Singer Peggy Lee Dies at 81

Few music lovers who grew up in the 1950s and '60s could have failed to be influenced by torch singer Peggy Lee, who died of heart failure at her Bel Air home on Monday, January 21. Lee was 81 and had been in ill health for several years.

Like Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," her great classic recording of "Fever" was one of those spare, elegant tunes that formed the musical zeitgeist for a whole generation. They were songs that seemed to be everywhere in the sixties—utterly cool, with an adult sophistication we could only dream of acquiring. "Fever" was as incurable as malaria. Once you had it, you had it for life. And despite having been covered by everyone from Little Willie John to Brian Eno, the song will always belong to Miss Peggy Lee.

It wasn't just music fans she infected. Peggy Lee's earthy delivery influenced innumerable singers, too. In the same way that echoes of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday can be heard in Ms. Lee's early recordings, Ms. Lee's influence is apparent in performers as diverse as Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and British pop diva Dido. Audiophile favorite Diana Krall said of Lee, "I love everything about her: her elegance, her wit. And she is one of the greatest influences in what I do as an artist." Too young to have experienced the first or second wave of the singer's popularity, the 38-year-old Krall came of age when Ms. Lee was a fixture on the Las Vegas club scene.

Lee "came from a big-band era and knew how to swing. She knew how to sing on the beat when necessary," Cleo Laine said the day after Ms. Lee's death. "A lot of people don't know how to do that. Her simplicity had a lot of nuances that other people just couldn't grasp, that they just couldn't imitate to save their lives." Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman described Ms. Lee as one of those rare singers who can find "the story at the heart of a song" while resisting "the temptation to distort the meaning of a line in order to hold an attractive note." She had a sophistication that transcended trends. "Today's crop of writhing, underdressed, navel-displaying 'singer stars' could learn everything there is to know about eroticism from a perfectly still performance by Lee," columnist Liz Smith wrote.

Discovered by Benny Goodman when she was performing in a Chicago club, Ms. Lee fronted the clarinetist's big band during World War II, and won Down Beat magazine's "Best Singer" award in 1946. She broke away from the Goodman band in 1947, and by the early 1950s had become securely established as a solo star. In addition to singing, Ms. Lee was a songwriter and arranger, and an excellent actress. She appeared opposite Danny Thomas in the 1953 film The Jazz Singer and won an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her performance in the 1955 film Pete Kelly's Blues—a film that had little else to distinguish it.

Despite her artistic success, Ms. Lee's personal life was grim. Born Norma Delores Eggstrom, she was the seventh of eight children in a North Dakota farm family. Her mother died when she was four. Her stepmother was reputedly abusive, a situation Ms. Lee later satirized in a song called "One Beating a Day." She was married and divorced four times, and in her later years suffered from injuries sustained in two falls that occurred while she was performing. Ms. Lee had heart surgery in 1985, and a stroke in 1998 put an end to her performing career.

Ms. Lee was a pioneer for artists' rights. She died just a few days after winning a preliminary settlement against Vivendi Universal for accounting irregularities stretching all the way back to her first recording contracts with Decca in the '40s. That settlement will help establish a fund of $4.75 million dollars to compensate as many as 300 artists who may have been victimized by the same shoddy practices Ms. Lee fought against. She had previously won settlements from Capitol Records, and in 1991 won a multimillion dollar case against the Walt Disney Company over royalties owed for videocassette sales and rental of the animated classic Lady and the Tramp, for which Ms. Lee had written and arranged songs and provided the voices of several characters.

Her smoky, evocative voice was the hook that caught many audiophiles-to-be. The day after her death, I received a note from my friend Chris Keeler, former owner of Atlanta's Music Masters and now a sales consultant at Bang & Olufsen's Madison Avenue store in New York. "I was too young to read, but I knew that the disc with the dark purple label with lots of blank space around it was 'Mañana,'" Keeler wrote. "My parents obligingly left a step stool beside our Spartan (yes, it was) record player, so I could play it myself, without pestering them. I had my own Voice of Music portable by the time her finger-snapping version of 'Fever' became a hit. And, there was a kind of reassurance in the Lieber and Stroller ballad, 'Is That All There Is?'—I wasn't the only cynical person in the world, after all. 'You're My Thrill' really hits the spot after a couple of martinis. Hell, I even like 'The Siamese Cat Song,' and I'm still hoping to find Latin à la Lee on compact disc . . . guess I'm what you call a loyal fan." So are we all.

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