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Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Leeby Peter Richmond
Synopses & Reviews
The first major biography of the legendary singer—an enthralling account of a charismatic artist moving through the greatest, most glamorous
era of American music
"I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, and Mr. Cary Grant.” So said Peggy Lee, the North Dakota girl who sang like shed just stepped out of Harlem. Einstein adored her; Duke Ellington dubbed her the Queen.” With her platinum cool and inimitable whisper she sold twenty million records, made more money than Mickey Mantle, and along with pals Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby presided over musics greatest generation. Yet beneath the diamonds she was still Norma Delores Egstrom, insecure and always looking for acceptance.
Drawing on exclusive interviews and new information, Peter Richmond delivers a complex, compelling portrait of an artist and an era that begins with a girl plagued by loss, her fathers alcoholism, and her stepmothers abuse. One day she gets on a train hoping her music will lead her someplace better. It does—to a new town and a new name; to cities and clubs where a gallery of brilliant innovators are ushering in a brand-new beat; to four marriages, a daughter, Broadway, Vegas, and finally Hollywood. Richmond traces how Peggy rose, right along with jazz itself, becoming an unstoppable hit-maker (Fever,” Mañana,” Is That All There Is?”). We see not only how this unforgettable star changed the rhythms of music, but also how—with her drive to create, compose, and perform—she became an artist whose style influenced k.d. lang, Nora Jones, and Diana Krall.
Fever brings the lady alive again—and makes her swing.
Peter Richmond has been an award-winning reporter and feature writer for GQ magazine for two decades. He has covered everything from Rosemary Clooney to sports, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He has appeared many times on National Public Radios Morning Edition. He lives in Dutchess County, New York.
"I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, and Mr. Cary Grant." So said Peggy Lee, the North Dakota girl who sang like she'd just stepped out of Harlem. Einstein adored her; Duke Ellington dubbed her "the Queen." With her platinum cool and inimitable whisper she sold twenty million records, made more money than Mickey Mantle, and along with pals Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby presided over music's greatest generation. Yet beneath the diamonds she was still Norma Delores Egstrom, insecure and always looking for acceptance.
Drawing on exclusive interviews and new information, Peter Richmond delivers a complex portrait of an artist and an era that begins with a girl plagued by loss, her father's alcoholism, and her stepmother's abuse. One day she gets on a train hoping her music will lead her someplace better. It does—to a new town and a new name; to cities and clubs where a gallery of brilliant innovators are ushering in a brand-new beat; to four marriages, a daughter, Broadway, Vegas, and finally Hollywood. Richmond traces how Peggy rose, right along with jazz itself, becoming an unstoppable hit-maker ("Fever," "Mañana," "Is That All There Is?"). We see not only how this unforgettable star changed the rhythms of music, but also how—with her drive to create, compose, and perform—she became an artist whose style influenced k.d. lang, Nora Jones, and Diana Krall.
"A very engaging book presented with as much style and aplomb as Lee delivered in her many classic songs. The legendary Ellington, with whom Lee wrote the delightful 'I'm Gonna Go Fishin', once said, 'If I'm the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen.' With Fever, she finally gets an elegantly written biography fit for royalty."—Boston Globe
"Entertaining . . . [Richmond] is a fan who has immersed himself in Lee's music deeply enough to understand it to the core . . . He grasps every nuance of an artist who was all about nuance and minute calculation . . . The book comes alive in its descriptions of the grueling two years [Lee] spent on the road with [Benny] Goodman . . . A real person . . . emerges from this book."—Stephen Holden, The New York Times Book Review
"Comprehensive . . . Peter Richmond avidly traces the evolution of that signature sexy hush . . . Incisively pinpoints the emergence of her semi-spoken approach to lyrics . . . Well-rendered . . . [Richmond] takes us . . . to that disembodied voice, to those vibrations hanging in the air. In the end, that is all there is, and it is what matters most."—Liz Brown, Newsday
"Richmond's research is impeccable. So, too, is his ability to appreciate and dissect the many odd-fitting parts . . . that made up the crazy-quilt Lee pastiche . . . [This biography] is several degrees better than any other Lee tome that has surfaced to date."—Christopher Loudon, Jazz Times
"Miss Peggy Lee rarely sang a sour note, and neither does Richmond in this pitch-perfect biography."— Curt Schleier, The Grand Rapids Press
"Affectionate, readable biography . . . Richmond writes smoothly and researches diligently . . . For those who only know Peggy Lee as the voice behind the Siamese cats in Disney's Lady and the Tramp, Richmond's biography is a gorgeous, eye-opening corrective. Fever is a perfect title for music lovers."—Cleveland Plain Dealer
"American popular culture is filled with people who claim to have reinvented themselves. North Dakota's Norma Egstrom puts most such claimants to shame. She invented Peggy Lee with Dickensian precision, not to mention a voice that could cool down a volcano. In this definitive biography, Peter Richmond honors her story with equal precision, and with a generosity and insight that had me cheering her onward, every step of the way."—Gary Giddins, author of Natural Selection and Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams
"Peter Richmond's lovely and big-hearted biography of Peggy Lee is not only chockfull of fascinating jazz stories, it is scintillatingly insightful about the fate and destiny of a small-town girl and the dreams that came true to claim her."—Wil Haygood, author of In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.
"At long last there's a full-length biography of one of American music's most crucial cultural icons. I learned a lot I didn't know about Peggy Lee in this well-researched volume, and I am certain that anybody who cares about this great singer, or about American music in general, will find it essential reading."—Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singers Art
"Miss Peggy Lee,' as show marquees always billed her, is for Richmond a vocal genius on the level of Armstrong, Sinatra or Crosby, but one whose reputation has become overshadowed by time. The GQ reporter aims to restore Lee's luster by retelling the story of Norma Egstrom's (1920 — 2002) journey from listening to jazz on the radio in North Dakota to taking the stage alongside Benny Goodman's band as Peggy Lee, then moving on to even more astounding success in her solo career. Richmond is reverential toward Lee's interpretations of the 'Great American Songbook' (though dismissive of attempts to incorporate contemporary tunes into her 1970s performances) and equally respectful toward her turbulent personal life. Although he acknowledges widespread testimony of her drinking, he defers to Lee's refusal to describe herself as an alcoholic. He is similarly circumspect in addressing her intimate relationships with stars like Sinatra and Quincy Jones. Although some readers will want more backstage details, Richmond would rather focus on the music, and it's in describing Lee's performances that his portrait most vibrantly comes to life: 'When she sang 'Good mornin', sun — good mornin', sun!' her voice was so... happy, it was as if she was swinging open the... door and announcing the arrival of the postwar sunshine.' Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In the early 1970s, Capitol Records released an album titled 'Norma Deloris Egstrom from Jamestown, North Dakota.' These were the roots of the singer who, broadcasting over WDAY in Fargo in 1937, borrowed the first name of neighbor Peggy Grant and the middle name of one of Grant's young sons to rename herself Peggy Lee. She and Norma pose an interesting pair, and the duel between the two is a major... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) theme of Peter Richmond's biography of the celebrated singer. Richmond perches Lee on a Mount Rushmore of popular jazz singers, along with Armstrong, Crosby and Sinatra. Richmond's assertion seems a slight stretch and baits a distracting and unhelpful debate. Lee placed her brand on certain songs, as did Armstrong; she was certainly as instinctual a jazz singer as Crosby, and she made you suspect, as did Sinatra, that a darker side lurked. But she could not be rated as influential and penetrating as the other three. Armstrong brought jazz out of its swaddling clothes. Though not the first, Crosby was certainly the quintessential crooner, eclipsing his predecessors and raising the bar for all who followed. Among them was Sinatra, who followed Crosby but established his own brand, a singer whose rendering of lyrics came out of the full experience of life, both bitter and sweet. Lee was more a stylist than a style maker, original to be sure, but not groundbreaking. But there's no debating that she should be included among the great interpreters of American popular song, or that an evening at home listening to Peggy Lee records is an exquisite pleasure. During the 1940s, Lee carved out a singing style that many would describe as minimalist; she performed without the broad gestures and outstretched arms that were most singers' stock in trade. This compelled listeners, Andre Previn once observed, to focus on the song itself. Previn echoed the opinion of other musicians, that Lee had 'the best sense of time' and was, he said, 'right in the pocket.' Music historians and critics often struggle to classify someone as either a pop or a jazz singer. In Lee's case, her affinity for the blues as well as pop and jazz made versatility her pigeonhole. Benny Goodman, whose band Lee joined in 1941, brought her to nationwide recognition and did himself no harm in the process. Lee was drawn to black singer Lil Green's recording of 'Why Don't You Do Right?' Goodman had it arranged for Lee, and the record enjoyed tremendous sales. When Goodman brought guitarist Dave Barbour into the band, Lee fell in love with his musicianship and, rapidly, with Barbour himself. The two married in 1943 and left the band in Los Angeles. Lee resisted entreaties to return to music, adamantly choosing to make a home, especially after the birth of her daughter, Nicki. In 1951, Barbour, an alcoholic, asked for a divorce to protect his daughter from seeing him at his worst. Although Lee granted it, she seems to have loved Barbour all her life. In the early years of their marriage, Lee was often at the kitchen table writing songs. The very fact that she fell in love with a musician all but ensured that she would return to music, and Barbour was unreservedly insistent that she do so. She was soon recording for Capitol, often accompanied by Barbour, and the couple wrote a series of bankable hits, including bluesy tunes such as 'I Don't Know About You' and 'You Was Right, Baby,' as well as the unabashedly upbeat 'It's A Good Day.' Years later, Lee teamed with lyricist Johnny Mercer to write the 'Siamese Cat Song' and the others in Disney's 'Lady and the Tramp,' and Lee voiced the sultry dog named (what else?) Peg. She was an unremitting perfectionist, carefully ordering the songs in her sets for pace and presentation of a range of moods. Though she earned phenomenal sums for her live appearances, she spent much of the take on the musicians, musical arrangements and clothes that enhanced the singer and her show. Richmond's book, the first substantial Lee biography, is loaded with worthwhile detail. Wisely, Richmond cites Lee's own autobiography selectively, for her point of view and not as a source of gospel fact. However, easily avoidable errors crop up — several details of a 1933 recording date led by Benny Goodman are amiss, Joe McCoy was no trumpeter but a guitarist, and the 1943 motion picture 'The Powers Girl,' while perhaps not in circulation, is hardly 'lost.' In the first portion of the book, Richmond seems overly taken with the idea of a young girl's destiny and is given occasionally to fanciful metaphors, but as he moves into the better documented years of Lee's life, the account settles down to one of exceptional interest, owing to the extent of Richmond's interviews with her associates and friends. One thing he makes clear is that Lee was never afraid to be adventurous, and that it usually worked to her advantage. Her visions for the staging of her hit recordings of 'Lover' and 'Fever' were counterintuitive. 'Fever' invited bombast, but Peggy and arranger Jack Marshall lent it a hip coffeehouse sound with the sparest of accompaniment from string bass, drums and finger snapping. For Rodgers and Hart's waltz, Peggy hired eight percussionists and treated 'Lover' as if it were 'Bolero,' intensifying with every chorus. Lee's faith in the darkly comic Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller song 'Is That All There Is?' had little support from her label and the tastemakers in the record industry. Capitol gave the record negligible promotion but found itself with a hit anyway. But Lee sometimes missed the mark. Richmond writes perceptively about Lee's various albums, never afraid to comment frankly on what worked and what did not, and notes the periods when Lee, anxious to remain relevant to the music scene, instead lost her way. His account of her return to her roots on her last albums in the early 1990s is especially poignant. Lee gave people any number of reasons to shorten their professional and personal associations with her. Her behavior could lose its moorings, even be a little bizarre, such as the occasion when she went into a near-hallucinatory ramble before French President Georges Pompidou at a White House state dinner in 1970. She was demanding of her musicians on the job and wanted them to party with her after hours. A club manager branded her a 'high maintenance' attraction. As the years passed, she was plagued by a spate of maladies and accidents — pneumonia, faints and falls. There was a succession of relationships with men, some strictly spiritual or intellectual, carried out in long distance calls that often came in the middle of the night. An accompanist and conductor who rejected a romantic advance from her recalled that 'she would devour people like me.' But many others stuck with her. Was it for the gratification of being in the inner circle of celebrity, or for the entertainment value of her unpredictability? No, they remained for the music, and because they recognized Lee's extraordinary if unconventional intellect and empathized with her desperate quest for some sort of inner peace. Performers, she once remarked, 'dream of — and seek — reality.' Her associates frequently remark on the distinction Lee drew between the stage persona ('I don't want to talk about her') and Norma Egstrom. Richmond seems to accept and embrace this notion as a window into Lee's psyche. Dualities of this sort are frequently a little glib, especially in Lee's case, where there is such chaos that it's difficult to really know at any particular moment which one of her was in charge. However, neither of them failed the music, nor did the music fail her. Rob Bamberger is the host of 'Hot Jazz Saturday Night,' heard locally (Washington, D.C.) on WAMU (88.5 FM) and internationally on NPR Worldwide." Reviewed by Rob Bamberger, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"I learned courage from Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, and Mr. Cary Grant." So said Miss Peggy Lee. Albert Einstein adored her; Duke Ellington dubbed her "the Queen." With her platinum cool and inimitable whisper, Peggy Lee sold twenty million records, made more money than Mickey Mantle, and presided over music's greatest generation alongside pals Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
Drawing on exclusive interviews and never-before-seen information, Peter Richmond delivers a complex, compelling portrait of an artist that begins with a girl plagued by loss, her father's alcoholism, and her stepmother's abuse. One day she boards a train, following her muse and hoping her music will lead her someplace better. And it does: to the pantheon of great American singers.
The first major biography of the legendary singer--an enthralling account of a charismatic artist moving through the greatest, most glamorous era of American music.
About the Author
Peter Richmond has been an award-winning reporter and feature writer for GQ magazine for two decades. He has covered everything from Rosemary Clooney to sports, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. He has appeared many times on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. He lives in Dutchess County, New York.
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