Peggy Lee’s fame as a composer, lyricist and actress rivals her reputation as a chanteuse. And much as she enjoys singing, she isn’t at all sure that she wouldn’t rather have billing as: “Words and Music by Peggy Lee,” than to be known as one of the foremost singers of our time.
As a lyricist, Capitol Records’ Peggy has achieved considerable fame with her lyrics written for an entire score to Sonny Burke’s music, for Walt Disney’s feature Lady and the Tramp, as well as for the theme songs of the films Johnny Guitar and About Mrs. Leslie.
Her past list of published songs, including such outstanding Capitol hits as “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana” – which to date has sold over two million records – proves that this aspect of the Lee side of music establishes her as one of the leading lights in the music publishing world.
“I just drifted into composing,” Peggy says. “It sort of comes naturally to me. And I find a certain pleasure out of the creative end of music that I can never get as a singer. Sure singing is fun, and making record sides gives a performer the satisfaction of knowing that the song can achieve the permanence of a standard – if it’s a hit, but still I get the greatest satisfaction of all in the field of composition.”
One by one, Peggy has set her goals and achieved them. The first was to be a successful popular singer. How well she came through on that one is written into the accountings of record sales in six-cipher figures.
Established as a top star of night clubs, radio and recordings, Miss Lee was ready to tackle the glittering world of motion pictures. Her opportunity came when Warner Bros. executives decided that if she could put over emotional scenes like she did songs she’d be a great actress, and tested her for the coveted costarring role opposite Danny Thomas in the Technicolor version of the classic The Jazz Singer. Peggy got the part, and started, as a star, on another phase of her many faceted career.
Old time residents in Jamestown, North Dakota, where Miss Lee was born on a May 26, will verify that their home town celebrity earned every bit of her success through hard work and perseverance. Little Norma Egstrom, who was to become Peggy Lee of New York and of Hollywood, had no silver spoon send-off. Her father was the local railroad ticket agent and had no money to invest in her musical education.
For that matter, Jamestown, a farming community, had no facilities for formal voice training. Peggy, who had decided while in high school that a musical career was her destiny, simply had to avail herself of such opportunities as were at hand.
She sang in public wherever possible, with her high school glee club, the church choir, and occasionally with college bands. Everybody who heard her advised her to hurry to Hollywood as fast as she could.
Soon after getting her high school diploma, Peggy followed this advice. She gathered together all of her cash, got a train pass from her father, and left for Hollywood. She arrived with one battered suitcase and $18.
Fame and fortune were in no hurry to embrace her. She managed to get some singing jobs, and even attained the distinction of a “debut” in a now extinct night club known as the Jade Room. It soon became evident to the level-headed little blonde from the Midwest that she was not yet prepared to crack the big time.
Returning to North Dakota, she made another start in Fargo, singing over radio station WDAY. She also convinced the Powers Hotel that live entertainment would enhance its dining room appeal, and sold herself as the initial performer. It was while appearing in Fargo that she changed her name to Peggy Lee.
Minneapolis was her next step. On the Standard Oil radio show her singing attracted widespread attention. One listener especially impressed was bandleader Will Osborne, who invited her to join his band as vocalist. This was a happy arrangement until Osborne disbanded his band three months later.
Still yearning for California, Peggy accepted an engagement at the Doll House in Palm Springs, famous desert mecca for Hollywood celebrities and wealthy winter tourists. There she introduced the “soft-as-silk” style that swept her right into the star class and has since become an integral part of her personality.
The turning point, Peggy says, was accidental. Actually it was the result of quick thinking to meet an emergency. It happened on a Saturday night when the plushy nightclub was crowded with holiday weekenders, and about as quiet as Grand Central Station. Instead of trying to sing over the din, Peggy lowered her voice and sang softly. With each successive tune, she lowered it more.
Gradually the diners began to respond. Soon they were quietly and intently listening to the girl who put so much feeling into her soft singing. Among the listeners was Frank Bering, owner of Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, who signed her on the spot for a singing engagement.
From the Ambassador West, Peggy went to Benny Goodman’s band as a featured vocalist for two years.
In 1947, Peggy recorded her smash hit “Golden Earrings,” a million platter seller, and then she and guitarist Dave Barbour composed, and recorded “Mañana,” which reached the rare two-million record sale. The following year she made a triumphal return to Hollywood, singing to SRO attendance at Ciro’s.
Since then Peggy has drawn raves for her dramatic role in Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, enjoyed fabulous returns on her disk “Lover.”
In April of ‘57, Peggy cut a batch of tunes under the direction of Frank Sinatra, who conducted a vocalist for the first time in his career.