The Incomparable Miss Peggy Lee

By Sally Speller, Supervising Librarian
September 30, 2020
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)
Black and white portrait of Peggy Lee

The incomparable Peggy Lee (1920-2002), American pop and jazz singer, composer, and actress, was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. The grandchild of Swedish and Norwegian immigrants, her depression-era childhood was brutal: The sixth of seven children, her mother died when she was four years old; her beloved father, an alcoholic, remarried an abusive woman less than a year later. As a child, she listened to the radio for escape and inspiration, wrote songs, and sang continuously—for herself, for special occasions like birthday parties, in church choirs, glee-clubs and talent shows.

As a teenager in North Dakota, Egstrom got her own sponsored 15-minute weekly radio show on KOVC in Valley City, and sang there at the Rudolf Hotel with the Dutch Room Serenaders. She also sang over Jamestown’s KRMC, and toured locally with Doc Haines’ six-piece college dance band. In 1937, she was hired by Fargo’s WDAY, and renamed Peggy Lee by program director Ken Kennedy.

In 1938, her father gave her a train pass to Hollywood; Lee arrived with $18 in her pocket. She waited tables (“I always seemed to ‘flunk’ waitress”, Lee wrote), and sang at the Jade Lounge in Los Angeles. Illness soon forced her home, where, after a recuperation, she was back singing at WDAY radio, and at Fargo's Powers Hotel Coffee Shop, then at the Belmont Cafe in Grand Forks, and on a half-hour show on KFJM radio. In 1940, Kennedy got her a job fronting his cousin Sev Olsen’s band in Minneapolis, where she also sang on local radio station KSTP; according to legend, this exposure got her a job with the nationally-known Will Osborne Orchestra. A Variety review about a 1941 Peggy Lee performance in St. Louis states, "the gal thrills ‘Body And Soul’ and had to come back to do ‘Exactly Like You’ before the customers would cease the palm-pounding."

When Osborne’s band broke up, Lee drove back to California, and sang at Palm Springs celebrity haunt, the Doll House, where she claimed to have discovered her trademark vocal style: "The audience was unusually boisterous," Lee told an interviewer in 1948. "To cope with the noise, I lowered my voice with each successive song. The people soon forgot their bad manners, and I found a kind of delivery I’d been seeking for a long while." At the Doll House, Lee was auditioned by Frank Beringin, co-owner of Chicago’s East and West Ambassador Hotels; he hired her in 1941. Shortly thereafter, Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing," heard Lee at the Ambassador West’s nightclub, the Buttery Room, and signed her to replace the departing Helen Forrest.

Life on the road with a big band was, Lee said, “like boot camp, tremendously tough to endure. But if you come through it, you’ll be in shape for anything that comes along.” In 1942, she had her first #1 hit, Russ Morgan, Dick Howard and Bob Ellsworth’s "Somebody Else Is Taking My Place", followed by 1943's million-selling "Why Don't You Do Right?" by Kansas Joe McCoy and Herb Morand. She sang with Goodman's orchestra in two 1943 films, The Powers Girl and Stage Door Canteen.  During her years with Goodman, Lee would continue to write songs of her own. In the fall of 1941, the Chicago Sunday Herald-American published one of her original compositions, “Little Fool,” which Goodman would occasionally allow her to perform but was never recorded. Peter Richmond, in Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, explained, "she was beginning to compose lyrics, an ambition that would eventually distinguish her from nearly every other female singer of her era, as well as produce some of the most remarkable musical poetry the American songbook would ever see." 

In a 1983 interview Lee recalled, "I was with [Goodman] from 1941 to 1943, and I was with him longer than any other girl singer. The experience was priceless. He taught me discipline. He taught me to listen to the sounds. Oh, it was wonderful being a part of that world at that time, living in New York, the Broadway scene and the 52nd Street clubs. After hours in Harlem you could hear Billie Holiday sing at Café Downtown—and yes, that is the singer I would say I have most wanted to emulate. But Billie is Billie... and you know it was a privilege to be alive then and be a part of it—like I was at a wonderful circus every night. I guess I’d rather be with musicians than any other kind of people." In her autobiography, Lee referenced Goodman, and "the time in 1941 when he came into my life and I was swept up into a world of big-band singing and hit records. And, most important of all, to a year later, when a man named David, David Barbour, came into my life. David—my true love." 

Lee and David Barbour

Barbour, who joined the Benny Goodman Orchestra as guitarist in 1942, left the next year when his relationship with Lee became apparent. (Goodman forbade band members from "fraternizing with the girl singer.") Lee stayed on briefly, to the end of her contract. She married Barbour in Los Angeles in 1943, and later that year, gave birth to daughter, Nicki. Lee would remember these months as the happiest time she had ever known. Although she wanted to stay home and enjoy this new, settled life, her success with Goodman and the popularity of "Why Don’t You Do Right?" found her fielding all sorts of offers over the telephone; with Barbour’s encouragement, she finally agreed to record two songs for a Capitol Records project, New American Jazz. These songs, Dick Larkin’s "Ain’t Goin’ No Place" and Sammy Fain and Lew Brown’s "That Old Feeling," got the most airplay of any track on the record, and the fact of their popularity helped to ease Lee back into recording and performing. During this time, she wrote several songs that she went on to record with Capitol, including "I Don’t Know Enough About You" and "It’s a Good Day." In 1946, a reader’s poll in Down Beat magazine voted Lee the "best female singer not with a band."

From 1946 to 1949, while continuing to perform, and to record and promote commercial songs, Lee cut 72 tracks for Capitol's Transcription Library Service, which produced records exclusively for radio airplay. Her live radio appearances were also taking off. She wrote, "By now I was singing with Bing Crosby on the ‘Kraft Music Hall’ and Jimmy Durante on his Rexall program. Crosby and Durante—not one but two of the greatest entertainers who ever lived—and I had the pleasure of going to the NBC and CBS studios…I became a ‘regular,’ and every week there was a parade of stars…"  In 1948, Lee made a television appearance on the premier episode of Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town. That year, on the sales strength of Lee’s "Mañana," and Victor Young, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans' "Golden Earrings,Billboard named her the "Nation’s Number One Vocalist."

By 1950, the Barbour’s marriage was almost over; one of their last performances together was captured in a Lee cameo in Crosby’s film, Mr. Music, Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen's "Life Is So Peculiar" (Barbour is barely visible on the left side of the screen). They divorced in 1951. In a 1974 National Enquirer interview, Lee said, "I loved him dearly but eventually we began to come up against the problem of my career. You see, it is always very difficult for a man to be married to a career girl. She’s the one who gets all the attention." In addition to Barbour, Lee married and divorced actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and percussionist Jack Del Rio. Of these three later marriages, Lee said, "Each one could have been annulled. They were like costume parties."

Along with performing live and on television throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, and writing and recording hit singles, Lee began writing for motion pictures —most famously, six songs for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955). Her foray into movies included acting, with roles in The Jazz Singer (1953) and Pete Kelly’s Blues(1955), for which she won an Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress nomination. The only woman to have had Top Ten hits in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Lee went on writing, recording, and performing well into the 1990s. For those of us not fortunate enough to have seen her perform live, it is the virtuosity of Lee's decades-long recording career that continues to define her.

In 1952, Capitol refused to let Lee record her version of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers’ "Lover," so she jumped from Capitol to Decca to record it; this million-selling release hit #3, and stayed on the charts for 13 weeks. At Decca, she recorded the first of her many concept albums, Black Coffee, released as a 10-inch in 1953, then expanded to the 12-inch format in 1956 with the addition of four more songs. This innovative album evoked the atmosphere of a late night jazz club; set amidst the cool jazz stylings of trumpeter Pete Candoli and pianist Jimmy Rowles, Lee’s vocals evidenced a mastery of rhythm and phrasing, while demonstrating a wide emotional range. In the CD’s liner notes, jazz critic Will Friedwald wrote, "Black Coffee may not only be the greatest album of her career, it is one of the top ten jazz vocal albums of all time."


Sea Shells, recorded in 1955 and released in 1958, is notable for being the 1950’s version of a new age album. Ten years previously, Lee had found spiritual sustenance in Ernest Holmes’ "Science of Mind,"  a Christian-based set of beliefs that combined metaphysics, positive thinking, the law of attraction, creative visualization, and personal responsibilty. She would practice this form of spirituality for the rest of her life. On her next album, Dream Street(1957), arranged by Sy Oliver, Lee explored various musical styles in addition to jazz, such as pop, blues, and ballads, explaining, "I picked tunes I really wanted to do for a long time." The LP’s overall mood is one of dark elegance; outstanding tracks include Johnny Burke and Bob Haggart’s "What’s New?" and Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s "Last Night When We Were Young."

When Lee’s contract with Decca expired in 1957, Frank Sinatra, Capitol’s reigning artist, allegedly told the label’s president to "get Peggy back." Her first album after her return was The Man I Love (1957), a collection of lush, romantic ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle and conducted by Sinatra. Lee’s close friendship with Sinatra began when they both played at the Paramount Theater in New York in 1941; it would continue until his death in 1998. "There have been very few men in our business," wrote Lee, "who have effected me so deeply..." About Lee, Sinatra said, "Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm." One of Lee’s favorite songs stands at the apex of this album’s song cycle: Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s luxuriant, dreamy "The Folks Who Live on the Hill."

In 1958, Lee recorded Jump For Joy and promoted it in an extravagant and upbeat production at the Macambo in Los Angeles. During this engagement, she premiered a steamy version of Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell’s "Fever" (additional lyrics by Lee, with a little help from lyricist Sid Kuller). Released as a single, "Fever" became one of Lee's most popular songs, peaking at #8 on the Billboard charts. According to bassist Max Bennett, Jack Marshall’s Grammy-winning charts were "rearranged by Peggy and the musicians" in the song’s recording sessions. Also recorded and released at this time, Things Are Swingin’ (1958) was a remarkably smooth and timely album. Biographer Richmond wrote, "Even for listeners grown accustomed to her pitch, her time, her tone, her edges of velvet… her voice on Swingin’is extraordinary."

Fresh from her third divorce, Lee told friends, "Instead of a wedding veil maybe I should have worn a crash helmet." Somewhat ironically, amid allegations of "grievous mental suffering" and allusions to physical violence, Lee went back to the studio to record I Like Men! in late 1958, Jack Marshall arranging and conducting. Songs on this album ran the emotional gamut from elation to heartbreak; highlights include Lee’s own title track, and Herbert Baker’s "I Love to Love."Beauty and the Beat! (1959), with the George Shearing Quintet, was recorded "live" at the infamous disc jockey convention in Miami Beach. Technical difficulties reportedly occurred at the venue, so questions remain as to whether this is a live or studio album; it is most likely a combination of both. No matter, this is a gem of an album.

The first of four LPs  released in 1960, Latin Ala Lee!,  a Latin and Afro-Cuban themed collection of Broadway tunes arranged and conducted by Jack Marshall, remained for 59 weeks on Billboard’s Best-Selling Pop LPs chart, peaking at #11. Marvin Schwartz, working from a concept Lee proposed to Capitol’s art department, won 1960's Best Album Cover Grammy. Of her next album’s arranger, Billy May, Lee said to Will Friedwald, "If I had to pick someone for a desert island arranger it would be Billy, because he can write every style for brass or strings or for large or for small, and he writes with such humor as well as beauty." Pretty Eyes highlights include Jerry Bock, Larry Holofcener and George David Weiss' "Too Close for Comfort" and Bart Howard’s "In Other Words." The latter song, better known as "Fly Me to the Moon," was  so re-titled by Lee.


In 1960 Lee released All Aglow Again!, an album of hit singles from the two previous years (including "Fever"), never-released tracks from a 1952 session, and Lee's most popular hit single of the 1940s, "Mañana.” Ole Ala Lee!, Joe Harnell arranging, was released in 1961. Some of Lee’s most electrifying performances were at NYC’s Basin Street East, where she returned in 1961 for her third engagement. "This is the house that Benny built and Peggy made," said owner Ralph Watkins. Here she made a career-defining album, Basin Street East Proudly Presents Miss Peggy Lee; this LP, recorded live with studio overdubs, spent 22 weeks on the Billboard charts and garnered Lee's fourth Grammy nomination. One true and complete live performance, Peggy At Basin Street East, was issued in 2002. It captures a moment in time like few other albums do.


Lee made two concept albums with trumpeter, conductor, and arranger Quincy Jones; they met while working together during her 1961 Basin Street East engagement. The first of their studio albums was If You Go (1961), a lushly orchestrated collection of ballads about love and loss. The second, Blues Cross Country (1962) was a swinging, brass-heavy musical trip across America; two album highlights, among several songs they co-wrote, are  "New York City Blues" and "San Francisco Blues."  Lee and Jones were also linked romantically. Writes biographer Richmond, "For Peggy, Quincy was compatible. He had a mind as well as a talent, and a spirit. Like Peggy, ‘Q’ was a jazz artist, but also pragmatic and practical… He was also handsome—and risk free." To the point, Jones recalled, "We loved each other."

While in New York for a 1962 engagement at Basin Street East, Lee recorded another killer signature song, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s "I’m a Woman," marking the beginning of a most consequential relationship with the songwriters. Her next two nuanced and sophisticated albums, the last completely jazz-oriented albums of her career, Sugar ‘N’ Spice (1962) and Mink Jazz (1963), were arranged and conducted by Benny Carter. There are too many great tracks on these albums to name; stand-outs include Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s "The Best is Yet to Come," Ma Rainey’s "See See Rider," Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s "I’ve Got the World on a String" and "As Long As I Live," John Rox’s "It’s a Big Wide Wonderful World," Marvin Fisher and Joseph McCarthy’s "Cloudy Morning," and Lee’s own "Where Can I Go Without You?."

After the Beatles landed in New York in 1964, the British Invasion swept the American charts. From 1964 to 1967, Lee released multiple studio albums, and had nine songs on the adult contemporary charts, but times were changing, and the record buying public was now half her age. It’s a shame that most missed the amazingly pure, gorgeous, twelve-bar blues track on Big $pender (1966), Walter Spriggs’ "You Don’t Know." About Lee's delivery, Richmond wrote, "the lady’s soul was still in place, and it didn’t surface nearly enough in the rest of her ‘adult’ fare." Another noteworthy song released during this time was one of the first interpretations of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova classic, "How Insensitive." The compilation album, Extra Special! (1967), included a sly, exuberant song she co-wrote with Duke Ellington, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’.”

With lyrics based on the Thomas Mann short story, "Disillusionment," and music inspired by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?" was, in 1969, an odd song in search of a singer. Performed in 1967 by Georgia Brown, and in 1968 by Lesie Uggams, then offered to and rejected by Marlene Dietrich and Barbra Streisand, it eventually found it’s way to Lee. Her reaction was swift: "I will kill you if you give this song to anyone but me,” she told the songwriters. “This is my song. This is the story of my life." Like so many songs in Lee’s career, it was recorded and released over the objections of record executives. Once again, Lee prevailed; "Is That All There Is?" ruled the charts in late 1969, hitting #1, winning a Grammy nomination for Best Record of the Year, and, 30 years later, an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

In a 1995 Pulse article, jazz critic Will Friedwald outlined the brilliance of Peggy Lee: "Tin Pan Alley was a starting point for Lee, rather than a final destination. Establishing her identity with the true blues… she moved on to Latin rhythms... long before examples from that genre were accepted in the musical mainstream. She championed ‘uncommercial’ composers... and ventured as far from convention... An early believer in tradition- and culture-spanning, Lee has tested the boundaries of pop and expanded the vocabulary of jazz when and wherever she’s performed. Lee developed her material and accompaniments to frame her intimate whisper that’s all smoke and pixie dust. She’s a rarity, a jazz singer capable of communicating vulnerability even when she’s ripping through an uproariously fast-tempo… Typically, Lee commands something more than detached listening from her audiences; she draws them into an emotional involvement. Her personality is both sublimely surreal and super real in its honesty. She swings like nobody’s business, and no one’s better than she with torch songs. Yet Lee is at her best in a genre she virtually invented: the song of seduction. In such numbers as "Fever," with its undulating underpinning of bass and finger snaps, and Lieber and Stoller’s "I’m a Woman," Lee sold flat-out eroticism long before the ‘60s sexual revolution."