‘Is That All There Is?’ was quite a lot when she sang it.
Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, January 24, 2002
A critic once described her as “Billie Holiday meets Mae West,” but that wasn’t quite right. Billie Holiday sang with a soul no one else possessed. Mae West performed with a suggestiveness that few dared to show.
But Peggy Lee, who died Tuesday of a heart attack at age 81, had her own unique style as a jazz singer in a show business career that spanned more than five decades.
Born Norma Egstrom in North Dakota, she was discovered in 1941 by bandleader Benny Goodman and became famous for her silky-smooth costumes and silky-smooth singing style. Her dresses were expensive, her gestures carefully choreographed and her entrances and exits planned for maximum effect.
But it was the way she sang that, The New Yorker once observed, “makes her listeners feel cherished.” She delivered the purest of sounds in a simple, understated way that kept audiences from small clubs to large concert halls in her thrall.
Her signature song, “Is That All There Is?,” by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was a wistful, gently mocking tune perfectly suited to her talents, but the range of the pieces she made famous is startling. She wrote many of her hits — “Manana (Is Soon Enough For Me),” “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day” were among the more than 200 songs she penned. She also was nominated for an Oscar for her work as an actress.
Her renditions of “Lover,” “Hey Big Spender” and “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” are merely memorable, but absolutely unforgettable is her sultry 1958 version of “Fever,” sung in six-eight time to the electrifying accompaniment of drums. Less well known is her role in the success of Walt Disney’s 1952 animated movie “Lady and the Tramp.” Miss Peggy Lee, as she insisted on being called, provided three voices and sang three of the songs in that film.
In declining health for the last two decades, Peggy Lee continued to entertain audiences, sometime singing while sitting and other times leaning on a jeweled cane. She was credited with keeping alive the supper club business in New York and showing a generation of younger performers how to work with sophistication and style. In a business where loudness and rudeness are often confused with excellence, Peggy Lee gave her audiences an evening to remember.