- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Peggy Lee, the singer-composer whose smoky, insinuating voice in such songs as "Is That All There Is?" and "Fever" made her a jazz and pop legend, died Monday. She was 81.

Miss Lee died from a heart attack at her Bel Air home, said her daughter Nicki Lee Foster. Miss Lee repeatedly battled injury and ill health, including heart trouble, in a spectacular career that brought her a Grammy, an Oscar nomination and sold-out houses worldwide.

"She was a perfectionist. She had an incredible ear," Mrs. Foster said. "She saw her performance as a total, complete musical picture from start to finish."

During more than 50 years in show business, which began during a troubled childhood and endured through four broken marriages, Miss Lee recorded hit songs with the Benny Goodman band, wrote songs for a Disney movie and starred on Broadway in a short-lived autobiographical show, "Peg."

Her vocal flexibility and cool, breathy voice brought sultry distinction to big-band showstoppers, pop ballads and soulful laments. She was considered in the same league as Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith.

Her hits touched generations of listeners. Miss Lee's more notable recordings include "Why Don't You Do Right?" "I'm a Woman," "Lover," "Pass Me By," "Where or When," "The Way You Look Tonight," "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" and "Big Spender." The hit "Is That All There Is?" won her a Grammy for best contemporary female vocal performance in 1969.

Jazz critic Leonard Feather once said, "If you don't feel a thrill when Peggy Lee sings, you're dead, Jack." Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz critic for the New Yorker, wrote: "Many singers confuse shouting with emotion. Peggy Lee sends her feelings down the quiet center of her notes. She does not carry a tune; she elegantly follows it."

Critic John Seagraves wrote: "Peggy Lee can do more for a song by a mere rolling of her eyes or with a quick, crooked smile than most pop singers can with all the vocal diction training possible and years of dramatic tutelage."

She was born Norma Egstrom on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, N.D., where her father worked as a handyman and part-time railroad station agent.

Her mother died when she was 4, she recalled in a 1985 interview, and she was abused by a stepmother. She said the experience turned out to be good for her because "I learned independence."

She decided to become a singer at age 14, when she would earn 50 cents a night at gigs for local parent-teacher associations. A few years later, she traveled to Fargo, N.D., where she sang on a local radio station. The WDAY program director suggested a name change, and she became Peggy Lee.

Miss Lee eventually arrived in Hollywood with $18 in her pocketbook, supporting herself as a waitress between nightclub jobs.

Mr. Goodman, then the king of swing, hired her to sing with his band after hearing her while she was performing at a Chicago hotel.

A string of hits, notably "Why Don't You Do Right?" made her a star. Then she fell in love with Mr. Goodman's guitarist, Dave Barbour, and withdrew from the music world to be his wife and raise their daughter, Nicki. She returned to singing when the marriage fell apart.

"I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and the failure of our marriage," she said, "and I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say: You have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song."

Miss Lee's sultry voice kept her a favorite in radio, on records and later in television. She became an accomplished songsmith, co-writing "Manana" and "It's a Good Day" with Mr. Barbour.

She recalled in a 1988 interview that Mr. Barbour "thought of me as a jazz singer. I never did. I didn't know what I was. I just liked to think of interpreting."

She collaborated with Sonny Burke on the songs for Disney's "The Lady and the Tramp," and was the voice for the wayward canine who sang "He's a Tramp (But I Love Him)."

Her work on that 1955 film led to a landmark legal judgment 36 years later when a California court awarded her $2.3 million after she sued for a portion of the profits from the videocassette sale of the movie. The case hinged on a clause in her pre-video-era contract barring the sale of "transcriptions" of the movie without her approval. Miss Lee also is prominent in a just-agreed, tentative settlement with Universal Music to pay up to 300 performers back royalties of $4.75 million, according to Reuters News Agency.

In 1956, Miss Lee was cast as a boozy blues singer in "Pete Kelly's Blues," and she was nominated for a supporting-actress Oscar. She also appeared opposite Danny Thomas in an update of "The Jazz Singer," but her film career was short-lived.

"My agents decided they could make more money from me on the road," she said.

She sang to standing ovations from New York to Australia. With her creamy-blond hair and languid manner, she seemed to exude sex. She protested that it came naturally: "Anything that's forced comes over fake."

She recorded more than 600 songs and wrote many others, including themes for such movies as "Johnny Guitar" and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter."

A diabetic, Miss Lee was troubled often by weight and glandular problems. In 1961, she was felled by double pneumonia during a New York nightclub engagement.

In 1976, she had a near-fatal fall in a New York hotel. She used the period of recuperation to reflect on her past and began writing "Peg." She was seriously injured again in another fall in Las Vegas in 1987. In 1998, she suffered a stroke that impaired her speech, requiring therapy to recover.

In addition to her daughter, Miss Lee is survived by her grandchildren, David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells and Michael Foster, and three great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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