LOS ANGELES, California (AP) — Peggy Lee, the singer-composer whose smoky, insinuating voice in such songs as “Is That All There Is?” and “Fever” made her a jazz and pop legend, died Monday. She was 81.
Lee died from a heart attack at her Bel Air home, said her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster.
Lee repeatedly battled injury and ill health, including heart trouble, in order to maintain a career that brought her a Grammy, an Oscar nomination and sold-out houses worldwide.
During more than 50 years in show business, which began during a troubled childhood and endured through four broken marriages, she recorded hit songs with the Benny Goodman band, wrote songs for a Disney movie and starred on Broadway in a short-lived autobiographical show, “Peg.”
Her vocal flexibility and cool, breathy voice brought sultry distinction to big band showstoppers, pop ballads and soulful laments. She was considered in the same league as Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith.
Her hits touched generations of listeners. Lee’s more notable recordings included “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “I’m a Woman,” “Lover,” “Pass Me By,” “Where or When,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’m Gonna Go Fishin”‘ and “Big Spender.” The hit “Is That All There Is?” won her a Grammy for best contemporary female vocal performance in 1969.
Jazz critic Leonard Feather once remarked, “If you don’t feel a thrill when Peggy Lee sings, you’re dead, Jack.” Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz critic for The New Yorker, wrote: “Many singers confuse shouting with emotion. Peggy Lee sends her feelings down the quiet center of her notes. … She does not carry a tune; she elegantly follows it.”
And critic John Seagraves wrote: “Peggy Lee can do more for a song by a mere rolling of her eyes or with a quick, crooked smile than most pop singers can with all the vocal diction training possible and years of dramatic tutelage.”
She was born Norma Egstrom on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, N.D., where her father worked as a handyman and part-time railroad station agent.
Her mother died when she was 4, she recalled in a 1985 interview, and she was abused by a stepmother. She said the experience turned out to be good for her, because “I learned independence.”
She decided to become a singer at age 14, when she would earn 50 cents a night at gigs for local PTAs. A few years later she traveled to Fargo where she sang on a local radio station. The WDAY program director suggested a name change, and she became Peggy Lee.
Lee eventually arrived in Hollywood with $18 in her pocketbook, supporting herself as a waitress and between nightclub jobs.
Goodman, then the King of Swing, hired her to sing with his band after hearing her while she was performing at a Chicago hotel.
A string of hits, notably “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, made her a star. Then she fell in love with Goodman’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, and withdrew from the music world to be his wife and raise their daughter, Nicki. But she returned to singing when the marriage fell apart.
“I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and the failure of our marriage,” she said. “And I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say: You have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song.”
Lee’s sultry voice kept her a favorite in radio, on records and later in television. She became an accomplished songsmith, co-writing “Manana” and “It’s a Good Day” with Barbour.
She recalled in a 1988 interview that her husband “thought of me as a jazz singer. I never did. I didn’t know what I was. I just liked to think of interpreting.”
She collaborated with Sonny Burke on the songs for Disney’s “The Lady and the Tramp,” and was the voice for the wayward canine who sang “He’s a Tramp (But I Love Him).”
Her work on that 1955 film led to a landmark legal judgment 36 years later when a California court awarded her $2.3 million after she sued for a portion of the profits from the videocassette sale of the movie. The case hinged on a clause in her pre-video-era contract barring the sale of “transcriptions” of the movie without her approval.
In 1956, she was cast as a boozy blues singer in “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” and she was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar. She also appeared opposite Danny Thomas in an update of “The Jazz Singer,” but her film career was short-lived.
“My agents decided they could make more money from me on the road,” she said.
She sang to standing ovations from New York to Australia. With her creamy-blonde hair and languid manner, she seemed to exude sex. She protested that it came naturally: “Anything that’s forced comes over fake.”
She recorded more than 600 songs and wrote many others, including themes for such movies as “Johnny Guitar” and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
Her return to recording in 1988 after a hiatus of more than a decade netted her a Grammy nomination for “Miss Peggy Lee Sings The Blues” in 1989 and another for “The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring” in 1991.
In addition to Barbour, Lee was married to actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and percussionist Jack Del Rio. “They weren’t really weddings, just long costume parties,” she once said.
She was about to reconcile with Barbour, who had conquered his alcoholism, when he died in 1965.
She summed up her life and career in the Broadway show, “Peg,” which closed after 18 performances in 1984. She was perplexed by the cancellation: “Audiences loved the show even if the critics didn’t.”
With customary resilience, she immediately departed for appearances in Canada, Japan, Great Britain and Los Angeles. Longtime Peggy Lee fans detected a change of attitude in her onstage demeanor.
She once seemed aloof, but “I feel free to talk to an audience now. I could do so in the past, but only to a degree. I was much too self-conscious, much too reticent to give of myself. Now I feel at ease with myself and the world. It’s a great feeling.”
A diabetic, Lee was often troubled by weight and glandular problems. In 1961 she was felled by double pneumonia during a New York nightclub engagement.
In 1976 she had a near-fatal fall in a New York hotel. She used the period of recuperation to reflect on her past and began writing “Peg.” She was again seriously injured in another fall in Las Vegas in 1987.
In early 1985 she underwent four angioplasties — balloon surgery to open clogged arteries — and resumed her singing tour. While appearing in New Orleans in October 1985, she underwent double-bypass heart surgery.
She was back on stage the following April, telling a Los Angeles audience, “Thank you from the bottom of my new heart.”
In 1998, she suffered a stroke which impaired her speech, requiring therapy to recover.
In addition to her daughter, Lee is survived by her grandchildren David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells, and Michael Foster; and three great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.