Norma Deloris Egstrom was born in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1920. Her parents were Scandinavian and she was the seventh of eight children. Norma’s mother died when she was just four years old and when her father remarried Norma’s step mother was both strict and cruel. She enjoyed singing and to get away from her step mother she joined the church choir. At high school Norma was a popular member of the glee club and went on to sing semi-professional with the college band. Soon she was singing professionally with KOVC radio in Valley City, North Dakota and Ken Kennedy of WDAY encouraged the 17-year-old to take the stage name Peggy Lee. Flush with initial success Peggy severed her connections and went to Hollywood, California to seek her fame and fortune. To begin with she sang in a supper club on Hollywood Boulevard and combined this with waitressing to make ends meet. Unfortunately, due to tonsillitis she was forced to return to North Dakota but after the operation Peggy went to Chicago and sang in The Buttery Room in the Ambassador Hotel West. In 1941 Benny Goodman heard her sing and asked her to join his band. For the next two years she toured the United States, playing hotel engagements, college proms, theatre dates, and radio programs.
One of her enduring qualities as a live artist was her ability to interplay with musicians which she attributes to her learning on the road. Peggy may have been a slip of a girl but she could hold her own with the male musicians. In 1942 she recorded her first hit "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place,” followed by "Why Don’t You Do Right?" which sold over 1,000,000 copies.
Peggy’s ability to sing anything from jazz to blues with enough volume to be heard over the band was unique. Her trademark “soft and cool style” was perfected in the Doll House in Palm Springs, California where unable to sing over the noise of the crowd she lowered her voice and the quieter she sang the more the audience would listen. The result was a combination of delicate and driving vocals that were husky and purringly seductive. Peggy married guitarist Dave Barbour in 1943 and they left the Benny Goodman band shortly after to start a family. In 1944 she was back recording for Capitol Records and there she made a string of hits many of which were her own composition, written with her husband. These included "I Don't Know Enough About You" and "It's a Good Day."
In 1948 she became one of the rotating hosts of the NBCs radio show Chesterfield Supper Club. There she shared the honours with Perry Como and Jo Stafford. Peggy was also a regular host on NBC's Jimmy Durante Show (1938-48) and in 1960 she sang on "Revlon Revues" (CBS-TV). Her relationship with the Capitol label spanned almost three decades, aside from her brief period with Decca Records (1952-1956). There she recorded one of her most acclaimed albums Black Coffee (1956).
Peggy would produce two or three album per year from 1957 until her last recording with Capitol records in 1972. She was always keen to keep abreast of modern music and frequently included works of contemporary composers like Lennon and McCartney as well as old standards and her own compositions. "Mañana" became a massive hit selling over 2,000,000 copies as did "Golden Earrings," which topped a million.
Other hits included "You Was Right, Baby"; and "What More Can a Woman Do?;" among many others.
Her most enduring hit was “Fever” (1958), written by Little Willie John (aka William Edgar John) but with her added uncopyrighted lyrics ("Romeo loved Juliet," "Captain Smith and Pocahontas"). The song had a successful crossover and was arguably the superior to the cover version by Elvis Presley.
Peggy Lee made her screen debut singing with the Benny Goodman band in a couple of films, Stage Door Canteen (1943) and The Powers Girl (1943).
Her first substantial acting role came in 1950 in “Mr. Music” starring Bing Crosby. Then in 1953 she played opposite Danny Thomas in the remake of the “Jazz Singer” (Warner Brothers).
A meatier role came in 1955 when Peggy played a despondent, alcoholic blues singer in "Pete Kelly’s Blues" (Warner Brothers). Her performance won a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In 1960 she appeared in "So Deadly, So Evil" on the "General Electric Theater" (CBS-TV).
As a song writer she is also credited with writing music for films including the theme music for "Johnny Guitar" (Republic, 1954) and "About Mrs. Leslie" (Paramount, 1954).
She contributed the musical score to two cartoon features, "Tom Thumb" (MGM, 1958) and "The Time Machine" (MGM, 1960), and wrote the lyrics and supplied several voices for the Walt Disney full-length animated cartoon "Lady and the Tramp" (Buena Vista, 1955).
For "Anatomy of a Murder" (Columbia, 1959) she wrote the lyrics for "I’m Gonna Go Fishin’" to music by Duke Ellington.
Besides her many musical talents, Peggy Lee was a poet, screenwriter, author, actress, fabric and greeting card designer, painter and humanitarian. She continued to perform into the 1990s and would often appear on stage sitting in her wheelchair. Peggy Lee died, aged 81 from complications from diabetes and a heart attack.
Worth a listen
Somebody Is Taking Your Place (1941)
We’ll meet again (1941)
The way you look tonight (1941)
Why don’t you do it right? (1942)
Golden earrings (1947)
Mr Wonderful (1956)
Alright, OK, you win (1959)
I am a woman (1963)