Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LEE, Peggy

(b Norma Deloris Egstrom, 26 May 1920, Jamestown ND; d 21 January 2002) A great pop/jazz singer, one of the most perennially popular of her generation; she was also a songwriter and an actor. Beaten by a stepmother for eleven years, instead of becoming abusive herself she became non-violent. She sang in North Dakota and on the West Coast, joined Benny Goodman in 1941 after a gig with a vocal trio at a Chicago hotel. She said later that she lost her nerve and wanted to quit but Goodman wouldn't let her. The hits began with ‘I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good' (from Duke Ellington show Jump For Joy), followed by ‘Blues In The Night' (with the BG sextet), ‘Somebody Else Is Taking My Place' (a no. 1), ‘The Way You Look Tonight' and ‘Why Don''t You Do Right?' (no. 4; they performed it in film Stage Door Canteen 1943). She left Goodman, married his guitarist Dave Barbour in '43. (They divorced '52; he was an alcoholic but they remained close: he had been sober for some years and they were planning to remarry when he died.) She had retired but could not stay away: inveigled by Capitol's Dave Dexter to sing two sides in an album of jazz 78s (unusual then), it was clear that she was a great interpreter; she played a character as she sang and made you believe it. With Capitol '45-51, Decca '52-6, back to Capitol; she had more than 40 hit singles through 1959 and came back to the Top 40 ten years after that.

She and Barbour wrote ‘It's A Good Day' (no. 16 '47) and ‘Mañana' (no. 1 '48), others; he led the orchestra on the latter and many others. Top ten hits: ‘Waitin' For The Train To Come In' '45, ‘I Don't Know Enough About You' '46, ‘Golden Earrings' '47, ‘The Old Master Painter' '50 (duet with Mel Tormé). When she wanted to record ‘Lover' '52 in Gordon Jenkins's swirling, impressionistic arrangement Capitol wouldn't go for it, so she switched to Decca and the record remains a pop landmark. She had been reunited with Goodman on ‘For Every Man There's A Woman' '48, duetted with Bing Crosby on ‘Watermelon Weather' '52. The Decca 10" LP Black Coffee was a classic, with Jimmy Rowles and Pete Candoli in the band (the latter as ‘Cootie Chesterfield'), tracks were later added to make a 12" LP on MCA. She appeared in film Mr Music '50 with Crosby; her portrayal of a complete breakdown in Pete Kelly's Blues '55 was nominated for an Oscar; she appeared in The Jazz Singer '53 (a remake of the 1927 Al Jolson film); she contributed to the score and was heard in the soundtrack of the Disney cartoon feature The Lady And The Tramp '55, and won a settlement from Disney when they reissued her work on video without offering more money. ‘Mr Wonderful' '56 was a top 20 hit on Decca, then back on Capitol '58 for top ten ‘Fever': her smoky yet cool, laid-back sexuality had something teasingly neurotic about it, vulnerable but also untouchable in the end; a comparison of her ‘Fever' with the original by Little Willie John is revealing.

She continued to write, with Quincy Jones (‘New York City Blues'), Cy Coleman (‘Then Was Then'), Ellington (‘I'm Gonna Go Fishin' '), others.

She was inveigled back to Capitol to make The Man I Love '57 with Frank Sinatra conducting, a top 20 LP; it remained one of her own favourites, no doubt because of the care Sinatra took with it. Further notable albums were Jump For Joy '56 with Nelson Riddle, The Beauty And The Beat '59 with George Shearing, Blues Cross Country and If You Go with Jones '61, Sugar 'N' Spice and Mink Jazz '61-2 with Benny Carter; she recorded all through the '60s for Capitol including albums with Billy May '60 and Shorty Rogers '67. Her top 40 hit '69 was written by Leiber and Stoller: ‘Is That All There Is' might be a depressing song about the onset of disappointment, or maybe not: her classy ambivalence could be interpreted as saying, ‘Yes, that's all, but maybe it hasn't been so bad.'

There were two albums in 1970, including Make It With You, arranged by Benny Golson, and seven more during that decade: two more on Capitol; Let's Love '74 on Atlantic, arranged by Dave Grusin and with a title track written and produced by Paul McCartney; Mirrors '75 on A&M was an elaborate set with 90 musicians and ten songs by Leiber and Stoller including ‘Ready To Begin Again'. Live In London and Peggy, both '77 on Polydor UK, and Close Enough For Love '79 on DRG. A Broadway show Peg '83 was not a success, but to the relief of fans all over the world she returned with Peggy Sings The Blues '88 and There'll Be Another Spring on MusicMasters, and Moments Like This on Chesky, all with Mike Renzi; and Love Held Lightly: Rare Songs By Harold Arlen on Angel with the Keith Ingham Octet. She suffered from poor health for many years; in a wheelchair she sold out London's Royal Festival Hall in 1994'