Philadelphia Inquirer, January 23, 2002
Peggy Lee, the enduring and influential singer and composer who exuded a subtle, smoldering sexuality and whose hits “Fever” and “Is That All There Is” became standards, has died. She was 81.
According to her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, Lee died of a heart attack at her Los Angeles home on Monday night. A diabetic with a history of heart trouble, she underwent four angioplasty operations and double-bypass surgery in 1985. In 1998, she suffered a stroke that impaired her speech.
The platinum blonde of Swedish and Norwegian descent perfected a seductive, bluesy sophistication that bore the influence of Billie Holiday. She sang jazz and pop in a cool, translucent tone and carried herself with a self-assurance that has held sway over such empowered girl singers as Madonna, who had a hit with “Fever” in 1992, and PJ Harvey, who recorded “Is That All There Is” in 1996. “Her regal presence is pure elegance and charm,” Frank Sinatra once said.
She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D., in 1920. Her father was a handyman and railroad worker, and her mother died when she was 4. She was raised by an abusive stepmother whom she memorialized in the song “One Beating a Day.” While working as a hired hand on a farm, she learned to swing by listening to Count Basie’s band on the radio.
At 14, she sang on a Fargo, N.D., radio station whose program director advised her to change her name to Peggy Lee. While Lee was singing at a Chicago hotel after two unsuccessful attempts to make it in Hollywood, Benny Goodman heard her and hired her on the spot. Her first hit with Goodman’s band was “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” in 1941, followed by “Blues in the Night” in 1942 and “Why Don’t You Do Right (Get Me Some Money Too)” the next year.
She married Goodman’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, and planned to retire, but returned to show business when the marriage fell apart. “I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and the failure of our marriage,” she once said. “And I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say: You have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song.”
Lee was married and divorced three more times, to actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and percussionist Jackie Del Rio.
In her brief film career, she costarred with Danny Thomas in The Jazz Singer in 1953 and earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues in 1955.
As a recording artist, Lee worked with an orchestra conducted by Sinatra on 1957’s The Man I Love, the George Shearing Quintet for 1959’s live set Beauty and the Beat, and Quincy Jones on 1961’s If You Go.
“Fever” was first a hit for rhythm-and-blues great Little Willie John, but Lee’s 1958 version – featuring only bass, percussion and finger-snapping – brought the sultry song to a wide audience. She won a Grammy for her 1969 version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Is That All There Is,” recorded with an orchestra conducted by Randy Newman.
A successful songwriter as well as torch singer, she penned “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” with Barbour. She also wrote the songs for the 1955 Disney animated film hit Lady and the Tramp with Sonny Burke, and did the voices of several characters, including the dog who sings “He’s a Tramp (But I Love Him).” In 1991, she won $2.3 million from Disney in a landmark suit for her share of the film’s profits from videocassette sales.
In 1984, her autobiographical Broadway show, Peg, was panned by critics and closed after 18 performances. Her last album, Moments Like This, was recorded in 1992, and she won a lifetime-achievement Grammy in 1995.
Lee went on fighting until the end. At her death, she was the lead plaintiff for 300 aging musicians who accused Universal Music, a division of Vivendi Universal, of cheating artists out of royalties for decades. Last week, a Los Angeles judge gave preliminary approval to a $4.75 million settlement of the case.
Lee is survived by her daughter, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.