Miss Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, North Dakota. While growing up she sang in the church choir and was singing professionally by the time she was fourteen. Within a few years, Miss Lee ventured from Jamestown to Fargo, and it was there that she met Ken Kennedy, program director of radio station WDAY. He was so impressed by her talent that he put her on the air within an hour of meeting her, but decided that the name Norma Egstrom just wouldnt do so he christened her Peggy Lee.
It was the age of the big band, and in 1936 Miss Lee joined the Jack Wardlow Band, stepping up a few years later to the Will Osborne Band. In her many travels, she caught the ear of none other than Benny Goodman. He quickly signed her up with his orchestra, arguably the most popular and influential big band ever.
Miss Lee stayed with Goodman from 1941 to 1943. During this time she sang a number of his hit recordings, including I Got It Bad and That Aint Good, Blues in the Night, Somebody Else is Taking My Place, and Jersey Bounce. But the recording that made her a household name was Why Dont You Do Right, in 1942. It was a song she had chosen, and it offered a glimpse of the independence and creative sense that have driven her entire career.
In 1943 Miss Lee married Goodmans guitarist, Dave Barbour, and retired from performing. She gave birth to a daughter, Nicki, and was intent on being a full-time wife and mother. As a married woman, she was washing dishes one day, and the words for What More Can a Woman Do? came pouring out of her thoughts. When Barbour came home that evening, she told him the lyric, and in a few hours they had the first of the numerous songs they wrote together. It was the beginning of Miss Lee's career as a professional songwriter a career that would produce over 300 songs, many of them hits.
It was with Barbour that Miss Lee wrote many of her early hits, including I Dont Know Enough About You, Manana, and Its a Good Day. In the years following, she has written a wide and varied range of musical material with some of the greatest musicians and songwriters in America, including Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mandel, Cy Coleman, Victor Young, Sonny Burke, Dave Grusin and Quincy Jones. In writing her own material long before it was fashionable to do so, Miss Lee established herself as a trendsetter.
The 1950s found Miss Lee's career expanding to include the world of motion pictures. In 1950 she appeared in Mr. Music with Bing Crosby. She played opposite Danny Thomas in the 1953 remake of The Jazz Singer, and also wrote and performed the song This is a Very Special Day for the movie. And her portrayal of Rosie, an alcoholic blues singer, in Pete Kellys Blues (1955) earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. Her involvement with movies didnt end when she stopped playing parts. She has written words or music for a number of motion pictures, including Johnny Guitar, About Mrs. Leslie, Tom Thumb and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Perhaps Miss Lee's proudest moment in the movies came with Walt Disneys feature-length cartoon Lady and the Tramp (1954). In addition to writing the songs with Sonny Burke, she gave voice to four of the roles in the picture: the mischievous Siamese Cats Si and Am, the young human mother Darling and the down-on-her luck ex-showdog Peg. That last character, a vampy Pekinese, was originally named Mamie, but since Mamie Eisenhower was the First Lady at the time, Walt asked Miss Lee whether shed mind if the character were renamed after her. She was delighted. The animators even asked Miss Lee to walk for them, as a model for Pegs walk.
In 1958 Miss Lee released one of her biggest and most influential hits, Fever. And in 1969 she recorded the song Is That All There Is, for which she won a Grammy Award.
Widely recognized as one of the most important musical influences of the 20th century, Miss Lee has been cited as a mentor to such diverse artists as Bette Midler, Madonna, k.d. lang, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Dusty Springfield, Dr. John, and numerous others. Sir Paul McCartney has been a longtime fan of Miss Lee's, and in 1974 wrote and produced a song for her called Lets Love.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Miss Lee kept up a hectic touring schedule, performing at venues such as Carnegie Hall and The Hollywood Bowl. She also continued to record CDs, write music and poetry, and paint.
On January 21, 2002, Miss Lee passed away at her home in Bel Air, California. Upon learning of her death, the distinguished jazz critic Nat Hentoff told the Baltimore Sun: "Her main quality was a marvelous sense of subtlety. She never overpowered you. You could hear her voice after it stopped."
Peggy Lee left Capitol in 1952 for, among several other reasons, the label's refusal to let her record and release an exotic, tumultuous version of "Lover." Lee was certainly no Mitch Miller songbird, content to loosen her gorgeous pipes on any piece of tripe foisted upon her; she was a superb songwriter with a knowledge of production and arrangement gained from work in big bands and from her husband, Dave Barbour (although the two weren't together at the time). The more open-minded Decca acquiesced to her demand, and watched its investment pay off quickly when the single became her biggest hit in years. Black Coffee was Lee's next major project. Encouraged by longtime Decca A&R Milt Gabler, she hired a small group including trumpeter Pete Candoli and pianist Jimmy Rowles (two of her favorite sidemen) to record an after-hours jazz project similar in intent and execution to Lee Wiley's "Manhattan project" of 1950, Night in Manhattan. While the title-track opener of Black Coffee soon separated itself from the LP -- to be taught forever after during the first period of any Torch Song 101 class -- the album doesn't keep to its concept very long; Lee is soon enough in a bouncy mood for "I've Got You Under My Skin" and very affectionate on "Easy Living." (If there's a concept at work here, it's the vagaries of love.) Listeners should look instead to "It Ain't Necessarily So" or "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" for more examples of Lee's quintessentially slow-burn sultriness. Aside from occasionally straying off-concept, however, Black Coffee is an excellent record, spotlighting Lee's ability to shine with every type of group and in any context. [When originally recorded and released in 1953, Black Coffee was an eight-song catalog of 78s. Three years later, Decca commissioned an LP expansion of the record, for which Lee recorded several more songs. The 2004 Verve edition is therefore a reissue of the 1956 12-song LP.]
Words: John Bush
Upon its first release Beauty and the Beat! was billed as a live recording from a Miami convention of disc jockeys. Though Peggy Lee and George Shearing did in fact perform there (and attempts were made to record them for later release), the songs heard on the subsequent LP were recorded in the studio and overdubbed with rather obvious canned applause, announcements, and even post-production echo. Lee and Shearing, who had never recorded before, conceived a set of completely new arrangements that played to their strengths: stately blues and effervescent swing. The best of the former comes on a pair of locale-referencing quasi-blues, "I Lost My Sugar in Salt Lake City" and "You Came a Long Way From St. Louis," both of which Lee and Shearing are able to transform into languorous, respectable torch songs. The usually downcast "Blue Prelude" is actually taken at a laissez faire tempo that Lee treats well, and the original set ends with "Get Out of Town" and "Satin Doll," a pair of bemused, affectionate performances that perfectly suit the pair. Lee and Shearing's only collaboration on record -- though both would occasionally perform together thereafter -- is a supremely chilled session of late-night blues from two masters of the form.
Words: John Bush
Midway through a small lull in her live performance career, Peggy Lee recorded the stereo LP Things Are Swingin' in Hollywood during May 1958, at the same sessions that produced the biggest hit of her career, "Fever." (Though not on the original LP, it was added to the 2004 reissue as a bonus track.) Still, Things Are Swingin' isn't a high point in Lee's career, especially when considered among her many successes of the late '50s (like the following year's Beauty and the Beat!). Though her instincts and powers of bewitchment were faultless as ever, she betrayed a few weaknesses in her normally excellent voice (perhaps a result of her semi-retirement at the time), and the ten-piece studio orchestra -- including session heavyweights Don Fagerquist, Barney Kessel, Bob Enevoldsen, Howard Roberts, Pete Candoli, and Shelly Manne -- isn't given much to work with by conductor Jack Marshall. Scattered moments of brilliance abound, however, including Lee's own title song (a staple of her later live show, written with Marshall), the sleepily sensual "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," and "Alright, Okay, You Win," a bluesy lead that became a hit in 1958 alongside "Fever."
Words: John Bush
With help from producer David Cavanaugh and a variety of top-rate arrangers (Quincy Jones, Ralph Carmichael, Bill Holman, Johnny Mandel), Peggy Lee reprised 11 of her greatest performances (including several of her own compositions) on the 1967 album Extra Special! Though the sound is a bit polished and pop-oriented, Lee shines on this mix of ballads ("The Shining Sea," "Oh! You Crazy Moon," "When He Makes Music") and playful numbers ("So What's New?," "A Doodlin' Song," her own "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'"). Lee's voice isn't quite as strong as it had been earlier in the decade, and the uptempo numbers are padded with organ and other effects, but Extra Special! is a solid, enjoyable album by a vocalist entering her fourth decade of performance.
Words: John Bush
Peggy Lee's I'm a Woman LP is a good example of a quickie album project put together on the fly to take advantage of a hit single rising up the chart, in this case, of course, the R&B-inflected title song written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Benny Carter conducted that track, as well as the jazzy version of "I'll Get By" here, but the rest of the short (under half an hour) disc was handled by Dick Hazard, who brought in a small, versatile band to come up with blues, jazz, and Latin arrangements of some familiar material including Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," the Bobby Darin hit "Mack the Knife," and the Tony Bennett hit "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." No one involved, including Lee, seems to have taken the session too seriously -- they didn't have time to -- but that's precisely the record's charm. The musicians simply play what occurs to them, and Lee blissfully rolls over the top. She makes fun of "Mack the Knife," and why not? The range and speed demanded in Antonio Carlos Jobim's "One Note Samba" almost throw her, but there might not have been time for another take. The music is somewhat rushed all the way through, but that makes it all the more lively and fits in with the rollicking hit it is meant to accompany.
Words: William Ruhlmann
Blending a couple of then-current show tunes with older classics of the big band form, Peggy Lee's 1966 LP Big $pender occasionally rose its head above the level of kitsch -- and much more so than 1965's Pass Me By. It's tough to blame Lee herself; while the arrangements (including work by Dave Grusin and Bill Holman) are mostly successful, again and again the accompaniment descends into rote repetition of the usual rock motifs. The blaring brass of the title track make it a highlight, though, and Lee sounds positively jubilant while singing a genuine standard ("Let's Fall in Love") over a conservative arrangement. A few pearls among the swine are hardly enough to recommend this record.
Words: John Bush
Fresh from her unexpected Top 20 pop singles entry "Is That All There Is" in October of 1969, vocalist Peggy Lee commenced the 1970s on an optimistic note. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for the remarkable prolificacy -- during a pair of mid-February 1970 recording sessions -- that yielded Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970), her first long-player of the decade. As she had done on many of her mid- to late-'60s collections, Lee embraces a fairly broad spectrum of styles within the course of the ten songs. As reflected in the tune stack and Lee's uniformly excellent performances, conductor Mike Melvoin has adeptly chosen concurrent singer/songwriters from whom to glean a more modern sound. Primary among these are an upbeat blues-infused reading of Randy Newman's "Have You Seen My Baby" and the remake of Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," the latter as heavily influenced by Aretha Franklin's soul-filled excursion as by the Simon & Garfunkel original. To a lesser -- but certainly funkier -- extent is the interpretation of B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone." Also chosen are two Burt Bacharach/Hal David staples -- a fun and slightly Herb Alpert-esque arrangement of "(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me" and a somewhat perfunctory "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." Overwhelmingly better suited to the artist are the show tunes "You'll Remember Me," with which Lee scored an easy listening chart hit; the closer, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life"; and the solitary selection from the Great White Way, "I See Your Face Before Me." Unquestionably it is the dark, ominous, and appropriately titled "Something Strange" that stands as Lee's signature tune from this effort. In 2008, Bridge Over Troubled Water was featured on a two-fer CD coupled with Then Was Then, Now Is Now! (1965) and released by Collectors' Choice Music. They added three bonus tracks: the 45-rpm only "Stop Living in the Past" and "Maybe This Summer," as well as the Steve Allen-penned "This Could Be the Start of Something Big."
Words: Lindsay Planer
Although raved about in the liner notes and a strong seller at the time, this outing by Peggy Lee (which was reissued in 1998 on CD, augmented by five additional selections) is a fairly safe set from the singer. Only two of the 17 selections are over three minutes (both just barely). With arrangements by Benny Carter and some very short spots for trumpeter Jack Sheldon, the backup group did not have to work too hard, and Lee mostly just swings the melodies. She sounds fine on such numbers as "Whisper Not," "As Long as I Live," "I Could Write a Book" and "I'll Get By," but the brevity of the tracks (probably designed for radio airplay) keep anything unexpected from occurring.
Words: Scott Yanow
This album is another product of Peggy Lee's second stint with the Capitol label coming after she left Decca and is one of the least satisfactory by the great singer during this period. Working with seven guitars, woodwinds, strings, bass, drums, and, on some cuts, a big band, all unidentified, Lee is asked to work with a set of pop tunes, some of which are well-known, others not. It's neither the fault of Peggy Lee, who is in excellent form, nor arrangers Dave Grusin, Bob Bain, Billy May, and Dick Hazard who prepared the charts for the tunes. It's just that the material they had to work with was wanting, at least compared to many of Lee's other albums. Songs such as "Goodbye, My Love" are shallow and don't present any challenge to the singer, even though she wrote it with Victor Young. It just seems that the powers at Capitol decided that they were going to cut an album with Peggy Lee, backed by all those guitars, and then tasked the arrangers to come up with a play list and charts that fit this thematic scheme. The result is not a total loss by any means. "Nice 'n' Easy" is an effervescent swinger. For "Good Times," Lee turns on the blues faucet, and May's "Call Me" sizzles. On this the album's last cut, the guitars are put away and Lee is backed by a typical May big band. It's just that the listener has put up with less than satisfactory material to get to these gems. This album has been combined with Pretty Eyes and reissued on CD.
Words: Dave Nathan
A dry run for her commercial success later in 1969 with Is That All There Is?, A Natural Woman also concentrates on contemporary hits by composers from the burgeoning worlds of soul music and singer/songwriters. Beginning in the mid-'60s, Lee had begun flirting with pop/rock material and arrangements, though her solid performances were usually marred by ill-fitting charts written by unfeeling arrangers. A Natural Woman was her most successful fusion yet, thanks to the work of arrangers/conductors/upstarts Mike Melvoin and Bobby Bryant (neither of whom were true youngsters, though Melvoin had apparently gleaned much from session work with the Beach Boys, Curt Boettcher, and Judy Collins). Here, though, Lee's voice unfortunately became the element lacking consistency. She unwisely attempts to duplicate the crooning slide of Tyrone Davis and Otis Redding for her versions of their hits "Can I Change My Mind?" and "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," then sounds a little embarrassed repeating the shoobie-doobies of Sly & the Family Stone's "Everyday People." Lee does perform a superb version of Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" (Newman actually arranged "Is That All There Is?"), and utterly transforms the one standard from an earlier era, Billie Holiday's classic "Don't Explain." As is true for every trad pop artist that crossed over during the late '60s, A Natural Woman includes three or four songs that qualify for the Golden Throats treatment, but most are solid.
Words: John Bush