Singer-composer known for hits, film scores, B’way
by Richard Natale
Variety, January 23, 2002
Peggy Lee, the singer-composer whose husky, seductive voice brought a distinctive touch to such pop hits as “Why Don’t You Do Right,” “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?,” died Monday at her Bel Air home. She was 81.
Lee rose to prominence as a big-band singer in the 1940s, and continued her reign through the 1980s as she cut more than 60 albums, wrote several pop standards and performed on concert stages throughout the world. In addition, she contributed to film scores, copped an Oscar nomination as supporting actress in “Pete Kelly’s Blues” (1955) and appeared on Broadway in an autobiographical concert revue in 1983.
With her unique phrasing, Lee managed to inject a great deal of emotion and humor into her songs — a surprising feat, considering her low-key, almost breathy singing style. She began developing her “cool” technique at the Doll House in Palm Springs, Calif., in the early 1940s. According to Lee, her vocal method was born of necessity: Unable to shout above the din of the audience, she tried to capture their attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang, the quieter the audience became.
Critic George Hoefer in Downbeat magazine described her as “the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey,” but English jazz critic Peter Clayton went further, dubbing her “quite simply the finest singer in the history of popular music.”
She was also active in several philanthropic organizations throughout her life; though plagued by ill health and having to use a wheelchair for over a decade, she served on the boards of several charities.
Born Norma Doloris Engstrom on May 26, 1920, in the farm town of Jamestown, N.D., Lee was the seventh of eight children. She hailed from Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, and her father, Marvin, was a station agent for Midland Continent Rail Road. Her mother died when Lee was 4.
After graduating from high school, Lee moved to Hollywood with singing aspirations. She was briefly employed at the Jade Room supper club, but otherwise made her living as a waitress. Dispirited, she returned to North Dakota, securing singing work on radio station WDAY, where the station manager renamed her Peggy Lee.
After moving to Minneapolis, she began singing in supper clubs and on the Standard Oil radio show. She joined Sev Olsen’s band and then, briefly, was a vocalist with Will Osborne’s group.
Lee returned to California, landing a job at the Doll House in Palm Springs. While there, she was discovered by Frank Bering, the owner of Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel and was invited to sing in its Buttery Room, where Benny Goodman heard her. He was looking for a replacement for Helen Forrest and brought Lee on in July 1941. For the next two years, Lee toured the country with his band.
“I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else,” she once told an interviewer. “They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train.”
In 1942, Lee recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” which sold over 1 million copies and established her as a recording star.
With husband Dave Barbour, a guitarist with Goodman, Lee also began to write and compose music. She left the Goodman band, had her only child, Nikki, and began to record for Capitol Records. Among her biggest hits were “Golden Earrings” (which also sold more than 1 million copies); “It’s a Good Day”; “I Don’t Know Enough About You”; and “Manana,” which sold more than 2 million singles.
Lee made her film debut in 1950 opposite Bing Crosby in “Mr. Music,” and then appeared in Danny Thomas’ 1953 version of “The Jazz Singer.” It was during this period that she wrote poems that would be collected in a book, “Softly, With Feeling.”
In 1955, her performance as a down-and-out blues singer in “Pete Kelly’s Blues” brought her an Oscar nom.
Lee also made prominent offscreen contributions, writing the theme music to the films “Johnny Guitar,” “About Mrs. Leslie” and the George Pal fantasy “Tom Thumb.” For “Anatomy of a Murder,” she collaborated with Duke Ellington on the song “I’m Gonna Go Fishing.”
In the ’50s, she had a monster hit with “Fever,” a deadpan ode to carnal frenzy that took full advantage of her playful vocal sexuality and became one of her signature tunes. Lee’s cool, jazzy style transcended all categories and she remained a popular singer long after the advent of rock ‘n’ roll. Her 1969 version of Leiber & Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” became another of her trademark tunes and one of her most durable songs. The smart tune, a sung-spoken chronicle of a world-weary woman, earned her a Grammy for pop vocalist.
In 1960, she was a regular on CBS’ “Revlon Revues” and a frequent guest on musical variety and even some dramatic television shows.
In 1982, she was one of the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. The next year, she opened on Broadway in “Peg,” in which she performed 26 songs, including her biggest hits. In his Variety review, Richard Hummler said, “Musically, the show is flawless,” but lamented the “awkwardly written, mawkish autobiographical material” in which Lee told her life story with a combo of narration and recorded voiceover dialogue.
Throughout the ’80s, Lee suffered from a number of debilitating illnesses including pelvic fractures; open-heart surgery; and a chronic goiter, which threatened her singing voice.
Lee’s last great triumph was in the halls of justice in the late 1980s, when she successfully sued the Walt Disney Co. for breach of contract and unlawful enrichment over her work in the animated “Lady and the Tramp.” After a protracted battle, Lee was awarded $2.3 million, based on Disney’s $90 million in profits from the “Lady” videocassette sales.
In 1955, Lee had written the lyrics and provided several voices for the Disney toon. She was paid $3,500 and received an additional $1,000 for the use of six songs she and Sonny Burke wrote for the film. She retained recording rights and transcriptions, but like most contracts at the time, there was no provision for ancillary rights such as video.
When Disney released “Lady” on video in 1987, and reportedly reaped profits of $90 million, Lee sued Disney for $50 million, claiming it violated her transcription rights. The original $3.8 million judgment in her favor was modified to $2.3 million, but was considered a landmark win by a performer against a major studio.
After divorcing Barbour, Lee would remarry, to actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin; those marriages also ended in divorce.
She is survived by her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster; her grandchildren, David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells and Michael Foster; and three great-grandchildren.
(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)