Most successful singers are closely identified with a particular song, one that becomes known as their trademark or signature song. Of course, the best of them will have a number of good songs and best-selling records, but there will usually be one that stands out. For Peggy Lee, that song would have to be “Fever.”
At least that’s my opinion. But the iconic singer — who died at age 81 in 2002 — had a lot of hits during her long career. And some of her earlier records actually charted higher than her classic song, even if they aren’t as well remembered now. Songs like “Somebody Else is Taking My Place” and the decidedly non-PC “Mañana” topped the charts but are seldom heard now. Most of us would be more familiar with later hits like “Lover” and her 1969 Grammy winner, “Is That All There Is.”
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom in North Dakota, she was a descendant of Scandinavian immigrants and part of a large family. While growing up, she suffered through a difficult relationship with her step-mother, and by her mid-teens was ready to strike out on her own. She’d taught herself to sing by listening to big band songbirds on the radio, and soon made her debut on the local airwaves.
Over the next few years, she gradually worked her way up from regional radio to bigger markets, eventually spending time in Minneapolis and Chicago. By now calling herself Peggy Lee, she also found her way to California for a brief period but eventually returned to the Midwest, and was singing in Chicago when her big break came in 1941.
Chicago’s own Benny Goodman was a huge star at that time, and when he heard Peggy Lee sing, he decided to offer her the job of replacing his departing vocalist, Helen Forrest. It proved to be a good match, and over the next couple of years she became very popular with fans and sang on some of the band’s biggest hit records, including “Elmer’s Tune” and the hugely popular “Why Don’t You Do Right.” (Video below.)
She also fell for — and married — Goodman’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, which would lead to her surprisingly premature retirement from music in favor of the life of a wife and mother. However, she restarted her career within a couple of years and would continue to perform regularly for the next several decades, sometimes working with her husband or others, sometimes as a solo. She ended up entertaining her many fans with dozens of good songs — some of them ‘feverish’ and others just very, very cool.