Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 23, 2002
Her voice was the musical equivalent of a perfectly formed smoke ring wafting in the air.
Fans around the globe are mourning the loss of singer Peggy Lee, who died Monday of a heart attack in her Bel Air, Calif., home. She was 81.
“She just sounded real sexy, a quality all singers strive for,” Atlanta singer Libby Whittemore said Tuesday. Whittemore re-introduced audiences to Lee’s rendition of “I’m Beginning to See the Light” when she performed a cover of it on her 1999 CD debut. “I’ll be honest — it’s a direct steal of what she did. I just thought you couldn’t do it any better than the way Peggy did it.”
In recent years, Lee, whose biggest hits were “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” battled the effects of a stroke and diabetes. The singer emerged from an era in American music that also produced Rosemary Clooney, Julie London, Patti Page and Doris Day.
Lee was best known as a singer, and she performed early in her career with Benny Goodman’s orchestra before moving to nightclubs. But she also became a prolific recording artist, with more than 700 recordings and 59 albums, a successful songwriter, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the 1955 movie, ”Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
Generations of children have been introduced to the singer-songwriter’s talents via the 1955 Disney animated feature, “Lady and the Tramp.” Lee provided multiple voices for the film and co-wrote songs and sang on the soundtrack, including the cartoon’s showstopper, “He’s a Tramp.”
In 1992, Lee took Disney to court, demanding her cut of the royalties from the film’s videotape sales. She was awarded a multimillion dollar settlement.
Although the singer performed in Atlanta infrequently, fans fondly remember her appearance at the old Fairmount Room at Midtown’s Colony Square in the late 1970s.
Atlanta playwright Tom Edwards vividly recalled a 1981 performance of Lee’s that he saw in Las Vegas.
“Her gown was so long, she just sailed onto the stage,” Edwards said. “She immediately went to a stool and sat down while these dancing boys twirled around her. But she was the unmistakable center of attention.”
Born Norma Egstrom in 1920 in Jamestown, N.D., Lee was the sixth of seven children of Marvin and Selma Egstrom. Her father was a railroad station agent, and her mother died when Lee was 4.
Her father’s new wife abused her and forced her to keep house at a young age. She made her professional debut at a Jamestown radio station at the age of 14, and was still in her teens when a program director at a radio station in Fargo gave her a job and her stage name.
After a brief stint in California, she found work singing for a radio station in Fargo, then as a singer in Minneapolis with Will Osborn’s band.
Lee was discovered in Chicago in 1941 by Benny Goodman. Her rendition of ”Why Don’t You Do Right?” with his band in 1942 made her a star.
Lee left Goodman in 1943 to marry Dave Barbour, the band’s guitarist, with whom she collaborated on a number of hits. They included ”I Don’t Know Enough About You,” and ”It’s a Good Day.”
Lee continued touring throughout her life despite battling a number of serious illnesses and accidents. She had double bypass heart surgery in 1985 and fell onstage at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1987 and fractured her pelvis. In 1998, a stroke left her bedridden.
Lee was married four times. She is survived by her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster of Sun Valley, Idaho, three grandchildren, David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells and Michael Foster, and three great-grandchildren.