More than two decades have passed since Peggy Lee sang with Benny Goodman’s swing band and made her first hit recording. Yet so inexhaustible is her talent and so intense her application to her work that, almost a generation later, she stands at the peak of her career. A product of the big-band era, she derived from that apprenticeship her ability to sing anything from jazz to blues, to sing it with a beat, and with enough volume to be heard above the band. Few vocalists have had her staying power. Peggy Lee is also a successful composer, lyricist, arranger, actress, and businesswoman. To all her careers she brings a perfectionism that leaves the stamp of professionalism on everything she touches.
Of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, Peggy Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, a farm town on the Great Plains, on May 26, 1920. She was the seventh of eight children born to Marvin Egstrom, a station agent for the Midland Continental Railroad, and Mrs. Egstrom, who died when the child was four years old. Encouraged by the recognition she had received for her singing with the high school glee club, the church choir, and semi-professional college bands, Norma headed for Hollywood after she graduated from high school in 1938. With her she took $18 in cash and a railroad pass she had borrowed from her father. Although she got a brief singing engagement at the Jade Room, a supper club on Hollywood Boulevard, she made little impression on the film capital, and she was reduced to working as a waitress and as a carnival spieler at a Balboa midway.
Deciding to try her luck nearer home, she found work as a singer over radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota, whose manager, Ken Kennedy, christened her Peggy Lee. (To supplement her income she worked for a time as a bread slicer in a Fargo bakery.) Her prospects for a career brightened when she moved to Minneapolis, where she sang in the dining room of the Radisson Hotel, appeared on a Standard Oil radio show, and sang with Sev Olsen’s band. Miss Lee broke into the big time when she became a vocalist with Will Osborne’s band, but three months after she joined the group it broke up in St. Louis, and she got a ride to California with the manager.
It was at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California that Peggy Lee first developed the soft and "cool" style that has become her trademark. Unable to shout above the clamor of the Doll House audience, Miss Lee tried to snare its attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang the quieter the audience became. She has never forgotten the secret, and it has given her style its distinctive combination of the delicate and the driving, the husky and the purringly seductive. One of the members of the Doll House audience was Frank Bering, the owner of Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel, who invited her to sing in his establishment’s Buttery Room.