Her sultry voice and creative songwriting made lasting impressions in pop and jazz music.
by Peter Goodman
Baltimore Sun, January 23, 2002
Norma Deloris Egstrom was raised a tough North Dakota farm girl who shucked grain, pitched hay and drove the water wagon, yearned to escape her stepmother’s daily beatings, and sang every moment she could.
She later became Peggy Lee, the musical epitome of sensual sophistication, a powerhouse pop singer/songwriter, as well as an Oscar-nominated actress, an artist who could entrance a packed Carnegie Hall and seduce listeners in intimate jazz clubs — and she found time to breed prize-winning roses (there’s even the Peggy Lee rose to prove it).
Lee, who had been in and out of a coma since suffering a massive stroke three years ago, died Monday night at the age of 81, in her Bel Air, Calif., home. The cause of death was preliminarily determined to be a heart attack.
Despite daunting medical problems, including diabetes, heart bypass surgery, a broken pelvis that left her unable to walk and other ailments, Lee had continued performing well into the 1990s, and did so sitting almost immobile in a wheelchair. Jazz impresario George Wein, who arranged her last Carnegie Hall concert, in June 1995, remembered that, despite the wheelchair, her singing was “magical. She sang for over an hour. You could hear a pin drop, except when she finished a song and the audience roared … ”
Lee’s parents were of Norwegian and Swedish descent; her father worked for the railroad in their hometown of Jamestown, N.D. After her mother died when Lee was 4, her father remarried and her stepmother turned out to be extraordinarily abusive. She decided to become a singer at age 14, earned 50 cents a night at gigs for local PTAs. During her teen years, she traveled to Fargo where she sang on a local radio station, WDAY, whose manager suggested she change her name to Peggy Lee.
The blond, sweet-faced Midwesterner’s early effort to find work in Hollywood failed, and she returned to Fargo. But gradually, Lee got work with larger and larger bands. Finally, at the Doll House in Palm Springs, Calif., she found her inimitable, almost minimalist style: after she couldn’t be heard over the crowd even while belting her hardest, Lee decided to sing softer and softer, until the audience was forced into silence to hear.
Benny Goodman hired Lee in 1941, and she got her first million-selling record in 1942, singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” She left Goodman’s band in 1943 to marry his guitarist, George Barbour, with whom she became an important songwriting team. Their hits included “Golden Earrings,” “You Was Right, Baby” and “Manana.” But the marriage didn’t last.
Lee would marry and divorce three more times. She is survived by her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Lee’s slightly husky, insinuating voice and subtle, precise phrasing became familiar to listeners for the rest of the century, marked by such classics as “Fever,” “I’m a Woman,” “Lover,” “Pass Me By,” “Where or When,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I’m Gonna Go Fishin,'” and “Big Spender.” She won a Grammy for best contemporary female vocal performance in 1969 for “Is That All There Is?”
Lee’s most lasting influence, jazz critic Nat Hentoff said yesterday, was the fact that she could be both a pop and a jazz singer. “Her main quality was a marvelous sense of subtlety. She never overpowered you,” he said.
Hentoff’s final comment seemed an appropriate epitaph: “You could hear her voice after it stopped.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.