Skip to main content /SHOWBIZ /SHOWBIZ

Singer Peggy Lee dead of heart attack at 81

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Singer Peggy Lee -- the sultry-throated pillar of pop music from the '40s to the '60s who is known for "Fever" and scores of other jazzy, bluesy hits -- died at her home Monday in Bel Air, California.

The announcement was made in a statement from her daughter on the singer's Web site --

Lee, who was 81, was a composer and a singer; she recorded hundreds of songs, wrote many others and was hailed by audiences throughout the country and world. She won a Grammy award and an Oscar nomination.

The cause of death "has preliminarily been determined as a myocardial infarction, a result of the stroke she suffered three years ago," according to the Web site.

Of Norwegian and Swedish ancestry, Peggy Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota, a farm town on the Great Plains, on May 26, 1920, the seventh of eight children.

After singing with the high school glee club, the church choir, and semi-professional college bands, Norma headed for Hollywood after she graduated from high school in 1938.

CNN's Paul Vercammen looks back at the life of singer, actress, entertainer Peggy Lee, who died of a heart attack at age 81 (January 22)

Play video
(QuickTime, Real or Windows Media)
What is your favorite Peggy Lee song?

"Is That All There Is?"
"Big Spender"
"The Way You Look Tonight"
View Results

But she eventually found work as a singer close to home at radio station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota, whose manager, Ken Kennedy, named her Peggy Lee.

Peggy Lee came up with "the soft and cool style" that became her trademark in Palm Springs, California, at the Doll House.

"Unable to shout above the clamor of the Doll House audience, Miss Lee tried to snare its attention by lowering her voice. The softer she sang the quieter the audience became. She has never forgotten the secret, and it has given her style its distinctive combination of the delicate and the driving, the husky and the purringly seductive," according to a biography on the Web site.

Lee joined Benny Goodman's band -- the most famous swing band of the era -- in July 1941, when the band was at the height of its popularity, and for over two years she toured the United States with it.

A number of biographies detail her accomplishments:

-- In July 1942, Lee recorded her first smash hit, "Why Don't You Do Right?" It sold over 1,000,000 copies and made her famous. In March 1943, Peggy Lee married Dave Barbour, the guitarist in Goodman's band.

-- In 1944, she began to record for Capitol Records, for whom she produced a long string of hits, many of them with lyrics and music by Lee and Barbour.

-- In 1953 she played a featured role opposite Danny Thomas in Warner Brothers' remake of the early Al Jolson talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," and won praise from a critic of the "New York World-Telegram and Sun" for "a very promising start on a movie career" as "a poised and ingratiating ingenue."

Her performance as a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in "Pete Kelly's Blues" (Warner Brothers, 1955) won her a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Lee has not only appeared in motion pictures but she has also written music and lyrics for them. She wrote the theme music for "Johnny Guitar" (Republic, 1954) and for "About Mrs. Leslie" (Paramount, 1954).

She contributed the musical score to two George Pal cartoon features, "Tom Thumb" (MGM, 1958) and "The Time Machine" (MGM, 1960), and wrote the lyrics and supplied several voices for the Walt Disney full-length animated cartoon "Lady and the Tramp" (Buena Vista, 1955). For "Anatomy of a Murder" (Columbia, 1959), she wrote the lyrics for "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" to music by Duke Ellington.

Among her other recordings were "I'm a Woman," "Lover," Pass Me By," "Where or When," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Big Spender" and "Is That All There Is?" which earned her a Grammy award for best contemporary vocal performance in 1969.

But Lee was perhaps best known for the sultry simpleness and slow finger-snaps of "Fever," released in 1958. The song earned her four Grammy nominations that year, debut of the recording industry awards.

Lee was married four times and is survived by her daughter, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.


Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.


Back to the top