Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  Jan. 23, 2002 at 6:15 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- Peggy Lee's death further depletes the ranks of women singers of the jazz and swing eras, vocalists whose voices rang with romance and rhythm. They were the sweet-faced, fahionably-coifed songbirds who traveled and recorded for the 1940-50s swing bands and orchestras.

Usually dressed in formal gowns, these glamorous vocalists sat on the bandstands off to one side of the leading musical aggregations of the times:

Glenn Miller, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Charlie Barnett, Kay Kaiser, Duke Ellington, Claude Thornhill, Artie Shaw and a dozen others.

The vocalists -- a term that is disappearing among musicians -- traveled the length and breadth of the country prior to World War II, entertaining in theaters, at universities and in commodious venues everywhere from the Valley Meadow on New Jersey's Pompton Turnpike to the Valley Dale in Columbus, Ohio, to the Hollywood Paladium.

They were the queens of music in the jazz and swing eras when musicians and singers were more popular with young people than movie stars.

TV was still a long way in the future.

Among the brightest featured vocalists were Helen O'Connell and Helen Forrest, Margaret Whiting, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Rosemary Clooney, Wee Bonnie Baker, Sarah Vaughn and Betty Grable.

They often sang duets with male vocalists who also were members of the bands. First and foremost among them were Frank Sinatra and Dick Haymes. The music of the band singers may still be heard via old 78 rpm wax records; many have since been re-recorded on tape and even compact discs.

A few -- very few -- of the beloved band singers went on to become noted soloists when the big swing bands slowly faded in the '50s, giving was to rock 'n' roll, Elvis, the Beatles and the icons of yesterday's pop generation.

But of them all, Peggy Lee's smoky, sensual voice continued to be heard in concert, on recordings and now and again in movies.

She became a diva like no other, stunning listeners with a sultry voice like diamonds on velvet, always smooth and seductive and filled with raw life. Her greatest hit perhaps was "Fever," followed by "Is That All There Is?" which won a Grammy award.

Sophisticated as she may have appeared in a nightclub or on stage in clinging white gowns, silver tiaras, furs and rhinestones, Lee, who died of heart failure at 81 this week, was a superlative actress.

Her greatest performance was the life she led as a sophisticate when underneath it all she was a small-town girl who never quite adjusted to Hollywood's fast lane.

Somewhere deep inside the worldly blonde beauty dwelt the original Norma Dolores Egstrom of Jamestown, N.D., who surfaced when the glamorous Peggy Lee wasn't performing for an audience.

Norma disappeared when Peggy performed for a crowd or in the recording studio to allow the queen of song to perform without inhibition.

But it was Norma Egstrom newsmen interviewed at her stunning Bel Air mansion in the last years of her life when she was beset by grave illnesses for three decades. Sometimes there was a full-time nurse in attendance and in almost every room large, glistening oxygen tanks for emergencies could be found.

Still, actress Norma morphed briefly into Peggy with every hair in place, her makeup flawless even after she had gained considerable weight.

Despite her matronly figure, Norma/Peggy carried herself like an aristocrat, her dignity intact, her voice soft and her eyes filled with life and purpose.

After an hour or so in her company one realized that Lee was far more than a great singer and strong personality. She was a woman of magnitude and understated sexuality, characteristics that emerged fully on stage.

Peggy Lee could not be described as happy in her later years, possibly because the failures of her personal life overwhelmed the triumphs of her magnificent singing career. She survived four unhappy marriages: to David Barbour, a guitarist with Benny Goodman's band, actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and musician Jack Del Rio.

Lee appeared in a dozen movies, sometimes playing herself. She provided the voice for Peg in Disney's "Lady and the Tramp." She won an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress in "Pete Kelly's Blues," and co-starred with Danny Thomas in "The Jazz Singer" (1953).

But it will be as a superb vocalist of popular music that Peggy Lee will be remembered, a legacy of artistry seldom equaled.

Just recall her elegant persona and unforgettable voice whenever you hear the strains of "Fever," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Why Don't You Do Right," "It's a Good Day (For Singing The Blues)," "That Old Feeling," "Manana," and "Don't Know Enough About You."

Even in death Peggy Lee will still touch hearts.

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