"Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm."
Â– Frank Sinatra
One of the greatest white female jazz vocalists of all time and the only woman to have Top Ten hits in the 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s, Peggy Lee's career lasted over fifty years and saw her nominated for both Grammys and Oscars. And of course it produced the definitive recording of that song, Little Willie John's Fever, which she partially rewrote and recorded in 1958.
Born in North Dakota as Norma Ergstrom, she was abused by her stepmother as a child, something which she claimed was an important experience, as it made her independant. After having made some pocket money singing in the town she grew up in, she decided to try her luck in Hollywood. Armed only with a railroad pass she's borrowed from her father and $18, she managed to find some small gigs, but eventually had to rely on waitressing to pay the bils.
After moving back to North Dakota, she got a job singing on small local radio station WDAY, where one of the producers suggested Peggy Lee. There followed a series of tours with numerous bands, including Sev Olsen and Will Osborne which took her around the country. Eventually, she ended up back in California, singing solo in a venue in Palm Springs. It was here she learned her trade, or as one biographer describes it:
"It was at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California that Peggy Lee first developed the soft and "cool" style that has become her trademark. Unable to shout above the clamor of the Doll House audience, Miss Lee tried to snare its attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang the quieter the audience became. She has never forgotten the secret, and it has given her style its distinctive combination of the delicate and the driving, the husky and the purringly seductive"
Shortly after this, she was discovered by Benny Goodman in the Buttery Room in Chicago. He hired her as a replacement female vocalist, and they performed and recorded together during the early forties, eventually making Peggy as much a star as Benny. In July, 1942, she recorded her first hit single, Why Don't You Do Right?, which sold over a million copies.
In 1943, she then married the band's guitarist, Dave Barbour, and left the band to raise their daughter, Nicki. When she returned to the music scene, she signed to Capitol Records where she wrote a recorded a string of hits, often working closely with her husband.
Almost inevitably, Hollywood beckoned. One of her first roles was an appearance in Mr. Music with Bing Crosby, followed by a featured role in a remake of The Jazz Singer opposite Danny Thomas. The highlight of her career was an appearance of a boozy, sultry (and not at-all typecast) jazz singer in Pete Kelly's Blues, a role which won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. She also wrote songs for films, working on movies such as The Time Machine, Anatomy Of A Murder and Lady And The Tramp, which she also provided voices for.
During this time, in 1952, she divorced Barbour, who was an alcoholic, although the two remained close until his death in 1965. She married several other times : 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 continued recording throught the 50s, moving to Decca and then back to Capitol, and in 1958 she released the song she'll always be remembered for, Fever, which Barbour collaborated on. It is a pinnacle of modern music which has been tackled by innumerable artists, none of whom have every managed to catch Peggy's effortless sexiness, or her sultry, breathy vocals.
She continued recording throughout the sixties on Capitol, her biggest hit being Is That All There Is which was written by Leiber and Stoller. But that decade was marred by health problems, including diabetes and a bout of double pneumonia. She slowed down during the 70s, making only 3 albums.
A musical based on her life - Peg - opened on broadway in the early eighties, but closed after a short run. She returned in 1988 with the album Miss Peggy Lee Sings The Blues earned her a Grammy nomination, and another was received for The Peggy Lee Songbook in 1991.
She died in her home in California on Janurary 22, 2002, aged 81.