Lee’s career covered six decadesNot many people can claim to have had a career that spans six decades, let alone in the rigors of the entertainment industry. Jamestown native Peggy Lee, however, was able to do just that through her work as a singer, songwriter and actress from the 1940s through the 1990s.
By: Brian Willhide, The Jamestown Sun
Not many people can claim to have had a career that spans six decades, let alone in the rigors of the entertainment industry. Jamestown native Peggy Lee, however, was able to do just that through her work as a singer, songwriter and actress from the 1940s through the 1990s.
Lee, who was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920, began her career in the business as a singer over KOVC radio in Valley City, N.D. It wasn’t until she was 17 years old when radio personality Ken Kennedy of WDAY in Fargo recommended she change her name from Norma Egstrom to Peggy Lee.
“Just think, all that talent she had but I always tell the story of how she applied for a cooking position at Spiritwood Lake after she graduated high school and she didn’t get the job,” said George Spangler, local Peggy Lee historian.
Soon after, Spangler said Lee sold the watch she received as a graduation gift and left North Dakota for the big city opportunities of Los Angeles and then later on Chicago. There she would soon become lead singer for “King of Swing” Benny Goodman’s band.
It didn’t take long for Lee to find her own recording success, as she landed her first No. 1 hit on the U.S. pop charts in 1942 with “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place.”
She left Goodman’s band in 1943 after marrying band guitarist Dave Barbour and would go another five years before recording her second No. 1 hit, “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me).”
Lee would never return to the No. 1 spot on the pop charts, but by the time her final top 100 pop song “Is That All There Is?” left the charts in 1969, she had recorded a total of nine top 10 pop hits.
One of those was the song “Fever,” which climbed to No. 8 and was famously covered in re-recordings by Madonna in 1993 and more recently by Beyoncé in 2010.
Lee went on to find success on the U.S. adult contemporary charts, with a 1969 No. 1 hit in “Is That All There Is?” in addition to two other top 10 AC hits as well.
“Peggy Lee was an enchantress and remains an icon among female recording artists,” said Randal Malone, president of the Southern California Motion Picture Council.
She proved to be more than just a talented voice, however, and soon made her mark as a songwriter in 1955’s Disney movie, “Lady and the Tramp,” which, along with big band musician Sonny Burke, she wrote the songs for.
Lee also sang and was the voice for four characters in the film. It turned out to be one of Lee’s greatest overall successes, showing her wide range of skills from songwriter to singer to actress.
“If you know about Peggy Lee, then you’re well aware of her contributions to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ but she goes widely underappreciated for her work on that film,” said Kate Stevenson, local Lee enthusiast and performer of Lee’s works.
The film was also the subject of a lawsuit Lee issued against Walt Disney Company in 1988 for breach of contract. The lawsuit claimed she was due royalties for videotapes of the film — a technology that had not been invented when Lee signed on to the film in the early 1950s. After about a three-year-long battle, the lawsuit was successful and she was awarded $2.3 million.
Lee garnered attention in multiple other roles as an actress as well, including 1952’s “The Jazz Singer,” and 1955’s “Pete Kelly’s Blues,” for which she received an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of the character Rose Hopkins.
“There’s a depth to how she plays that character. Even when she’s not singing and just speaking, she’s still got such an amazing voice,” Stevenson said.
Later years and awards
Lee continued performing into the 1990s but ultimately had to stop due to complications from diabetes.
The accolades over her career proved numerous and she was the recipient of several lifetime achievement awards.
During her 60-year-long career, Lee was nominated for 12 Grammy awards, winning once in 1969 for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance with “Is That All There Is?” She was the 1995 recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1999, she was inducted into Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The Women’s International Center honored Lee with the WIC Living Legacy Award, in which she joined the company of recipients such as tennis star Billie Jean King and former U.S. first lady Betty Ford.
“Peggy Lee was an ideal recipient for our Living Legacy Award because of her tremendous musical legacy,” said Bridget McDonald, CEO of the Women’s International Center. “She followed her passion and that fire can be heard in every one of her recordings.”
Lee died in January 2002 at age 81 but her 60-year tenure was unlike any artist of her generation.
From 1957 until her final album in 1972, Lee produced two or three albums per year and throughout her career, she worked with such names as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Paul McCartney.
There will only ever be one Peggy Lee, according to WIC President Gloria Lane.
“Our roster of Living Legacies was made brighter by the addition of Peggy Lee who was an unmatched talent in the music industry,” she said. “We cherish, applaud and celebrate her many good works.”
“Music is my life’s breath,” is inscribed on her grave marker in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Calif.
Stevenson said Lee was ahead of her time and today is often unappreciated by entertainment fans and those within the industry.
“Peggy Lee evolved so much over her career,” she said. “Most artists you can pigeonhole because they stay in the same genre their whole career. With Peggy Lee, you can’t do that because she sang jazz, blues, pop and Cabaret-style and her music was able to span those genres successfully throughout her career.”
Sun reporter Brian Willhide can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by email at email@example.com