Peggy Lee: Always Her Own Weather
by Sidney Fields
If you gathered all the stars and put them at the feet of Peggy Lee, she’d still be the kid from Fargo, North Dakota. Peggy is the singer with the silken voice who’s just thankful that she’s liked. She’s at the Paramount show now with her husband, Dave Barbour and Jimmy Dorsey. We were talking to her in her dressing room about those early days when there was no sun and Dave yelled out:
“Peggy, can you come here for a minute?”
And Peggy was about to wail: “Not right now,” but it died in her throat and she bounced up and hurried to him, and then rushed back with excuses for her bad manners.
Peggy met Dave when they were both with Benny Goodman, and they’ve been married seven years. It’s the kind of marriage you read about in storybooks, but rarely see. Their daughter Nicki is five, and after Nicki was born Peggy was told she couldn’t have more kids.
“So we made all the plans to adopt one – until I found out I could have more and we’re going to.”
Dave leads a quintet that accompanies Peggy and he’s a pretty good painter, too, and taught Peggy how to paint and they write songs together. Last year they were on the Chesterfield Supper Club together and they’ll have their own radio show again this fall.
“And in between I’ll do a minimum of 15 shows with Bing Crosby and probably as many more if they can be arranged.”
But don’t get the idea that Peggy’s life was always fairyland and prince charming and stuff like that…
“It’s cold outside, ” Peggy says. “I know. I was outside for a long time. There was practically no sun for the first twenty years of my life.”
And there were a few very black hours after that too. But none of them left any rough or hard edges on Peggy. Her real name is Norma Egstrom and she’s the seventh in a family of eight and was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, but the family moved to Fargo. Her father was a hard-working railroad man and Peggy was brought up on a train. Her father was six foot three; her mother just five feet. The mother died when Peggy was four.
“And for a whole year before she died she knew she was going and sewed us a lot of clothes so we’d be dressed for a long time.”
Peggy was just a gawky kid when she got a job on the Fargo radio station, singing, addressing envelopes, wrapping prizes for soap opera contestants. She pawned her graduation wrist watch for $20, got a free railroad ticket from her father, and hit Hollywood, where she earned $2 a night singing in a nightclub. But that was short-lived because Hollywood was then in a groaning and moaning period and Peggy went back to Fargo and addressing envelopes…
“But not for long. I talked myself into a broadcast from the local hotel and then moved on to Minneapolis and Chicago, where Benny Goodman heard me.”
And signed her and that was the beginning of her climb to the stars. But she left all the glittering success as soon as she knew she was going to have a baby, and settle down to being a housewife in Westwood Village, California in a house Peggy says: “It’s so beautiful it just reaches for you.”
But her manager, Carlos Gastel, saw two songs she and Dave had written, “You Was Right, Baby,” and “What More Can a Woman Do?” and he showed them to Johnny Mercer and Gastel and Mercer persuaded Peggy to record them. They were big hits. Then Johnny wrote special lyrics for “Mañana” and Peggy recorded it with him and it soared to the million mark. So she’s back singing and writing songs with Dave…
“But we don’t consider ourselves songwriters,” she cautioned.
That’s the way she is, knowing her own weather all the time. And knowing about others too. For instance, she hasn’t had a contract with Gastel since he’s managed her. “We don’t want one,” she says, “and we don’t need one.”
Not long ago Dave almost died. He had bad ulcers and the doctors cut away most of his stomach and during the crisis he had acute nephritis and convulsions and was blind for three days.
“I’d say he was sick,” Peggy grins. “But he’s fine now and the best and is a terrific conductor.”
Says she: “I started singing at 14 and have been at it for 15 years. But I feel younger now than I did three years ago. Listen, my mind or yours, or anybody’s doesn’t grow any gray hairs – unless we want it to.”