Today is the anniversary of Peggy Lee’s birth. Lee had an improbably winding path to success from her hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota, to Fargo (where she took on her show business name), to Minneapolis and St. Louis, and to Chicago, where she was discovered by Benny Goodman at the moment he needed a replacement for Helen Forrest. In between St. Louis and Chicago were a couple of premature attempts on Hollywood. Once she caught on with Goodman in 1941, however, she never looked back.
She wrote several of her most successful songs, such as “It’s a Good Day.” She equally owned the songs she covered, including of course Little Willie John’s “Fever” and the Leiber-Stoller composition “Is That All There Is?” They carry her personal stamp every bit as much as her own numbers.
She was a musician’s musician. Think of her terrific duets with Bing Crosby and Mel Torme. Recall that Paul McCartney proudly contributed the title track to Lee’s 1974 “Let’s Love.” Listening to her music today, one is struck by how far she could go on an innate sense of swing and pure taste. For a heartfelt contemporary tribute to Ms. Lee, check out the beautiful “Fever” by the Twin Cities’ own Connie Evingson.
UPDATE: Reader Bob Dodd captures a couple of important points about Ms. Lee:
She was indeed a fantastic musician, which I wouldn’t say of many people who were strictly singers. Did you know that she was given her stage name by Ken Kennedy of WDAY? I mention that only because you, as a fellow Fargo native of about my age, are probably one of a handful who might actually remember who Ken Kennedy was. By our era he had mostly moved from radio to TV.
One great thing about Peggy Lee was that she always seemed to maintain a fairly “down home” awareness that she was really Norma Egstrom of Jamestown, who played a character named “Miss Peggy Lee.” Once, when she was going up in a hotel elevator to put on her make-up, stage clothes and jewelry for a show, a woman stared at her and finally asked, “Are you Peggy Lee?” She replied, straightforwardly, “No, not yet.”
Peggy Lee strikes me as an almost Gatsbyesque creation of her own imagination, a point I couldn’t quite figure out how to make last night. Thanks also to Gary Larson (not the cartoonist) for his message about the man who gave Peggy Lee her show business name.