Peggy Lee had a difficult start to her life, losing her mother by the age of four and being forced to endure both an alcoholic father and an abusive stepmother throughout the rest of her pre-adult years. While still in her teens, she began to gain some local recognition as a singer, and after graduating high school she made an unsuccessful attempt to establish herself in Hollywood. After a period supporting herself as a waitress and a carnival barker she returned to North Dakota and landed a job singing for a radio station in Fargo; it was during this time, at the recommendation of the station’s manager, that she changed her name from Norma Egstrom to Peggy Lee.
Over the next few years Lee made several more moves around the country, each time advancing her career a little farther. Hotel and radio jobs in Minneapolis were followed by a brief stint singing with a touring band, eventually landing her back in California where she worked at the Doll House in Palm Springs. It was here that she developed her trademark, sultry purr — having decided to compete with the noisy crowd with subtlety rather than volume. After witnessing one of her performances, hotel owner Frank Bering offered her a job in Chicago, which led to her first real break into the big time: an invitation from Benny Goodman to sing with his orchestra. Shortly afterwards, they were hard at work together in the studio.
Lee worked with the Goodman orchestra between 1941 and 1943 — touring the country, performing on radio, and recording popular tunes like Elmer’s Tune, How Deep Is the Ocean?, and the song that first captured her own distinctive approach for a national audience, Why Don’t You Do Right?. Towards the end of her involvement with the band she married guitarist Dave Barbour, and the two moved to the West Coast and began work on her solo career. Her subsequent releases on the Capitol label (and occasionally with Decca) achieved considerable success, one of the most notable being the laid-back swing of Fever from 1958. Lee established herself in the film industry as well, earning an Oscar nomination for her role in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and making memorable voice-acting contributions to the animated feature Lady and the Tramp.
By the end of the 50s her heavy workload was having a severe impact on her health; regardless, she remained involved in a wide variety of projects throughout the 1960s — singing at the prestigious Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center in 1962 and writing a program about the history of jazz in 1963, in addition to continuing her recording work. A return to the popular charts was even made in 1969 with her world-weary delivery of Lieber and Stoller’s Is That All There Is?, a song that won her a Grammy award that year for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance. Her only venture into musical theater, 1980’s autobiographical Peg, fared very badly, but concert appearances remained well-attended for as long as her health permitted her to undertake them.
Why Peggy Lee “Matters”
And We She Is So Inspirational As A Musician
Peggy Lee’s vocal range was what one might call narrow. It was not a matter of talent or professionalism. Her range was naturally limited. At a time when singers were still accustomed to a more “flowery” style Peggy Lee was forced to deliver lyrics in more concisely. Additionally, at the time Peggy Lee began singing with Benny Goodman, it was still “all about the bands” and not about the vocalists. She had to conform to tempos which were not easily adapted to by singers. Fortunately for Peggy Lee, times were changing. Band vocalists were steadily receiving more attention while the band was taking more of a back seat. Frank Sinatra had something to do with the slow shift in focus. He was one of the first of the band singers to begin a successful solo career and he paved the way for others to follow. Peggy’s hit recording with Benny Goodman, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” made her an instant star. She capitalized on that star power to begin a solo career that included solo recording contracts, films, and even a number of successful recordings that she and her husband, guitarist, Dave Barbour composed. Soon, other vocalists followed Peggy Lee’s success in solo careers of their own, also copying her intimate, concise style and delivery. Not only did she invent and re-invent this unique style over the course of five decades, she opened the doors to countless others. Next time you have the opportunity to listen to one of the great vocalists from 1945 to the present, see if you can hear a little bit of Peggy Lee somewhere in the background. Here’s three of Peggy Lee’s biggest hits. First, the performance that set the stage for her success; “Why Don’t You Do Right” performed with Benny Goodman, next, “Fever” and last, “Is That All There Is.” Interestingly, Peggy’s record company did not want to record “Fever” though Peggy insisted it would be a great success. They did however want her to record several new albums that she was not obligated to record. She cut a deal with the label agreeing to record the additional albums if they would allow her to record and release “Fever.” It was an instant success zooming to the top of the charts and remains to this day one of the all time most successful tunes in pop history.