Wall Street Journal, January 23, 2002
Peggy Lee, the husky-voiced jazz singer who oozed sex appeal and artistry in equal measure, has died aged 81.
Lee, who had a stroke three years ago, suffered a heart attack at her home in Bel Air, California, Nicki Lee Foster, her daughter, said yesterday.
Best known for such hits as Fever and Is That All There Is?, Lee recorded more than 50 albums. She had a brief flirtation with a screen career, receiving an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress for her role in Pete Kelly’s Blues.
Although she filled large concert halls, Lee was thought by many to be at her best in the intimate, nightclub settings. Some critics thought she was closer to pop than other jazz singers, but many still put Lee on a par with Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
“I would certainly class what she did as jazz,” Pete King, the owner of Ronnie Scott’s club in London’s West End said yesterday. “She was a great performer with a wonderful knowledge.
“She both wrote her own material and was very good at picking up other people’s and developing it.”
Married four times, Lee, a striking blonde, became an icon for many younger artists.
Kate Dimbleby, the star of Fever, the making of Peggy Lee, said the late singer had a “pretty special” voice, which she applied to styles from Big Band to pop.
“She had a sultry voice with attitude. It had a real softness with a sense of self behind it. Audiences felt as if she was whispering into their ear.”
Like many other hopefuls, Lee began by working in Hollywood as a waitress, occasionally picking up nightclub work. Her big break came when Benny Goodman heard her singing at a Chicago hotel and invited her to join his band.
She married Dave Barbour, Goodman’s guitarist but they divorced because of his alcoholism. She later married two actors, Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin, and the percussionist Jack Del Rio.
“They weren’t really weddings, just long costume parties,” she confessed.
A diabetic dogged by weight and health problems, throughout much of her life, she nearly succumbed to double pneumonia in 1971. In 1985 she underwent major heart surgery, but still carried on performing.
Johnny Dankworth, the jazz conductor, writer and musician, said the news of her death was “a nasty surprise”.
“She was a jazz great who bridged the gap with pop, but she was a true jazz singer who didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator, which on occasion Sinatra did.”
Dankworth’s wife, the singer Cleo Laine, said: “It is a great loss. What set her apart was her wonderful laid-back rhythm, but few people realise she was also a very good lyricist.”