'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says farewell to Peggy Lee who died on 22nd January 2002, aged 81. She was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota on 26th May 1920, of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, and the seventh of eight children.


Throughout much of her childhood and teenage years she sang in various church choirs and high school bands. Upon graduation in 1938, she left to try her luck in Hollywood, only to find herself working as a waitress for much of the time with only the briefest of singing engagements at the Jade Room on Hollywood Boulevard. Soon she headed home to eventually find herself radio work on station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota.


On the move again, this time to Minneapolis, working the clubs, and eventually landing a plum job with the Will Osborne Band, only to have the outfit break up three months later. Hitching a ride to California, she found work as a singer in the Buttery Room and this is where her luck changed beyond recognition. Benny Goodman wandered in off the street halfway through her act and he snapped her up immediately.


In March 1943, she married Dave Barbour, a guitarist in Goodman’s band. The following year, she left Goodman after the birth of her daughter. She signed with Capitol Records and, in collaboration with her guitarist husband, penned many of her early hits which included ‘Golden Earrings’, ‘Mañana’ and ‘What More Can a Woman Do?’ 


The turn of the fifties saw her in cameo appearances in various movies, before landing a leading role opposite Danny Thomas in a remake of "The Jazz Singer" in 1953. Far better, in the humble opinion of the 'Tales From The Woods' editorial board, was her portrayal of a despondent alcoholic blues singer in "Pete Kelly’s Blues" in 1955.


1958 would see her recording what many of us would consider her finest performance (as Funkster quite rightly pointed out last month in issue 14), her version of Little Willie John’s ‘Fever’.


Throughout the fifties and sixties, marriages came and went but she still recorded prolifically - albums in collaboration with George Shearing, Quincy Jones, Benny Carter and Billy May, as well as a Top 40 U.S. hit in 1969 with the Leiber and Stoller penned ‘Is That All There Is?’


The 1970s saw a drastic cut back in her recorded output – just three albums throughout the entire decade – one of which, "Let’s Love" in 1974, had the title track written by Paul McCartney.


The decades that followed saw the onset of ill health but, vocally at least, she was back on form with the 1988 album "Peggy Sings the Blues". In 1994, she sold out London’s Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank but her serious health problems were all too apparent as she was forced to perform in a wheelchair.


Keith Woods  



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