Dakota Datebook

Peggy Lee, Part 1

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

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.

By some reports, Egstrom’s childhood was less than ideal. Her mother died when Norma was only four, and there was little love lost between Norma and her stepmother.

However, 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. Pretty soon, she was doing what most talented young people do in Hollywood; she worked as a waitress. She also was a carnival barker at a midway in Balboa.

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. She soon learned that the quieter she sang, the more the audience paid attention. 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.

In July 1941, Peggy joined Goodman’s group, the most famous swing band of the day. The group was at the height of its popularity. “I learned more about music from the men I worked with in bands than I’ve learned anywhere else,” Peggy 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.”

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. Soon after, she became pregnant and left the band.

After her daughter, Nicki, was born, Lee and Barbour settled on the West Coast, where Peggy recorded for Capitol Records, including “Golden Earrings,” which sold over 1,000,000 copies. Lee and her husband also 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 her first Grammy nominations for best female vocalist and record of the year. That was in 1958, and there was a lot that was still to happen. Stay tuned tomorrow to learn more about Peggy Lee’s rise to super stardom.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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