Peggy Lee


Peggy Lee: A velvet voice falls silent

by Chuck Haga
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, January 24, 2002

She was “Fever” hot and “Is That All There Is?” cool.

She came out of North Dakota in the 1930s, claimed a world stage and held it for decades, swinging with Benny Goodman when Goodman was king. Born to the Jazz Age, she tested its boundaries yet remains an essential part of the definition of jazz.

Peggy Lee, born Norma Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., died Monday from a heart attack at her home in Bel Air, Calif. She was 81.

It was a life riddled with health problems and personal disappointments, including four broken marriages, adding poignancy to a signature song: “Is That All There Is?”

In her last Twin Cities performance, in 1987, she sat for the whole show, singer and music historian Arne Fogel said. “But she sang beautifully.”

Connie Evingson, another Twin Cities vocalist, has been performing “Fever: A Tribute to Peggy Lee” since 1997 and will perform it next weekend at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.

“I love her understated style, an approach to music that is not conscious or calculated but comes from who we are,” Evingson said.

She also came to admire Lee as “a prolific songwriter at a time when that wasn’t very common,” an artist who was “endlessly creative, well-rounded and persistent” and who triumphed over considerable adversity.

“She struggled with poor health for many years,” Evingson said. “It’s amazing she made it to 81.”

People over 50 seem to enjoy Evingson’s “Fever” tribute show most “because it’s the music of their childhood or young adulthood,” she said. “But I find younger people really like it, too, because it’s good music: lovely melodies, swinging rhythm, clever lyrics. How can you not like it?”

Breathy, sultry

In a show-business career of more than 60 years, Lee won a Grammy (for “Is That All There Is?”) and was nominated for an Oscar (for “Pete Kelly’s Blues”). She recorded more than 600 songs, helped write more than 200, performed at President Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural ball and enchanted countless children with her contributions to Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.”

With Sonny Burke, she composed songs for the 1955 film and voiced the sultry hair-in-the-eyes pekingese Peg, who sang “He’s a Tramp (But I Love Him).”

In 1981, a court awarded Lee $2.3 million after she sued for part of the profits from videocassette sales. The landmark case hinged on a clause in her contract — drawn up before the video era — barring the sale of “transcriptions” of the movie without her approval.

Lee was flexible in her singing, ranging through pop ballads, soulful heartbreakers and big-band anthems.

“There may be some people who were better at some things, but she was the best all-rounder,” Fogel said. “She had the best sense of swing, the best sense of jazz and rhythm, the best sense of drama and the theatrical.

“The only people on a par with her were Sinatra and Holiday — that ability to really cut to the bone of a song and feel the vulnerability.”

Fogel spent three hours recording an interview with Lee in 1987. “She was an absolute peach, unpretentious and a lot of fun,” he said. “She was wry, cool, with a lot brewing under the surface, so open, so sweet — and already so frail.”

Star Tribune critic Michael Anthony saw the 1987 show.

“Even in a chair, Peggy Lee is better than most singers who have full use of all their limbs,” Anthony wrote in his review. “At 67, her voice is as true and as silken in tone as ever.”

Rough beginnings

Lee was 4 when her mother died. She was abused by a stepmother who, she said later, hit her over the head with an iron skillet. Her father drank, and his railroad job required frequent moves.

“There’s truth to the cliche that the great interpretive artists had cruddy childhoods,” Fogel said. “They took from it something to reflect on.”

Still, Lee embraced her North Dakota roots. “I learned independence,” she said later. She was embraced in turn by North Dakotans as “one of us who made good,” like Lawrence Welk. And like the bandleader from Strasburg, Lee has her portrait in the North Dakota Hall of Fame in the Capitol in Bismarck.

In 1950, she went home to sing at the North Dakota Winter Show in Valley City, and Gov. Fred Aandahl was there to welcome her. At the winter show’s livestock exhibition, young Douglas Richman admired Lee’s mink coat and beret while she inspected his prize-winning Hereford calf. She visited her ailing father in a nearby town; a blizzard forced her to make the trip in a farm truck.

“I sang before I could talk,” she wrote in her 1989 autobiography, “Miss Peggy Lee.” At 14, she earned 50 cents for singing at PTA meetings. In 1937, she “debuted” on 250-watt KOVC Radio in Valley City, sponsored by a cafe.

Norma Egstrom made the jump to Fargo, where WDAY Radio program director Ken Kennedy recognized her potential and paid her $1.50 to sing. He also suggested a name change.

To the Radisson

Jeanne Arland Peterson, 80, who sang live on WCCO from the late 1930s to the late ’50s, was dating her future husband — pianist Willie Peterson — when Peggy Lee came to Minneapolis in about 1940.

“She came from North Dakota . . . to Sev Olson, who had the orchestra at the old Radisson Hotel,” Peterson said.

“I was singing at the Athletic Club. Sometimes I’d go over to listen [to Lee], and when Willie saw me he’d ask Peggy to sing ‘I Dream of Jeannie.’

“She sang so well, I was jealous of her. She was quiet, reserved — didn’t blow her own horn at all — but so able to do her craft. She was a good-looking lady, too.”

Peterson recalls that Lee lived on a shoestring.

“She had a show on KSTP just before she was going to leave town, and they asked me to replace her,” she said. “I went over to watch her. She told me she needed earrings. I went to downtown St. Paul and bought her a 10-cent pair of earrings. Then my husband loaned her the money to leave town” — for an audition in Chicago with Goodman.

The King of Swing heard Lee sing at a Chicago hotel in 1941, and he hired her to sing with his band. They recorded a string of hits, including “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

But in 1943, Lee married guitarist Dave Barbour and left music to raise their daughter, Nicki. She resumed singing when the marriage ended because of his alcoholism. She was married three more times, but Barbour was her first love. He had been sober for years when Lee agreed to remarry him in 1965, but days later he died.

“When she appeared at the Radisson 26 years ago, she invited me and my children to dinner,” Peterson said. “We went upstairs to her suite. She was not well then, but she was as friendly and nice as could be.”

The friends saw each other again a few years ago. Peterson, whose husband died in 1970, said her daughter, Patty, also was there.

“Peggy would stroke her arm and hair and say such nice things about what a good man her dad was,” she said.

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