We missed the anniversary of the birth of Peggy Lee yesterday. Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, Lee had an improbably winding path to success from her hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota, to Fargo (where WDAY’s Ken Kennedy gave her the name that stuck), to Minneapolis, St. Louis, and 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, frequently in collaboration with husband Dave Barbour. Among these gems are “I Don’t Know Enough About You” (video above, with Barbour on guitar) and “You Was Right, Baby.” But Lee also 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, for example, of her terrific duets with Bing Crosby and Mel Torme. or of Paul McCartney proudly contributing 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 her innate sense of swing and pure taste.
For a heartfelt contemporary tribute to her, check out the beautiful “Fever” by the Twin Cities’ own Connie Evingson. Last year in the pages of the late, great New York Sun, Will Friedwald found Peggy Lee “All aglow again.”
Lee’s music oozes with sultry intimacy, but Lee had a sense of herself as something of a Gatsbyesque self-creation. Reader Bob Dodd reminds us of the story in which 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.”