Today some of us will take a moment to celebrate the centennial of singer/songwriter/North Dakota native Peggy Lee, born on this date in 1920. One of her most popular albums is called Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown North Dakota. It’s front cover is a typical Peggy Lee glamour shot. The back cover, an image of a map of North Dakota.
She was known far beyond North Dakota, however. Someone once gave her the title of “the female Frank Sinatra.” Duke Ellington simply called her “the Queen.”
Best known for the tune “Fever,” she recorded dozens of hit songs like “I’m a Woman,””I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “Golden Earrings.”
I’ve been intrigued by Peggy Lee ever since I was a teenager. Unlike, say, Lawrence Welk, I could never understand how someone like her–glamorous, sophisticated, eventually a little world-weary–could come from my home state.
Her story was well-known to most of us North Dakotans of a certain age. Her childhood was marked by abuse at the hands of a cruel stepmother. Her father was kind, but alcoholic.
After high school, she was hired to sing on WDAY Radio in Fargo, in the days when live music was the norm on radio. Program Director Ken Kennedy came up with her stage name, telling her she looked like a Peggy. Later, even though she was married and divorced four times, she would prefer to be called Miss Lee, both professionally and personally.
While working at WDAY, Lee also sang at the Power Hotel coffee shop on Main Avenue in downtown Fargo, a popular college hangout then despite its lack of a liquor license. She was accompanied by organist Lloyd Collins. As a reporter, I once spent a pleasant afternoon at his Moorhead home, talking about their work together and playing with Lloyd’s extensive collection of toy trains. A picture of Peggy Lee was displayed proudly on an end table, autographed in gold Sharpie, “To Lloyd, with fondest memories. Peggy Lee.”
Leaving Fargo, she would sing with a couple of different big bands before Benny Goodman, no less, hired her to replace his girl singer Helen Forrest. The Goodman/Lee was productive, but relatively short-lived. Peggy fell in love and married Goodman’s guitarist Dave Barbour, retiring to a home in California where she was content to become of a wife and mother. Meanwhile, a tune she recorded with Goodman, “Why Don’t You Do Right” was becoming a huge, nationwide hit.
On the strength of its popularity, she would be lured back into the music business in a big way. With Barbour, she would write and record hits like “Manana” and “It’s a Good Day” at a time when it was unusual for vocalists, male or female, to write their own material.
She also acted, and not just a little. She appeared in an early version of “The Jazz Singer” and won a supporting actress Oscar nomination for “Pete Kelly’s Blues.” Not too shabby.
Eventually, she was take charge of her career in a big way. By all accounts a perfectionist, she immersed herself in every aspect of career, down to the staging and lighting of her live appearances.
She fought the suits at her long-time recording home Capitol Records. They didn’t want her to record “Is That All There is?” They said it was too artsy, or something. She insisted. It won a Grammy for her and sold a lot of records for them. Then she left Capitol for another label.
In the days when home video was new, Miss Lee filed a lawsuit against the behemoth Walt Disney Company . She claimed video rights for six songs she had co-written back in the 1950’s for the classic animated film Lady & the Tramp. She had also voiced several characters for it, one of them named Peg. She would win the multi-million dollar lawsuit.
In 1995, just as she was preparing for what would be her two final concerts, at Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Hollywood Bowl in California, it was suggested I do a series of television news stories about her career for WDAY/WDAZ. I didn’t have to be asked twice. I wanted to talk with her especially about her early days in North Dakota. After several telephone conversations with her and her handlers, I was invited to interview her at her home in Bel Air. A date was set, airline tickets were purchased.
Long story short, she called off our interview a few days before it was scheduled to take place. She was not feeling well enough. Politely, but very firmly she told me it was not going to happen. Not then. For more than a year I kept in touch almost weekly with her long-time publicist, but it was not to be. Having battled poor health all of her life, it began to fail her for good. Soon a major stroke would silence her voice forever. On January 21, 2002, she died at the age of 81.
Today her voice pops up on film and television sound tracks, most recently in the Netflix series Hollywood. Even the occasional television commercial. Vocalists like Stacy Sullivan in New York City and Connie Evingson in Minneapolis do popular Peggy tribute shows, not aping her unique style, but re-creating a Peggy Lee vibe.
Her life and career are the subject of several books. Before her death, writer Nora Ephron worked on a film script based on her life. Another script is said to be rattling around somewhere in Hollywood.
The Peggy Lee Museum in Wimbledon, North Dakota, tells her story very nicely. It’s housed in what was the Midland Continental Depot where she lived growing up, and which her father ran. It’s well-worth a road trip.
Then, of course, there is her music. A large catalog of songs including The Ultimate Peggy Lee, just released as part of her centennial celebration.
Her granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells, who worked with her as her assistant on the road, is carefully and lovingly maintaining her legacy.
Overshadowed by a voice Rolling Stone once called “a thing of beauty,” her accomplishments as a songwriter in particular are sometimes overlooked.
This year, live centennial concert events celebrating Peggy Lee have had to be put on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic, replaced instead by online events. A North Dakota concert scheduled for this summer could take place next year.
Peggy returned to North Dakota only rarely. Once to sing at the North Dakota Winter Show in Valley City and in 1975 to perform at the NDSU Fieldhouse where she was presented the state’s highest honor, the North Dakota Roughrider Award. I was in the audience that night, at the end of my first week at WDAY/WDAZ, working for the same company she once did. It was a terrific show, although her friend Lloyd Collins told me she was disappointed in it. Again, the perfectionist.
Bette Midler, who recorded a Peggy Lee tribute album, called her “alluring,” a word not much used any more. She was all of that and a lot more.