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Peggy Lee Biography

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Peggy Lee (May 26, 1920 – January 21, 2002) was an American jazz singer and songwriter and Oscar-nominated performer. She was famous for her "soft and cool" singing style, which she is thought to have developed in response to noisy nightclub audiences.

Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, the youngest child of seven. After her mother died, her father remarried and her stepmother was very cruel to her. She took solace in the music she heard on the radio. She first sang professionally with KOVC radio in Valley City, N.D. She soon landed her own series on a radio show sponsored by a local restaurant that paid her "salary" in food. Both during and after her high school years, she took whatever jobs she could find waitressing and singing for paltry sums on other local stations. The program director of WDAY in Fargo (the most widely listened to station in North Dakota) changed her name from Norma to Peggy Lee. Tiring of the abuse from her stepmother, she left home and traveled to Los Angeles at the age of 17.

She returned to North Dakota for a tonsillectomy and, while there, lined up a gig at The Buttery, a nightclub in the Ambassador Hotel West in Chicago, home of Benny Goodman, a clarinetist and band leader. According to Peggy, "Benny's then-fiance, Lady (Alice) Duckworth, came into the Buttery, and she was very impressed. So the next evening she brought Benny in, because they were looking for replacement for Helen Forrest. And although I didn't know, I was it. He was looking at me strangely, I thought, but it was just his preoccupied way of looking. I thought that he didn't like me at first, but it just was that he was preoccupied with what he was hearing." She joined his band in 1941 and stayed for two years—then at the height of its popularity. In early 1942, Lee had her first # 1 hit, "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place," followed by 1943's "Why Don't You Do Right?," which sold over a million copies and made her famous. She sang with Goodman in two 1943 films, "Stage Door Canteen" and "The Powers Girl."

In March 1943, Lee married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman's band. Peggy said, "David joined Benny's band and there was a ruling that no one should fraternize with the girl singer. But I fell in love with David the first time I heard him play, and so I married him. Benny then fired David, so I quit, too. Benny and I made up, although David didn't play with him anymore. Benny stuck to his rule. I think that's not too bad a rule, but you can't help falling in love with somebody."

When Mr. & Ms. Barbour left the band, the idea was that he would work in the studios and she would keep house and raise their daughter, Nicki. But she drifted back towards songwriting and occasional recording sessions for the fledgling Capitol Records in 1944, for whom she produced a long string of hits, many of them with lyrics and music by Lee and Barbour, including "I Don't Know Enough About You" and "It's a Good Day" (1946). With the release of the smash-hit #1-selling record of 1948, "Mañana," her "retirement" was over.

In 1948, she joined Perry Como and Jo Stafford as one of the rotating hosts of the NBC musical radio program Chesterfield Supper Club.

She left Capitol for a few years in the early '50s, but returned in 1957. She is most famous for her cover version of the Little Willie John hit "Fever" and her rendition of Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" Her relationship with the Capitol label spanned almost three decades, with her brief but artistically rich detour (1952-1956) at Decca Records, where she recorded one of her most acclaimed albums Black Coffee (1956) and had hit singles with "Lover" and "Mr. Wonderful."

She was also known as a songwriter with such hits as the songs from the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, which she also sang. Her many songwriting collaborators, in addition to Dave Barbour, included Laurindo Almeida, Harold Arlen, Sonny Burke, Cy Coleman, Gene DiNovi, Duke Ellington, Dave Grusin, Dick Hazard, Quincy Jones, Francis Lai, Jack Marshall, Johnny Mandel, Marian McPartland, Willard Robison, Lalo Schifrin, Hubie Wheeler, and Victor Young.

During a time when youths began turning to rock and roll music, she was one of the mainstays of Capitol recordings. From 1957 until her final disc for the company in 1972, she routinely produced a steady stream of two or three albums per year. Her mastery of the blues form, which is far in advance of virtually any other jazz singer (many other great ladies of jazz, like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, visited the blues only sporadically), let alone pop star, produced her signature "Fever."

Lee also acted in several films. In 1952, she played opposite Danny Thomas in a remake of the early Al Jolson film, The Jazz Singer. In 1955, she played a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly's Blues (1955), for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Lee was nominated for twelve Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?" In 1995 she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

In the early 1990s, she retained famed entertainment attorney Neil Papiano, who, on her behalf, successfully sued Disney for royalties on Lady and the Tramp. Lee's lawsuit claimed that she was due royalties for video tapes, a technology that did not exist when she agreed to write and perform for Disney.

She continued to perform into the 1990s and still mesmerized audiences and critics alike. As was the case with fellow musical legends Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Lee turned to acting skills and showmanship as her voice diminished.

After years of poor health, Lee died from complications from diabetes and cardiac disease at the age of 81 in 2002. She is survived by Nicki Lee Foster, her daughter with Dave Barbour. She is interred in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Westwood, California.

She was not featured in Memoriam Tribute during the Academy Awards ceremony. When her family requested she be featured in the following year's ceremony, the Academy stated they did not honor requests and Lee was omitted because her contribution to film and her legacy were not deemed significant enough. The Lee family pointed out that, although she had been omitted, R&B singer/actress Aaliyah, who died a few months earlier, was included though having been in only one moderately successful film, Romeo Must Die (Queen Of The Damned had yet to be released). The Academy provided no comment on the oversight.

Peggy Lee is a recipient of the state of North Dakota's Roughrider Award; the Pied Piper Award from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); the Presidents Award, from the Songwriters' Guild of America; the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement, from the Society of Singers; and the Living Legacy Award, from the Women's International Center. In 1999 she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
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