Peggy Lee

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Peggy Lee Pencil Portrait
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Sitting in her wheelchair, frail and with failing eyesight, the singer rolled into the Los Angeles Superior Court in an attempt to bring the mammoth Walt Disney Co. to its knees, or at least to its chequebook. Suing for $12.5 million, charging breach of contract and unlawful enrichment over the videocassette release of “Lady and the Tramp”, Norma Deloris Egstrom braced herself for another round of litigation, a due process she remained familiar with after a lifetime of similar confrontations. Having co-written six songs and performed the voices of four characters in a film with earnings in excess of $140 million altogether, $90 million alone from video sales, a point in contractual law was at stake.

A lengthy legal battle ensued before the judge ruled in 1991 that she still retained rights to the transcripts and awarded her $2.3m. It was another victory for the singer/songwriter and astute businesswoman better known throughout the world as Peggy Lee.

Peggy Lee lost her mother by the age of four and was forced to endure both an alcoholic father and an abusive stepmother throughout her pre-adult years. While still in her teens, she began to gain some local recognition as a singer, and after graduating high school she made an unsuccessful attempt to establish herself in Hollywood. After a period supporting herself as a waitress and a carnival barker she returned to North Dakota and landed a job singing for a radio station in Fargo; it was during this time, at the recommendation of the station’s manager, that she changed her name from Norma Egstrom to Peggy Lee.

Over the next few years Lee made several more moves around the country, each time advancing her career a little farther. Hotel and radio jobs in Minneapolis were followed by a brief stint singing with a touring band, eventually landing her back in California where she worked at the Doll House in Palm Springs. It was here that she developed her trademark, sultry purr — having decided to compete with the noisy crowd with subtlety rather than volume. After witnessing one of her performances, hotel owner Frank Bering offered her a job in Chicago, which led to her first real break into the big time: an invitation from Benny Goodman to sing with his orchestra. Shortly afterwards, they were hard at work together in the studio.

After high school she found herself being auditioned by Ken Kennedy, program director at WDAY in Fargo. He changed her name to Peggy Lee, and put her on the Hayloft Jamboree as Freckle-Faced Gertie. After touring with bands and working concessions at a California carnival, she landed a job singing in a noisy Palm Springs jazz club, the Doll House. “In a moment of intense fear, I discovered the power of softness,” she says. “I was thinking people didn’t want to listen to me, so I’d just sing to myself. They immediately stopped talking.” Her easy, one-octave crooning later prompted one critic to write, “Never has so much been delivered from so little.” Says Lee, “I’ve been easy on my voice, it’s true. That’s why I’m still around. Vocal cords wear out. Besides, if you shout, you can’t converse with your audience, and that’s what I do best.”

Singing with the Benny Goodman band, she pleaded with her employer to write an arrangement for her of “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, the song that launched her career yet the fame almost faded before it began. Deeply in love with Goodman’s handsome guitarist, Dave Barbour, Lee married him in 1943. She turned down offers to sing in favour of happy domesticity in their L.A. apartment. But Barbour’s self-destructive drinking strained tolerance, especially after their daughter Nicki, now 40, was born. “I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and our failed marriage,” she says, “and I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say – you have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song.”

Her cornerstone recording, the one that resonated more deeply within her than any other, was written by the Brill Building team of Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller. Astutely recognising the significance of the lyrical content and its parallel with her own emotional life, Miss Lee pushed the writers hard for a first shot at the song. As it was, other recordings pipped her to the marketplace but it was her version that became a major hit following its release in the fall of 1969 reaching number 11 on the U.S. pop singles chart, her first Top 40 pop hit since “Fever,” 11 years earlier and performing even better on the adult contemporary scene, topping that Billboard chart. It won Lee the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and then later was named to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

My father bought the record and played it incessantly. As a ten year old, my ears were attracted to the arrangement but for one so tender in years, the lyrical content naturally passed me by. Forty four years later of course, the words resonate deeply although fortunately, I have no earthly reason to feel as wistful.

The song’s structure, a combination of part narrative, part vocal lament is woven across a tapestry of heavily reverbed piano, brass (in the circus section) and sustained strings that soar in an upwardly mobile direction during the final address. The lyrics represent a microcosm of lifelong experiences in a recording that equals Sinatra’s “It was a very good year” for pathos and reflective wistfulness.

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pyjamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to the circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching the marvellous spectacle
I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away. And I thought I’d die — but I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself, “Is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?
Oh, no. Not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself,

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

“Is That All There Is?” ©1968 Jerry Leiber (lyrics) and Mike Stoller (music).

The premise of the song deals with the “disappointment of life” and to my mind, a subject matter that has taken me years to reconcile within myself, namely the near total insignificance to my existence. Perhaps Peggy Lee saw within herself, the disillusionment that set in when the one truly important relationship of her life, namely her marriage to guitarist Dave Barbour, fell apart. She married three more times, each union with less and less traction until she appeared to recognise that the best no longer lay ahead. I am not a regular churchgoer and I never, absolutely never, religiously pontificate to people, yet it remains clear to me that one of the unfortunate by-products of living in a sinful, fallen world is that every person, Christian or not, experiences pain and suffering and disappointment in this life. From failed relationships to unfulfilled dreams, life can be filled with sorrow and disappointment. In fact, Jesus assured us of it: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). No one is immune.

As the youthful perception of true love dwindles and without due care and attention, one’s life can degenerate into a never ending litany of short lived hedonistic experiences. When I was young, I had an image in my mind of my ideal partner. It never occurred to me that those very qualities might be veiled by less outwardly attractive characteristic traits. My wife stands apart from any other woman I have ever known, in that she has never pampered me from the day we met. If I’m honest, the effect was disconcerting, but she has always seen more to my personality than others. Turning towards me recently whilst discussing a high profile relationship then under close scrutiny in the national press, she put a rhetorical question to me. “You know what’s always been wrong with you don’t you?” “I think I do” I replied, “But there would be little harm in you giving me your view.” “Well,” she said, “As a man you’re genetically pre-programmed to absorb and lap up all the adoring attention you can muster from a woman and yet no matter from what angle you approach the subject, no matter how much you might wish otherwise, you know deep down that it’s bullshit.” There wasn’t much for me to add to that before we tapered off into silence for a few moments.

A relationship devoid of manipulation and blessed with painful honesty, is still not a guaranteed recipe for enduring success and can run into problems if regular meaningful communication is not maintained. Fulfilment can ebb and flow but in my worst moments, I have never lost sight of my wife’s single most beguiling trait. She can watch me being the life and soul of a party and yet instinctively know that I couldn’t be more unhappy at that precise moment in time. She can also observe me huddled in a corner viewing much communal merriment with a tear cascading down my cheek and know that I couldn’t be happier. On other occasions, she can view both scenarios and knowingly accept my reactions at face value. I recall being increasingly intrigued by this ability in her to “read me” but even more of a revelation was the realisation that no other woman had even come close to unlocking my innermost thoughts. We haven’t lived a problem free life for circumstances can conspire to “clog the communication channels” yet she remains the only woman I have ever loved. Fondness, infatuation, inexperience, a combination of all these factors – I have been mentally blighted at points in my life by all these emotional red herrings yet impulsiveness, the catalyst to make a life changing decision based on pure intuition and gut instinct, is a sensation I have only ever felt for my wife.

Nevertheless, I still don’t have any answers to the imponderables of life, but at least I know now that no-one is accountable for my own inner contentment since I must carve that out for myself. It concerned me for years how easily it would be to “fall into” a relationship, and being essentially the committed type, to continue with it. The problem, as I see it, is that when the emotional fork road finally appears, be it in the form of financial problems, career move, illness or another person, millions discover that their relationship founders. Of course, people are resilient and do pick up the threads of their lives again but there is always one pivotal relationship breakdown from which there is no real recovery, but merely self denial. This relationship usually, but not necessarily always, goes hand in hand with the conscious decision to start a family, as indeed it did for Peggy Lee when she gave birth to her only child, a daughter she and her first husband christened Nicki. Her relationship with Dave Barbour is further examined in the following link.


Three husbands followed – two actors and a bandleader – but all the marriages were short-lived. “They weren’t really weddings,” said Lee in “People” magazine (9/1/84), “just long costume parties.” Barbour stayed sober for 13 years after their divorce and was about to get back together with Lee in 1965, but before it could happen he died of a heart attack. “I was destroyed,” she admitted.

Recommended listening

Peggy Lee “Golden Earring” (3 CD Box set) 2001

Not an obvious starting point for the the casual browser but an essential retrospective of Lee’s early development as a recording artist.

This three-disc, 42-track collection chronicles her first solo stint with Capitol Records in the mid- to late ’40s, shortly after she left her spot as a singer with Benny Goodman’s band in 1943. While many would argue that her best work was done a decade later with Decca and her second go-round with Capitol, the selections here (most of them done with husband Dave Barbour and his orchestra) show an assured vocalist with a firm understanding of the pop side of jazz. Among the classic highlights included here are her out-of-the-gate hit for Capitol, “Waiting for the Train to Come In”; the 1948 smash “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)”; and the title track, “Golden Earrings.”

Black Coffee (1956)

Huddling in dark spaces, Lee’s paean to reflective isolation finds a perfect backdrop in the sparse rhythmic instrumentation of piano, guitar, bass and drums. With additional ornamentation from trumpet and vibes, the queen of rubenesque wends her way through a torch collection of “love lost” numbers that chill the bones.

Rather overshadowed by her more mainstream ‘pop’ entries, the cognisenti recognise the overall worth of this collection
as ‘Black Coffee’ duly combines thoughtful song selection, intelligent accompaniment, and intuitively sublime singing to create a work of art.

Mink Jazz (1963)

Undoubtedly one of her three indispensable studio albums, Miss Lee cultivates her breathy, kittenish, exquisitely intimate sound to full irresistible effect over two sessions recorded at Capitol Studios, Los Angeles, California in March 1962 and February 1963.

It’s a sublime listening experience but a warning to every male listener of the cauldron that exists under the coquettish exterior – you can visit with her but you may never be the same man again in the morning.

Jack Sheldon’s inimitable trumpet legato matches Lee’s vocalising with every slur and “Where Can I Go Without You” emerges as an underrated, overlooked treasure.

As befits the album’s title, the arrangements (half by the legendary Benny Carter) eschew strings and big orchestrations in favour of “jazz-instrumentation” ensembles of no more than 6-8 musicians. Sheldon is the only instrumental omnipresence throughout the sessions and adds improvisational flourishes throughout.

“Mink Jazz” has its detractors and the collection could be more adventurous yet Lee’s slavish regard for the original melodic constructions produced some of the most scintillating performances of American song ever committed to record. This approach also worked well for Ella Fitzgerald in her matchless “Songbook” series. We can admire her improvisational scat technique in a live setting but for a domestic listening experience we want ‘The First Lady of Song’ singing “straight and true”. Lee followed the rulebook and ensured her lasting place in the pantheon of greats.

This 1998 reissue includes 5 bonus tracks not on the original release. Digitally remastered using 20-Bit Super Bit Mapping by Odea Murphy, the mod musical setting is augmented by an understated jazz feel with percussion and flute. Lee’s uncanny sense of rhythm is well to the fore as she “reads” her songs with the sensitivity of a poetry recital. “Please Don’t Rush Me” and “I Could Write A Book” showcase her personality, performing skills and innate musical taste. As a mid price collection it’s peerless.

The Very Best Of Peggy Lee (EMI) 2000

Some Greatest Hits compilations are essential purchases, if only as a damning indictment on the general quality level of an artist’ complete oeuvre; for other stellar greats like Peggy Lee, the indiscriminate purchaser may find such titles completely redundant as a greater appreciation develops.

Having said that, there has to be a starting point and most of this collection is made up of Peggy’s recordings for Capitol Records. EMI (who own Capitol) obtained permission from other companies to include ‘Black coffee’, ‘He’s a tramp’ and ‘Siamese cat song’, clearly the most important recordings of those she didn’t record for Capitol.

The rest of the collection includes all the essentials including ‘Fever’, the novelty song ‘Manana’ and ‘The folks who live on the hill’. UK purchasers may be surprised to learn that Miss Lee had the initial US hit with ‘Big Spender’ although Shirley Bassey acquits herself well with a more aggressive interpretation.

Her versatility is evident throughout be it on upbeat swinging numbers, slow torch songs, Disney soundtracks and Latin-flavoured rhumbas.

Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4 : 14/5/77)

Lee talks to Roy Plomley and discusses her musical career and aptitude for survival on a desert island.

Her selections are mainly classical, Ottorino Respighi, Bach, Delius. Brahms but Miles Davis,Johnny Mandell and The Beatles get a look in. The singer had in fact collaborated with Paul McCartney three years earlier when the ex-Beatle penned and produced the title track for her “Let’s Love” album. Lennon would have been jealous, being as he was, a rabid fan of Peggy’s. The band had recorded “Till there was you” from the show of ‘The Music Man’, the gut string guitar arrangement a more than affectionate nod to Lee’s 1958 rendition with the Billy May orchestra.

The show survives in the BBC archive and can be located for downloading at:

Recommended viewing

Fever: The music of Peggy Lee (PBS) 2008

An insightful narrative focusing on her songwriting and musical skills, interwoven with personal reminiscences from relatives and friends including her daughter and granddaughter. The film utilises strategic intercuts of a 70’s live recording of “Is that all there is?” as its central theme. What emerges is a picture of a woman who, musically speaking, had it all – stage presence, heat, a mouth to die for, an instinctive way with words, glamour and a reminder to modern day women of what they should look like. Noting her attraction for men, producer Quincy Jones fondly recalls her saying “Even mink has to lay down sometimes!”

There is an expanded DVD of the show featuring over 20 live performances from TV and concerts shows, some exceedingly rare. All of her hits are here and in the “extra features” there are several rare ones, including ‘Danny Boy’ which is beautiful. An entire ‘Person to Person’ segment showcasing her home life, a conversation with Judy Garland, several more live performances (all early 50’s) and an extremely entertaining segment from the show ‘What’s My Line’. Watching those 60’s colour clips, one is reminded of just how many light years ahead the Americans were in colour television production compared to every other country, with the possible exception of Japan.

Recommended reading

Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee (Peter Richmond) 2007

Drawing on exclusive interviews and never-before-seen information, Peter Richmond delivers a complex, compelling portrait of an artist that begins with a girl plagued by loss, her father’s alcoholism, and her stepmother’s abuse. One day she boards a train, following her muse and hoping her music will lead her someplace better and it does – to the very pantheon of great American singers.

It’s without doubt the most complete biography on the star to date although rather too respectful on the subject of her lifestyle choices and their effect on her deteriorating health.


The official site – a useful compendium of obituary press cuttings, discographical lstings and a hitherto unavailable breakdown of her numerous television appearances.

All credit to Ivan Santiago-Mercado for his twelve year labour of love that details all Lee’s recording sessions, radio broadcasts and record releases.

The new album picture gallery is particularly impressive and Lee’s legacy couldn’t be entrusted to better hands.