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Miss Peggy Lee

by David Westheimer

 

Whenever I watch Britney Spears on TV, somehow I think of Peggy Lee. Miss Spears exhibits a lot of enthusiasm and skin when she sings (Damon Runyon would have said she wears no more costume than would pad a crutch) and the most movement I ever saw out of Miss Peggy Lee was a little twitch of her fingers. And she wore clothes you could wear to church if you are of a religious bent. But the thing is, they both get everything there is out of a song. Spears just has to work harder and flash navel.

Who could get more passion out of Fever, pride out of Im a Woman and fun out of Mañana that Miss Peggy? And without moving a muscle? Well, moving her hands a little or maybe even a trace of shoulder action. I use the past tense because unfortunately for us Peggy Lee aficionados she doesnt perform any more. She hasnt since she had a stroke in 1998, or recorded, either.

Before her stroke Miss Peggy had been confined to a wheelchair several years but even then made occasional appearances in New York clubs and cut a duet with Gilbert O. Sullivan in 1993.

Of Scandinavian descent, she was born Norma Deloris Engstrom in 1921 in North Dakota. And her early years were not easy for her. She was only four when her mother died and when her father remarried didnt get along with her stepmother. Her voice eventually got her away from all that. She sang on a radio station in her home town, Jamestown, North Dakota and in nearby Wimbleton, where she grew up and went to high school (there are plans for a Peggy Lee cultural center and museum there).

After she found a waitressing job in Fargo she got on the radio there, where the station manager had her change her name to Peggy Lee. She tried California a couple of times, first in 1937, but failed to connect. In 1941 she hooked up with a vocal group in Chicago called The Four Of Us, which eventually led her to a job as vocalist with Benny Goodman. Which turned out to be more than just a boost to her career. She found a husband there. Dave Barbour, Goodmans lead guitarist. She wrote some songs with him, including Fever and Mañana.

Her singing and composing career flourished in the Forties and Fifties and she started getting movie roles as well. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1955 in a picture called Pete Kellys Blues and wrote Hes a Tramp, for Walt Disneys Lady and the Tramp and also did the voices of a couple of the cat characters.

In the early Eighties she starred on Broadway in a musical, Peg, which closed after a short run. And because of health she has since appeared professionally only occasionally.

Dody and I met Miss Peggys daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, once and are friends with a lady who used to work for Miss Peggy as cook, seamstress and general helper, but never met Miss Peggy herself.

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