More than sixty years have passed since Peggy Lee sang with Benny Goodman's swing band and made her first hit recording. Yet so totally inexhaustible was her talent and so intense her application to her work that, almost a generation later, she is still considered one of the best female singers of all time, a true jazz legend. A product of the big-band era, she derived from that apprenticeship her ability to sing not only jazz and blues, but any kind of music and to sing it with a beat, and with enough volume to be heard above the band. Only a few former big band vocalists have had her staying power---Doris Day, Kay Starr, Jo Stafford to name a few.
Peggy Lee is also a successful composer, lyricist, arranger, and a shrewd businesswoman. To all her careers she brought a perfectionism that leaves the stamp of professionalism on everything she touched. Much of her success Miss Lee credited to her apprenticeship with the big bands. "I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else," she said. "They taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train…. Band singing taught us the importance of interplay with musicians. And we had to work close to the arrangement." In July, 1942, Peggy Lee recorded her first smash hit, "Why Don’t You Do Right?" It sold over 1,000,000 copies and made her famous.
In March, 1943, Peggy married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman’s band; shortly thereafter she left the band. After her daughter, Nicki, was born in 1944, Peggy and her husband worked successfully on the West Coast. In 1944 she began to record for Capitol Records, for whom she has produced a long string of hits – many of them with lyrics and music by Miss Lee and Dave Barbour. Among them are "Golden Earrings," which sold over 1,000,000 copies ;"You Was Right, Baby;" "It’s a Good Day;" Mañana" (which sold over 2,000,000 records); "What More Can a Woman Do?;" and "I Don’t Know Enough About You." Today Peggy Lee also has a top rating as a songwriter with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
In 1950 Peggy Lee made a, brief screen appearance in Paramount’s "Mr. Music," starring Bing Crosby. In 1953 she played a featured role opposite Danny Thomas in Warner Brothers’ remake of the early Al Jolson talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," and won praise from a critic of the "New York World-Telegram and Sun" for "a very promising start on a movie career" as "a poised and ingratiating ingenue." Her performance as a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in "Pete Kelly’s Blues" (Warner Brothers, 1955) won her a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the 1955 balloting conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, moviegoers voted her the "Audie" statuette.
Peggy has not only appeared in motion pictures. But she has also written music and lyrics for them. She wrote the theme music for "Johnny Guitar" (Republic, 1954) and for "About Mrs. Leslie" (Paramount, 1954). She contributed the musical score to two George Pal cartoon features, "Tom Thumb" (MGM, 1958) and "The Time Machine" (MGM, 1960), and wrote the lyrics and supplied several voices for the Walt Disney full-length animated cartoon "Lady and the Tramp" (Buena Vista, 1955). For "Anatomy of a Murder" (Columbia, 1959) she wrote the lyrics for "I’m Gonna Go Fishin’" to music by Duke Ellington.
In the respect she commands from the critics both as a popular vocalist and as a jazz artist, Peggy Lee is a rarity among singers. Critic George Hoefer of "Downbeat" magazine has called her "the greatest white female jazz singer since Mildred Bailey," and Leonard Feather in "The Encyclopedia of jazz" (Horizon, 1960) has described her as "one of the most sensitive and jazz-oriented singers in the pop field." Miss Lee won the 1946 polls as best female vocalist of both "Metronome" and "Downbeat" magazines, wisely read by jazz buffs, and the 1950 citation as "the nation’s most popular female vocalist" from "Billboard," a trade magazine of show business. A frequent performer on television, she sang on the Thursday night "Revlon Revues" over CBS-TV in 1960, and appeared on televised musical variety shows starring Perry Como, George Gobel, Steve Allen and Bing Crosby.
In September, 1962 Miss Lee reached what she has called the "high spot" in her career when she was selected to appear in Philharmonic Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, an auditorium usually available to those whom the management considers as serious artists. Miss Lee conducted research for, and wrote a program called "The Jazz Tree," tracing the origins and development of jazz as a native American art form. Originally scheduled for December, 1962, the booking was postponed until March, 1963 to give Miss Lee enough time to perfect her presentation. This perfectionist approach to her programs is typical of Miss Lee. She polishes and perfects every aspect of her performances – her special coiffures, her costly wardrobe, her lighting, her entrances and exits, and her musical arrangements. Her perfectionism may derive from her association with Benny Goodman, who always demanded the best from his performers. Rejecting the improvisatory approach of most jazz singers, Peggy planned every detail of her delivery in advance, including the movement of her hands.
However, it was Lee’s singular singing that ensured her legendary status. Her rhythmic croonings of tunes like "Lover," "Fever," and "Is That All There Is?"—which won her two Grammys in 1969—made such songs instantly identifiable with her. By the mid-1980s she had recorded 59 albums and 631 songs. She always endeavored to remain musically current, performing the songs of contemporary composers or collaborating with them. But even in those contemporary pieces she looked for the "haunting melodies and engaging word-pictures" that she was "trained to appreciate," according to Eliot Tiegel in Down Beat; these are qualities that, in Lee’s words, make an audience "walk away humming."
In the early 1990s she retained famed entertainment attorney Neil Papiano to sue Disney for royalties on Lady and the Tramp. Lee's lawsuit claimed that she was due royalties for video tapes, a technology that did not exist when she agreed to write and perform for Disney. Her lawsuit was successful. Never afraid to fight for what she believed in, Lee passionately insisted that musicians be equitably compensated for their work. Although she realized litigation had taken a toll on her health, Lee often quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson on the topic: "God will not have his work be made manifest by cowards." Lee continued to perform into the 1990s, sometimes in a wheelchair. After years of poor health, she died of complications from diabetes and a heart attack at age 81.
From her beginning as a vocalist on local radio to singing with Benny Goodman's big band, to the end of her career, she forged a sophisticated persona, evolving into a multi-faceted artist and performer and became a singing legend in her own time.
As is the case with most legendary singers, one or two songs become associated with them. Such is the case with Peggy Lee, and it is for two songs that she won her Grammys:
Selecting one song to identify Peggy Lee is not a simple task. Others have done that job and pretty successfully. But your sampod webmaster, although loving the two selections above, would be remiss if not mentioning the one song that really says it all: