, a few days later, a mammoth banner appeared over Broadway announcing Peggy Lee in person at New York’s Paramount Theater. Ten minutes after I heard the news I was on my way over in a taxi. For the next three days I became a goggle-eyed member of the Peggy Lee fan club. I joined the standing-room crowd in the theater, and fought my way backstage through what seemed an even larger mob of personal friends and admirers, autograph seekers, musicians, music critics, photographers, press agents, jewelry salesmen, and song pluggers.
Before it was over, I discovered some of the reasons for Peggy Lee’s amazing popularity. A short time ago she was one of a hundred girl vocalists who sang with big-name dance bands. Today, critics with whom I talked say that Peggy is developing into the most inspiring singer to appear since Kate Smith brought her first moon over the mountain. They predict that she will be one of tomorrow’s major musical personalities. The fact that she has beautiful ash-blond hair and a transparent North Dakota Scandinavian complexion is not, of course, expected to stand in her way. Miss Lee, however, has more than an ambition to sing for people. She would like, also, to make every song add a little to the sum of human happiness.
If these thoughts sound a bit solemn for a glamorous young singing star, let me assure you that Peggy Lee is in no danger of becoming a professional soul-saver. But she has a fixed idea that the world and the people in it have been pretty wonderful to her, and feels more strongly obliged than most of us to pay back the debt. The fact that the management of the Paramount Theater sees fit to pay her $5,000 a week to sing there has nothing to do with this sense of obligation. As Peggy explained it to me: “There was a time when I was lucky to make a dollar for an evening’s singing. But I was happy then, and I could be happy doing it all over again.”
Peggy is in love with life right now for two reasons. One is her husband, Dave Barbour, and the other is their four-year-old daughter, Nicki. Show business has seldom been considered good soil for happy marriages, but so far as Peggy and Dave are concerned, family life comes first, and no mere job is ever allowed to separate them. Since young Mr. Barbour happens to be one of the country’s top guitarists, and is Peggy’s accompanist, arranger, adviser, and coach, as well as devote husband, theirs is a marriage set to music.
The harmonious Lee-Barbour home life has already added to the nation’s repertory of Hit Parade melodies and shower-bath classics. One of these dates from the early days of their marriage, when Peggy and Dave were living in a small apartment in Los Angeles. Peggy had given up traveling with dance orchestras to devote herself to homemaking, and Dave was waiting for the local musicians’ union to give him his working papers.
“One morning I got up to clean house,” Peggy told me, “I’m always happy when I’m cleaning, and besides, I had just found out that I was going to have a baby. I looked out the window and said to myself, ‘It’s a good day.’ Then I started to hum, and Dave came out with his guitar, and before we knew it we had written the words and music for a song.”
The song, as you may have guessed, was called “It’s a Good Day.” It was one of the first to be written by the Lee-Barbour song-writing team and one of the happiest ditties ever to sweep the country. It has now become the disc jockey’s standard morning greeting to listeners all over America.
Some time later, after a short vacation in Mexico, their biggest hit of all was born one night when Dave couldn’t sleep. He went off by himself and began to improvise some Spanish-style rhythms on his guitar. By sun-up Peggy was sitting next to him chewing a pencil, and before breakfast she had the lyrics for “Mañana” written down. Although they are both a bit bored with the song by this time, Peggy’s public still shouts for it wherever she sings. The sale of a million-and-a-half “Mañana” records has netted the Barbours a small fortune in return for one night of insomnia.
Actually, this fortune is the return on an original investment of courage and determination made by a girl named Norma Egstrom, of Jamestown, North Dakota, whose story you have to know to understand Peggy Lee.
Norma was the youngest of six children, and her father was a station agent for the Midland Continental Railroad, an impressive name for some hundred miles of track. By the time she was 14, Norma had discovered that she liked singing in the high-school glee club, and soon afterward she tried out a five-piece college dance band. Most of the kids her age in Jamestown were working after school in odd jobs, so she decided that her job would be singing with the band. They played “percentage dates” at dances, which meant that if the party was rained or snowed out, no one made any money. When Norma got as much as a dollar, she considered the evening’s work highly profitable.
Next, a restaurant in near-by Valley City decided to sponsor a 15-minute radio show on the local station, if Miss Egstrom would consider $5 a reasonable fee for her services. In fact, they even offered to throw a free meal ticket with her five, so Norma got rich and ate well that winter.
By the time she was graduated from high school, Norma realized that she had found a career for herself. It suddenly occurred to her one day that the only thing she wanted to do was to become a professional singer, and that any obstacles she might encounter along the way would be purely incidental. She had no visions of herself on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, since dance tunes were the only ones she knew how to sing. Besides, popular music seemed closer to people, and she liked people.
At this point, Norma packed a bag and left home for the big city – Fargo, North Dakota. There she went to the program director at station WDAY, a man named Ken Kennedy, who immediately took a liking to her and decided to help her. His first suggestion was that she choose a more glamorous name, and his second suggestion was that the name should be Peggy Lee – “because it sounds like such a beautiful blonde name.”
Peggy told me most of this story while we sat in her dressing-room between shows at the Paramount, and the rest while I visited her and Dave Barbour and Nicki in the $45-a-day suite where they were stopping – along with Nikki’s nurse, Peggy’s maid, and a pleasant young man named Joe who acts as household steward and general secretary – on the 30th floor of a hotel facing Central Park. As I enjoyed this expensive night-time view of Manhattan Island it occurred to me that my hostess was still just a pretty youngster from Jamestown, North Dakota, and that nothing about Norma Egstrom had really changed except her name. A little girl once dreamed of being a famous singer, and I was simply witnessing a typical American dream come true.
Peggy herself believes that it never could have come true except for a score of friendly people who gave her a helping hand along the way. Mr. Kennedy, the radio station program director at Fargo, was one of the first, and he added his new discovery to a quartet of musicians and introduced the combination to his audiences as “Four Jacks and a Queen.” He put Peggy on a weekly barn-dance program called the Hayloft Jamboree, and sent her on tours with this group wearing a farmer’s straw hat and cute gingham dress.
Just about the time she was getting used to her glamorous new name, and was beginning to feel almost like a professional singer, Peggy’s career was interrupted by a serious illness. She refuses to talk about it now because it’s all over, and she can’t bear to be pitied by anyone. She does like to mention, however, that as usual when she was in trouble, someone was there to help.
Her family doctor discovered that she was suffering a throat tumor which would require an operation. He took her to a specialist in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and after a series of near-fatal complications she finally pulled through. “Some people think doctors are cold-blooded, Peggy told me. “When I recovered, the two happiest people in the world were my doctors. They said that seeing me well again was the only reward they wanted, and neither of them would take any money.”
Best of all, Peggy found that the operation had had no effect on her voice. During her illness the fear that she might not be able to sing again had been a matter for anxiety and despair at first, them for prayer and finally faith. Although she considers her beliefs a purely private matter, she readily admits that religion is the greatest source of strength and courage she has found. It has led her, at any rate, to accept almost anything that happens with perfect good cheer – anything, that is, except what she considers a foolish or hurtful action on her own part. Others are always forgiven, but never herself. As one of her close friends explained to me, “Peggy tries to see a little bit of God in everyone, but never sees much of Him in herself.”
The only other near-tragic episode in Peggy’s life occurred a year and a half ago when David underwent a serious operation for a stomach disorder. Peggy was singing at the time on the Bing Crosby show, which was being transcribed in Hollywood and broadcast on records. One of the songs Peggy had recorded for Bing was a Lee-Barbour composition called “What More Can a Woman Do?” – a melancholy heart-wrencher about a gal’s problems pleasing a man. When her voice was heard singing this dirge on the air, the Barbours’ close friends burst into tears in front of their radios, picturing Dave at death’s door and Peggy preparing herself for widowhood. They didn’t know that Dave has passed the crisis of his illness a few hours earlier, and that Peggy was sitting happily beside him at that moment holding his hand.
Peggy and Dave met in 1942, after Peggy was already a well-known dance-band vocalist. Benny Goodman, clarinet-playing idol of the jitterbugs, had discovered her a year earlier in Chicago, while he was stopping off at the conservative, velvet-draped Ambassador Hotel, as far away as possible from the sound of jive. One night he strolled into the hotel café for a sandwich and found Peggy singing there. He came back every night for a week, introduced himself, and asked her to join his band.
The offer was too dazzling to refuse, even though Peggy hadn’t thought of herself as a jazz vocalist, and her soft, sweet style wasn’t designed to compete with a 14-piece swing band. On her first appearance she found that all the vocal choruses had been arranged for the previous singer, and were in too high a key for her. In addition, she was frightened by Goodman’s reputation as a whip-cracking musical perfectionist. After several weeks of heart-breaking effort, she told him he had better look for a different kind of singer.
Goodman the whip-cracker immediately became a soft-hearted Dutch uncle. “I’ve heard you when you were really singing, and I know what you can do,” he said. “Stick it out and don’t let them scare you.”
Peggy stuck it out, and pretty soon the fans began to write letters apologizing for the unfriendly thoughts they’d had about her when she began. “Some singers hit you over the head the first time you hear them,” one of her new admirers said. “You’re the kind it takes a while to catch up with.”
It was about a year later that a young guitarist named Barbour joined the Goodman band. Dave was one of the few people on record who did not fall madly in love with Peggy at first sight. He describes his first impression of her this way: “I was sitting there minding my own business when a clumsy blonde came trampling across the bandstand and walked all over my feet. She didn’t even say excuse me.”
They both laugh uproariously about it now, and Peggy explains that at the time she was probably trying to remember which song she was supposed to sing next. For the following year, however, her only real interest was in figuring out how to get the dark, silent guitar player to pay some attention to her. She decided he looked like the bookish type, and took to boning up on serious authors such as Thomas Wolfe and trying to work them into the conversation. She persuaded another members of the band to invite her along on coffee dates after work so that she could sit with Dave.
She did everything she could think of except learn to play the guitar, which was about the only thing that Dave was interested in at the time. Most of his 30 years had been spent plucking at strings – in fact, ever since, at the age of 12, he had appeared playing on the stage of Carnegie Halls as the banjo-playing prodigy from Flushing, Long Island. After graduating from high school, he switched to the guitar, and spent the next 12 years seeing America from the window of a bus while traveling with one band after another, until he hit the top with Goodman.
One day in the spring of 1943, just as the band was about to pull out of Los Angeles on a trip, Dave announced that he was tired of traveling and intended to settle down in California. He asked Peggy to come and have a farewell cup of coffee with him before she left.
This was their first date, and for the first time in her life Peggy couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally Dave broke the silence, “Come on, Normer,” he said; “let’s get married.” The only two things Peggy remembers after that are that the Goodman left town without her, and that when she went to City Hall three days later to be married it was raining – a recollection which I hope is not going to cause trouble with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
Today Dave still calls Peggy “Normer,” and Peggy calls him “Popper.” In public, however, she always refers to him as “David” and he, for reasons known to no one, often calls her, “Peg O’Lee,” or, more understandably, “the canary.” The third member of the household – “the little one” – is Nicki, who is so much the apple of her parents’ eye that she is never left at home, even when Peggy and Dave go on extended tours.
The Barbours built their dream house on a beautiful hill overlooking Los Angeles shortly after their marriage, and are just beginning to find it difficult to fit the three members of the family, Nikki’s nurse, and whatever guests happen to be on hand, into five rooms.
They look forward without much pleasure to the prospect of building a larger establishment, especially since Dave has become an enthusiastic gardener, and has just achieved a major success with a bank of moss and baby tears.
Dave would really prefer to be a beachcomber, and so would I,” Peggy told me. “I guess we’re what you’d call nuts-and-berries characters at heart.”
Peggy is thinking up the words right now for a new song. She hasn’t told anyone about it, but the first line goes, “There’s something about an old leather chair…” The rest is about the comforts of home life, and pipes and slippers and so on. This simply means that Mr. And Mrs. Dave Barbour are developing a strong taste for the fireside, and that the rest of us may have to get used to a slightly slower dance tempo in the next year or two. Personally, I’m looking forward to it.