It is late January in 2002, and the news has just been announced that singer Peggy Lee has passed away. I soon heard other announcements on different newscasts and I was struck by the fact that they mentioned her recordings of "Fever" and "Is That All There Is? " but nothing more. It seemed as though those were her performance legacy left for the ages. However there was more, much more to the life and times of Peggy Lee.
She was born in 1920 as Norma Jean Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. Growing up she used music as an escape from what she considered a dreary existence. By the time she was sixteen she was already an accomplished vocalist and appeared on local radio. Stints with the bands of Jack Wardlaw and Will Osborne introduced her to the life of a touring entertainer. After a stop at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago in 1941 she was heard by Benny Goodman, and was asked to become the band's female vocalist replacing Helen Forrest who left to join Harry James. The first recording session with Goodman was on August 15, 1941, on the song "Elmer's Tune". She gained popularity with the Goodman band and hit the big time with a tune recorded with the band on July 27, 1942 - "Why Don't You Do Right? " Peggy also appeared with the band in the motion pictures "The Powers Girl" and "Stage Door Canteen".
On March 20, 1943, a live broadcast from the Hollywood Palladium featured Peggy Lee on a vocal of "Slender, Tender, and Tall". This was her last appearance with the band. Also leaving the Goodman band was guitarist Dave Barbour who became Lee's husband. Both soon signed with Capitol Records, and Peggy's first Capitol release was "What More Can A Woman Do? " on #197. Nothing much happened with that record but Capitol #218 became her first big seller on her own. It was a tune written by pioneer disc jockey Martin Block that fit the times in 1945 called "Waitin' For The Train To Come In". It got to the number four position on the best seller list. The flip side also did well - a song from the film "Tars And Spars" called "I'm Glad I Waited For You". In the spring of 1946 Capitol # 236 "I Don't Know Enough About You" got into the top ten. Two more recordings in 1946 made the charts - "Linger In My Arms A Little Longer" (#263) and "It's All Over Now" (# 292).
The Year 1947 produced five chart hits leading off with "It's A Good Day" which was written by Lee and Barbour on Capitol #322. "Everything's Moving Too Fast" (#343) was followed by a top ten seller of a cover of Perry Como's hit "Chi Baba, Chi Baba" on #419. Capitol release #15009 was a huge seller for Lee came late in the year - "I'll Dance At Your Wedding" and the flip which got to number two - "Golden Earrings" a movie title song. Her treatment of the tune defined her style that she would be noted for in the years to come - a smoky, sultry, intimate delivery that really sold the song and the jazz backing by the Benny carter Quartet was superb. Coming soon after, Lee's next Capitol release would make the top spot in America and sell over one million records. It was a light breezy tune in a quasi-Latin American feel called "Manana" and was written by Lee and Barbour, and was listed on the label as "with Dave Barbour & The Brazilians. It was the first of nine charted records in the year 1948 for Peggy Lee and Capitol Records. The flip side of "Manana" was called "All Dressed Up With A Broken Heart" and sold well on its own.
Peggy then interestingly enough, joined up with her old bandmates with the Benny Goodman orchestra. The result was a song from the motion picture "Casbah" called "For Every Man There's A Woman" on #15030. "Laroo Laroo Lilly Bolero" and "Talking To Myself About You" paired on #15048 both got into the top 25 sellers as did the next Capitol release, the sultry and memorable "Don't Smoke In Bed" (#10120). Capitol #15000 provided an interesting pairing with one side featuring "Caramba It's The Samba" with Barbour & The Brazilians, and the flip side featured the Benny carter Quartet on "Baby Don't Be Mad At Me". The last record by Lee to chart in the year 1948 was "Bubble Loo Bubble Loo" (#15118). During this prolific time in the recording studio Peggy Lee made many radio appearances in the late 40s. She often was part of the cast on the shows of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Andy Russell.
Records that charted for Lee in 1949 were an odd mix of songs. "Blum Blum I Wonder Who I Am" with a Dixieland combo on Capitol #15371 was first followed by "Similau" (#15416) "Bali Hai" from the Broadway musical "South Pacific" on #543 (note the constantly changing numbering patterns from Capitol Records), and ended the year with a big seller on her cover of Vaughn Monroe's "Riders In The Sky" which got to number two in the country on #608. In 1950 Peggy teamed with Mel Torme & The Mellomen for "The Old Master Painter" (#791), and at that time had a featured role in the Bing Crosby film "Mister Music". "Show Me The Way To Get Out Of This World" (#1105) with the Dave Barbour Orchestra closed out the year as her 25th charted record as a solo performer. In 1951 Peggy Lee's only charted record was her last for Capitol after seven years with the label. "I Get Ideas" with the Billy May orchestra on #1573 got into the top fifteen sellers in America.
By 1952 Peggy Lee was now on Decca Records and her first charted hit for her new label was a cover of Eddy Howard's hit tune "Be Anything (But Be Mine)" backed up by the Gordon Jenkins Orchestra as she would be on most Decca sessions. The release on #28142 was a moderate seller, but the next record for Decca was a huge hit that got to the number three position in the country and a million seller. The song was "Lover" (#28215) from the film "Love Me Tonight" and remained one of her most requested numbers for the rest of her career. A duet with Bing Crosby followed on "Watermelon Weather" for Decca #23238. A Broadway show tune from the musical "Jubilee" called "Just One Of Those Things" on #28313 made the top fifteen, and the year ended with "River River" on #28395.
In 1953 Peggy Lee appeared in the motion picture remake of "The Jazz Singer" and performed a song she wrote for the movie called "This Is A Very Special Day". "Who's Gonna Pay The Check" with Dave Barbour's band on #28631 in 1953 as did a hit tune from the Broadway musical "Kismet" called "Baubles bangles And Beads" on Decca #28890. In 1954 Lee charted with "Where Can I Go Without You? " on #29003 and "Let Me Go Lover" with Victor Young's Orchestra on #29373. The following year as the rock 'n roll explosion swept over the pop music scene, Peggy Lee continued expanding her talents. She appeared in the motion picture "Pete Kelly's Blues" and here role was well received. In 1956 her recording of the show tune "Mr. Wonderful" for Decca #29834 got into the top fifteen best sellers. Lee now concentrated on in person performances rather than as a recording artist in the late 50s, but a unique treatment of an R & B tune that was written and performed by Little Willie John called "Fever" became a huge hit. Back with the Capitol label again, Lee's recording of "Fever" (#3998) became her signature song for the rest of her career.
It was more than a decade later when Peggy Lee returned one last time to the top selling singles charts. In 1969 her Capitol recording (#2602) of "Is That All There Is? " was a top ten hit. The introspective lyrics and wistful mood made this an unforgettable piece of music. As the recording medium of the 45rpm single became the almost exclusive domain of the American teenager in the late 50s, Peggy Lee released LP albums that sold well. Albums by Lee that were top sellers include one for Decca with Ella Fitzgerald "Songs From Pete Kelly's Blues" (#8166), and a number for Capitol. These were "The Man I Love" with Frank Sinatra as conductor (#864), "Jump For Joy" (#9799), "Things Are Swinging" (#1049), "Latin Ala Lee" (#1290), "Sugar 'N' Spice" (#1772), and "I;m A Woman" on #1857.
For six decades, Peggy Lee was a true American original and a definer of the art of the pop standard. In the mid forties she was among the top record sellers and in person performers in American music. She will be remembered for all the memorable moments that she provided for music lovers throughout the world.
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