Today is the birthday of Norma Egstrom, who was the seventh of eight children born into a Jamestown Scandinavian family in 1920. Her father worked for the Midland Continental Railroad.
She had a good voice and excelled in choir, so after graduating from Wimbledon High School in 1938, she headed for California; she had only $18 and a railroad pass borrowed from her father.
She landed a short singing engagement at a Hollywood supper club called the Jade Room, but she didn’t make much of an impression. After a time, Norma got tired of the frustration and headed for Fargo, where she worked in a bakery as a bread slicer. She also got a job singing on WDAY radio, where manager Ken Kennedy got her to change her name to Peggy Lee. After a later stint in Minneapolis, she headed back to California, but now had some experience to back her up.
At the Doll House in Palm Springs, Peggy developed the sultry husky style that became her trademark. The Doll House audience was a loud one – one that Peggy couldn’t overpower, so she tried lowering her voice so the audience would have to listen harder. One of those audience members was Frank Bering, the owner of the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago; he invited Peggy to sing there in the Buttery Room, where bandleader Benny Goodman discovered her while seeking a replacement for one of his singers.
One year after joining Benny Goodman, Peggy recorded her first smash hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” which sold over 1,000,000 copies. The following year, she married Dave Barbour, the guitarist of the band. Lee and her husband produced a string of hits they wrote themselves, including “You Was Right, Baby,” “It’s a Good Day,” “What More Can a Woman Do?” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” Her hit, “Mañana,” sold over 2,000,000 records.
Altogether, she’s credited with writing more than 500 songs. It was her song, “Fever,” that earned her first Grammy nominations for best female vocalist and record of the year.
She was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, but because Ella Fitzgerald dominated that arena, Lee won only once. But at the 1995 Grammies, Peggy was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Throughout her career, Peggy Lee never forgot her home state. For Marion Piper’s 1964 book, Dakota Portraits, Lee wrote a piece called What North Dakota Means to Me, which reads, “Good, strong, kind, honest people. Rich, fertile ground that yields wheat and corn and oats and marvelous vegetables that are full of flavor and health. Crisp, cold winters and violent blizzards that are softened by being snowbound and being snug and warm inside. And then the beautiful spring with melting snow and budding trees and crocuses on the hills.”
When Lee died in January 2002, many expressed their admiration for her, including Tony Bennett, who called her the “female Frank Sinatra.” Singer k.d. lang said, “I usually don’t get sad about the death of people who led full lives. But I’m sad about Peggy Lee. She represents an era that is leaving us, one where vocals were king, and I honestly can’t think of a better vocalist in that jazz-pop crooning style… I view her as my finest teacher of vocals.”
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm