The first word that comes to mind, when thinking about the young jazz singer from North Dakota who called herself Peggy Lee, is “attitude.” She knew what she wanted from each piece of music, and would accept nothing less. Born in 1920, her real name was Norma Dolores Eggstrom. She left her hometown after high school with 18 bucks in her pocket. She found a gig singing in Hollywood at the Jade room, but when that didn’t last it took a year of working at a bakery, a restaurant and then a carnival before she landed a job as a singer at radio station WDAY. The station manager renamed her Peggy Lee.
Her career lasted 50 years and in that time she went from radio singer to pop star to TV and movie celebrity. She was a groundbreaker, a lovable rulebreaker, and the fact that she was Caucasian didn’t stop her from working with African-American artists like Duke Ellington. Like many other jazz vocalists, Peggy Lee was also a composer and arranger. Her most famous song “Fever” got a Grammy for arrangement, but Peggy was never credited.
KEXP Documentaries are created by Michele Myers. With assistance from John Felthous, Tiffany Grobelski, Abe Beeson and Mary Janisch. Executive Producer is Kevin Cole. If you would like to follow along more closely in the creation of these radio stories, we post research materials, songs and videos on our Facebook page and on Twitter.