The Meadowbrook, New Jersey’s big, barnlike club that baits its customers with the biggest and best dance bands in the country, was crowded. It was September 17, 1941, and a Benny Goodman opening. The critics and the jitterbugs were out in full force to hear what the clarinetist and his band had to offer.
Parked at a dark corner table with a bad case of jitters was Goodman’s newest offering, the blond, brown-eyed, 21-year-old singer named Peggy Lee, whom Benny had found in Chicago. When Peggy got up to sing she jittered so badly that the next day most of the critics wondered in print what Goodman was thinking of. Goodman was satisfied, however, that Peggy had a soft, silky way of singing jazz that was good. And many of the critics agreed with him – when they heard Peggy a second time. It looked as if a new singing star was on her way up.
But as late as last summer, Peggy had failed to wow the public. Not until the month did Peggy turn up as one of radio’s busiest singers, on two network shows. Old Gold grabbed her for its summer series called Rhapsody in Rhythm (CBS, Wednesday, 9-9:30 p.m., EDT), and last week she shared opening honors with Woody Herman on the Summer Electric Hour (CBS, Sunday, 4:30-5 p.m., EDT).
In North Dakota, where she was born in 1920, Peggy Lee was Norma Egstrom, the daughter of a railroad brakeman. At 17 Norma concluded she was something of a singer. With only her ticket money she hit out for Hollywood, though Hollywood was hardly ready for Peggy Lee, as she now called herself.
The next three years were the lean ones for Peggy and complicated by a severe recurring throat ailment. But the stubborn streak of determination that at one moment shoves Peggy ahead, and the next holds her back, eventually got her into a small club in Palm Springs, where the showy wealth of the West comes to loll in the sun.
There a Chicago businessman with a musical ear heard Peggy and helped engineer her back to the Midwest. Peggy went to work in the Buttery, the small room in Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, where Goodman heard her and signed her. For another singer this would have been all the impetus needed for the big time, but Peggy had her own ideas. In 1943 she was married to David Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman’s band. Barbour decided to quit Goodman and hit out on his own, and Peggy went with him.
Though Peggy still wanted to sing, her career was suddenly a secondary thing. Easy, affable, and well liked, she nevertheless was determined to do first things first, and her marriage was at the top of the list.
Not until after her daughter, Nicki, was born three years ago, did Peggy go back to work, and then she specified no more bands and a minimum of traveling. If show business wanted either of the Barbours, it would have to come to Hollywood for them. Had it not been for the fact that Capitol Records signed Peggy in 1944, show business might well have passed her by.
Even in the record business’ largest stable of girl singers – headed by Jo Stafford and Margaret Whiting – Peggy came up fast with three big hits: “You Was Right, Baby” sold over 750,000 platters, and “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day” both topped 500,000. Barbour backed Peggy with his orchestra on each hit, and for them it was a double-barreled success. For what few buyers noticed was that Peggy’s top hits were a family affair – music by Barbour and lyrics by Lee.
Radio was still to come. Peggy’s staunch refusal to leave Hollywood kept her off several good radio programs. Then last fall, Bing Crosby suddenly needed a good girl singer for his ABC program which was recorded in Hollywood. He hired Peggy and got a girl who could sound as well on her own as she did in duets with him. What Peggy does next is largely determined by what the West Coast and Crosby have to offer.
But wherever she goes now, show business is making some concessions to get her. And Peggy’s Capitol records are giving the Staffords, the Whitings, and perhaps even the Shores more than a little competition for the nation’s half-dollars.