Peggy Lee

The singer best known for Fever and Is That All There Is?, she was also an accomplished actress and composer.

"She knows what an exalted thing it is to be alive", the singer Sylvia Syms once said of Peggy Lee. For all we can tell, she may know it still, since few spirits could be better prepared by natural grace, airy buoyancy, sensitivity to ambience and hipness to fundamental harmonies to survive in whatever imaginable dimension the departed might be obliged to navigate.

A great American popular singer, of wit, sensuality, intelligence and extraordinarily expressive minimalism, Lee, who has died aged 81, was a singer that let her audiences breathe. Syms compared her presence onstage to witnessing the soft vibration of a reed, except that Lee was too real a woman in every respect to be characterised by such fragility. Countless fans, and countless singers - from the unknown to the most revered - hung on her every nuance, and vocal artists from the late Frank Sinatra to kd lang and Elvis Costello quote her work as an inspiration.

Unlike Ella Fitzgerald, who made the most astonishing vocal acrobatics sound as easy as singing in the bath, Peggy Lee was not an outwardly artless singer. She cultivated every move she made on stage, from the curl of a lip to the arch of an eyebrow, to the breathily receding resolving note of a song - and it all showed, you couldn't be fooled that this stuff happened because she had just thought of it. Yet if it was an act, it was an act that mesmerised by its versatility, and went deep because it was enacted in the service of life and not simply ego.

"To see a fine actress build a convincing characterisation in the 90 minutes of a movie is impressive enough", the American commentator Gene Lees wrote. "But to see Peggy Lee build 15 characterisations in the course of an hour is one of the most impressive things I've seen." The act was applied to such a simple palette of sounds, to such an unerring choice of songs, and to such a close connection with the most shared and familiar desires and fears in her audiences, that it never seemed like artifice - more like a quietly ritualistic celebration of the contradictions, exhilarations and ironies of being alive.

Lee's ironic side is what has distanced her from all the torch singers who pop buttons with the effort of proving how deeply they empathise with the emotions of a song, and how urgently they desire to share it. She chose a louche, resigned, seen-it-all persona for one of her best-known songs, Is That All There Is?, and even the heated atmosphere of Fever, virtually her signature tune, has an underlying suggestion that the person raising the temperature for her right now doesn't have to be the one doing it next week.

Peggy Lee could suggest the girl down the street, but - as has often been remarked of her - the one who moved up from the country, learned a thing or two hard and fast, but just got wiser on the knowledge rather than resigned to staring into the bottom of a glass. These achievements all testified to Lee's intelligence and awareness of a world outside her dressing room. She extended her explorations to poetry, writing (including screenplays) painting, fabric and card design, and humanitarian work for a variety of charities and non-profit organisations, women's groups particularly.

Peggy Lee was born Norma Delores Egstrom in the North Dakota farm town of Jamestown, the daughter of Marvin and Selma Egstrom, the former a Scandinavian immigrant railroad worker. But she was raised by a stepmother in a relationship from which she was anxious to escape, and as a teenager her statuesque appearance and emerging musical talent convinced her she could get work as a singer. Norma Delores went to Hollywood as soon as she left high school, but the competition was hard and she quickly returned to North Dakota. She acquired the name Peggy Lee while working for the WDAY radio station in Fargo (as a singing character called Freckle-Faced Gertie among other things). Work with the swing bands of Jack Wardlaw and Will Osborne brought opportunities for solo work in nightclubs.

The Doll House in Palm Springs was the place Lee credited with forming her characteristically oblique and whispery singing style, an approach she adopted with startling boldness for her age. Finding she couldn't be heard above the noise in the place, she dropped her volume to make the audience wonder what they were missing, and found that it worked - a method that still works like a charm for a young contemporary swing singer like Diana Krall today. Lee was later to say that she liked conversing with audiences in music, and since most people don't like being shouted at, it seemed to make sense to quieten down. By the late 30s, she was beginning to find work with smaller bands around the country, on the West Coast, in Minneapolis and Chicago. But her break came with superstar bandleader and five-star martinet Benny Goodman.

Goodman was not much of a respecter of female singers. Like many jazz bandleaders of the day, he resented the commercial fact that they brought in a general audience and helped swing to stay at the forefront of the popular taste. But he was recommended to hear Lee singing at the Ambassador Hotel in Chicago in 1941, shortly before the departure of his vocalist Helen Forrest, cracking under the strain of Goodman's demanding manner.

Lee knew Goodman was in the audience, and was petrified. But Goodman liked her, and in the years between 1941 and 1943 when she worked with him, this ferociously perfectionist bandleader was never less than considerate to her, by her own account. Lee also credited 20 months with such a skilful jazz orchestra to have had an incalculable influence on her phrasing and technique.

With Goodman, Lee sounded bluesier than some of the band's earlier singers had been - increasingly enhancing her essentially narrow-compass voice with slurs and distortions of pitch borrowed from the instrumentalists - but she also delivered in a more flowing and legato manner, and the period with Goodman's internationally celebrated band made her a star and launched her career. Her voice was soft, almost diffident - but like Billie Holiday, Lee was a product of the electric microphone era, able to dominate even a roaring big band with delicate inflections and the nuances of a sigh. The big bands were also crash courses in jazz technique for singers with the intelligence and curiosity to learn from them - every solo instrument had its own sound and feel, and while Ella Fitzgerald probably took mimicry of the instruments further than anyone else of her generation, the best singers absorbed a jazz instrumentalist's adventurousness with the placing of the beat, and ability to create expectation and drama by the use of space and delay as much as sound.

The New Yorker's Whitney Balliett called Peggy Lee "a stripped-note singer . . . her vibrato spare and her volume low." She disliked grandstanding effects or thunderous climaxes, and most of her notes were short, as if she were reducing her materials to a shorthand account of an originally more complex song. Balliett also wrote: "Peggy Lee sends her feelings down the quiet centre of her notes. She is not a melody singer. She does not carry a tune; she elegantly follows it. She is a rhythm singer who moves all around the beat, who swings as intensely and eccentrically as Billie Holiday."

In 1942 Peggy Lee recorded her first major hit, the million-selling Why Don't You Do Right?. When she then left Goodman (following the departure of the guitarist Dave Barbour, with whom she was having a relationship) her career was made. She had fronted the biggest swing band in the country and she followed that period with national touring and radio performances on her own account, beginning her recording career in the last year with Goodman and beginning also to develop as a songwriter as well as a performer.

With Barbour, Lee had a daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, and the singer was to marry three times within the 1950s. Actor Brad Dexter followed Barbour (1955, divorced the same year), then another actor, Dewey Martin - married April, 1956, divorced 1959. Working with Capitol Records from early in her solo career, she had quick successes with It's a Good Day and Manana, the latter a two-million selling hit.

Lee's skills were broadening her career in ways that few star vocalists could manage. She began writing and singing for movies, composing the theme for the 50s western Johnny Guitar, and providing the lyrics and several characters for Disney's 1955 Lady and the Tramp - though it wasn't until 1991 that Lee was finally able to secure a share of the enormous profits the movie had later earned in video sales, eventually securing $3.8m for her crucial work on the film 36 years earlier.

In 1950 Peggy Lee had begun to appear as a movie actress as well, initially in Mr Music, then with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, and in Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955, for which she was nominated for an Oscar for her role as an alcoholic blues singer. Lee used to joke that her agents kept scripts from her in case she decided to abandon singing for acting - the size of their cut was a lot bigger if she kept singing. But she didn't need much persuading of where her best options lay. Lover, Fever, and Is That All There Is? (a double Grammy in 1969) were songs that would always bring her name instantly to mind, her concerts began to be sell-outs that in the mainstream-to-swing field even Frank Sinatra had trouble rivalling, and her fans bridged all generations and cultures - Albert Einstein and Aldous Huxley had even been among them.

Peggy Lee was a perfectionist throughout her long career. She would keep detailed notes of lighting effects, costume, cosmetics, and choreograph body language like an actor or a dancer. Though her sound and approach came from jazz, her stardom came from the scrupulous planning of a unique product that could be delivered intact night after night. But her later career was hampered by ill-health. Lee was a diabetic, and also stopped work twice for pneumonia in the 50s and 60s, sometimes going on the road with a respirator. She also suffered a near-fatal fall in 1967 that affected her sight and hearing, and made standing difficult. In early 1985, she had arterial surgery, and a double heart-bypass the same year.

Yet she continued as often as she could to use her remarkable achievements (over 650 songs recorded, and 60 or more albums, many of them gold discs) to entertain audiences worldwide and to help causes with which she sympathised. Her citations included the New York Film Critic's Award, an Oscar nomination, a Grammy for Is That All There Is?, and tributes for her support and contributions from the Cancer Society, the Heart Fund, the National Brotherhood of Christians and Jews, and many others.

Henry Pleasants, writing in The Great American Popular Singers, had this to say of Peggy Lee. "No other singer in my experience has asked less of a voice while using it so much," Pleasants wrote. "No other has done more with what the voice has given her. She has never pushed it beyond its natural compass. I doubt that she has ever sung louder than a mezzo forte. And yet, within a precariously narrow range, both of vocal compass and vocal amplitude, she has mined a wealth and variety of colour, inflection, eloquent lyricism and even grandeur hardly matched by any other singer, male or female, not excluding Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, both of whom had a lot more voice to start with."

kd lang told The Washington Post last year: "The smallest variation in pitch, in phrasing, in meaning, drives me crazy, and Peggy was the master of it. Perhaps my enthusiasm for minimalist approaches comes from growing up on the prairie, where the flat horizon and the lack of trees made any movement significant. Whatever the reason, the subtlety of Peggy's delivery is what I long for." And Gene Lees, a lifelong Lee fan, put his finger on her magic when he remarked that the feeling in Lee's songs was often "perceived in flashes, like lightning in a summer cloud. This is the secret of the striking dramatic miniatures of the human and especially woman's condition that make her the extraordinary artist that she is. Like Sinatra, she has an almost uncanny ability to find and bring out the meaning of a song."

· Peggy Lee (Norma Delores Egstrom), born May 26, 1920, died January 22 2002


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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