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Peggy Lee 100th Birthday Celebration Digital Exhibit


The GRAMMY Museum® announces Peggy Lee 100th Birthday Celebration in honor of the centennial anniversary of one of the 20th century’s most important musical influences in the world of jazz and popular music. To commemorate the occasion and Lee’s life, music and legacy, the GRAMMY Museum will host a pre-taped panel discussion and birthday toast as well as a virtual exhibit that will display Lee’s career milestones and accomplishments from the 1930s through the early 2000s with a variety of never-before-seen rare artifacts. The Museum has been releasing virtual archival exhibits since its closure in light of COVID-19, but this marks the Museum’s first exhibit opening digitally and later slated to open in the physical Museum at L.A. Live in spring 2021.

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A message from Holly Foster Wells,
Granddaughter of Peggy Lee and President of Peggy Lee Associates, LLC
All images, artifacts, and videos courtesy of Peggy Lee Associates, LLC.

Peggy Lee

Peggy Lee, 1955

Norma Deloris Egstrom, better known to the entertainment world as Peggy Lee, was born on May 26, 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota. After surviving a brutal childhood, she left home at the age of 17 and began her recording career in the early 1940s. Music was her escape from a grim reality.

Over her seven-decade career, Peggy Lee was involved in every aspect of her performances, from producing to costume and lighting design. She was a creative powerhouse, directing her life and career on her own terms. She is often cited as an inspiration by strong contemporary female singers including Adele, Katy Perry, Debbie Harry, Billie Eilish, Diana Krall, and k.d. lang.

Lee stayed active as a concert performer until 1995, when she gave her final performances at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. In 1998 she suffered a stroke, and on January 21, 2002 she passed away at her home in California.

May 26, 2020 marks the centennial anniversary of this extraordinary artist and her considerable contributions to the world of jazz and popular music. The GRAMMY Museum is thrilled to host the Peggy Lee 100th Birthday Celebration. The artifacts below represent accomplishments from each decade of Peggy Lee’s long, prolific musical life.

1930s: Radio Beginnings

Norma Deloris Egstrom grew up in North Dakota in the 1930s amidst the Great Depression. She helped take care of her beloved father while suffering abuse by her stepmother. Norma’s earliest exposure to music involved learning to play the piano and listening to the popular big bands of the day on her family’s first radio. Between 1935 and 1936, Egstrom gave some of her earliest performances, participating in one-act play contests organized by her county’s Kiwanis club, singing in her church’s chorus, and joining the glee club at her high school.

Norma Egstrom made her presence known on the radio throughout North Dakota in the 1930s. In 1936, Egstrom joined Lyle “Doc” Haines’ band and made her radio debut on KOVC in Valley City. In 1937, she auditioned for Ken Kennedy, the program director at WDAY in Fargo, the biggest radio station in North Dakota at the time. Kennedy was impressed, gave her a job, and put her on the radio later that day. When Norma Egstrom hit the airwaves that afternoon, Ken Kennedy introduced her by her new name… Peggy Lee.

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1940s: The Singer in the Band

Nationwide popularity and chart-hitting success first came to Peggy Lee in 1941 after being hired as the singer in the Benny Goodman Orchestra, one of the most influential swing bands of the era. Lee’s earliest recordings with Goodman’s band exhibited her versatile, expressive voice— something that would become one of her most defining characteristics. In July of 1942, Peggy Lee and the Goodman Band recorded “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” a song Lee had been playing frequently in her dressing room. Their cut became one of the best-known versions of the song and sold over 1 million copies over the years, marking Peggy Lee’s first major hit.

While working with Goodman, Peggy Lee met Dave Barbour, the band’s guitarist and the man who would become her first husband and father to her daughter, Nicki. After Barbour was fired from the band for spending time with Lee, she briefly retired to focus on being a full-time wife and mother. Upon returning to show business, Peggy Lee established her solo career by joining the then-emerging Capitol Records in 1945, where she stayed for 24 years. Before the end of the 1940s, Lee scored over two dozen chart entries, many of which were collaborations with Barbour. Although Lee’s marriage to Barbour only lasted eight years, she considered him the love of her life and greatest musical collaborator.

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Listen to “Why Don’t You Do Right”

Listen to “It’s A Good Day”

1950s: Films and “Fever”

The 1950s were an extremely prolific decade for Peggy Lee. The 1953 Decca Records release, Black Coffee, (and its 1956 expanded re-release) is considered one of Lee’s best albums, as well as one of the top ten vocal albums in jazz history. That same year, Lee landed her first major role in a film, opposite Danny Thomas in The Jazz Singer. Lee contributed an original song to the film—“This Is a Very Special Day”—and delivered a legendary performance of Rodgers and Hart’s “Lover” onscreen. The critical reception of Lee’s performance outshone that of the film itself.

Peggy Lee joined forces with composer Sonny Burke to score and pen lyrics for Walt Disney’s newest animated feature, Lady and the Tramp. Lee also lent her voice to the film, portraying a human, a dog, and two cats. In 1955, actor Jack Webb asked Lee to play an alcoholic saloon singer in his upcoming jazz-centric film, Pete Kelly’s Blues. The challenging role earned Lee an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

At the end of the 1950s, Peggy Lee’s low-key, finger-snapping tune, “Fever,” began to take the world by storm. When nominations for the 1st Annual GRAMMY Awards came out in 1959, “Fever” was nominated for Record Of The Year, Best Vocal Performance, Female, and Best Arrangement. Although Jack Marshall, the arranger hired for the “Fever” recording session, got credit for the chart, Peggy Lee was the mastermind behind the minimalistic, lounge-y sound that makes “Fever” so unique. Lee’s song, “Alright, Okay, You Win,” earned her another nomination for Best Vocal Performance, Female at the 2nd Annual GRAMMY Awards. Lee attended both GRAMMY Awards ceremonies and celebrated her musical peers.

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Listen to “Fever”

1960s: “Is That All There Is?”

Peggy Lee continued to record at a rapid pace in the 1960s, releasing over 20 albums and 30 singles. Lee was constantly evolving as an artist, embracing new musical styles and working with up-and-coming musicians, conductors, and orchestrators. During this time, she appeared as a special guest on numerous television variety shows hosted by notable entertainers of the day, including Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Williams, and more. As the decade progressed, Lee also hosted her own television specials, accompanied by the orchestras of Sid Feller (1966) and Ralph Carmichael (1967) as well as her own jazz combo, featuring the likes of Mundell Lowe and Toots Thielemans.

Peggy Lee’s nonstop hard work paid off in a big way in 1969. First, National Educational Television made her the subject of a biopic, titled Miss Peggy Lee. The documentary featured interviews and exclusive video access to Lee’s rehearsals and performances—a look behind the curtain at her extraordinary career thus far. Second, Lee released her most successful track since 1958’s “Fever.” Penned by songwriting duo Leiber and Stoller and arranged by Randy Newman at Lee’s request, “Is That All There Is?” was a haunting, philosophical song about disillusionment that resonated with Americans at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The track earned Peggy Lee three more GRAMMY nominations, including Record Of The Year.

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Listen to “Is That All There Is?”

1970s: A GRAMMY Win… and a Beatle

Peggy Lee entered the 1970s with three GRAMMY nominations. The 12th Annual GRAMMY Awards took place on March 11, 1970, and Lee received her first gramophone for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female. The long-awaited win acknowledged Lee’s decades of performing and hit-making, and marked yet another high point in her career.

In June of 1972, Peggy Lee released her final album under Capitol Records. To date, Lee ranks as the female act with the longest stay at the renowned label. Although the album’s title, Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota, suggests a look back at her past, it included all new material.

After leaving Capitol, Lee continued to exhibit her adaptability to modern sounds. In 1974, she co-produced an album with the multi-talented Dave Grusin, titled Let’s Love, whose title track was a collaboration with Paul McCartney, a longtime fan of Lee’s.

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1980s: Hitting the Stage

In the early 1980s, Peggy Lee kept a busy performance schedule and still found time to try her hand at live theater. During the summer of 1980, Lee was cast in Side By Side By Sondheim—a musical homage to the great Broadway composer—and her performance was met with positive reviews. A few years later, she collaborated with pianist Paul Horner on an autobiographical musical for Broadway, titled Peg.

In 1986, Peggy Lee became the first female recipient of the Songwriters Guild of America’s Aggie and Presidents Awards for her composing skills and support of young songwriters, respectively.

Lee released two more noteworthy albums in the late 1980s: Miss Peggy Lee Sings the Blues (1988) and The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring (1989). Both albums earned nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female at the 31st and 33rd Annual GRAMMY Awards. Lee continued to pack performance venues as she approached her seventieth birthday.

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1990s: A Lifetime of Achievement

In the 1990s, Peggy Lee received a series of honors that celebrated her outstanding career. In 1990, she was presented with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ highest accolade, the Pied Piper Award. Four years later, Lee received the Society of Singers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, and her Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award came shortly after that.

Peggy Lee gave her final performances at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl during the summer of 1995. Towards the end of the decade, Lee’s health began to decline after suffering a debilitating stroke in 1998. In June 1999, she was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, however, she was physically unable to attend the ceremony and her daughter and granddaughter, Nicki Lee Foster and Holly Foster Wells, accepted the award in-person on her behalf.

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2000s: Her Legacy Lives On

Peggy Lee passed away on January 21, 2002 at her home in Los Angeles, California. Dozens of tribute performances celebrating Lee’s musical legacy were held in the years following her passing, including ones at Carnegie Hall’s JVC Jazz Festival and the Hollywood Bowl—the same venues that hosted Lee’s last two performances.

Peggy Lee’s music lives on in almost every facet of pop culture. Beyoncé, the Beastie Boys, Madonna, the Black Eyed Peas, and A$AP Rocky are just a few of the contemporary recording artists who have covered or sampled Lee’s songs, and her hits are often heard in movies and television shows like Mad Men, The Good Place, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In 2017, Lee’s 1949 recording of “Similau (See-Me-Lo)” was the soundtrack for a Samsung cell phone commercial, inspiring thousands of viewers to reach for their Shazam app.

In April 2020, the ASCAP Foundation established the Peggy Lee Songwriter Award to mark her 100th birthday and annually recognize a songwriter who “demonstrates intelligent use of language, talent and career potential.”

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Listen to the Peggy Lee 100th Birthday Celebration Playlist:

To celebrate Peggy Lee’s 100th Birthday Celebration, the GRAMMY Museum is excited to release specially curated items on the GRAMMY Museum Store.