Sherri Richards, Published May 19 2012
More than a fever: Peggy Lee to be remembered this weekend at tributes, museum opening
What: Peggy Lee Tribute Concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Jamestown (N.D.) College Reiland Fine Arts Center
Info: Tickets range $10 to $50. (701) 252-5757 or (701) 952-8253
What: Midland Continental Depot Grand Opening
When: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. Program at 11 a.m. and picnic at noon
Where: Wimbledon, N.D.
Info: (701) 435-2875
What: Peggy Lee Tribute Concert
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Stage at Island Park, Fargo
Info: Tickets range $20 to $40. (701) 235-6778
FARGO - It was 1998 when Kate Stevenson, a singer and language professor at Jamestown College, first looked into the life of Peggy Lee.
Like many others who research the famed North Dakota native, Lee (born Norma Deloris Egstrom) got under her skin.
“I had no idea how amazing her career was,” says Stevenson, who now performs occasional shows centered on Lee’s music and life. She also serves on the board of the Midland Continental Depot museum in Wimbledon, where Lee lived and worked in the 1930s.
“It started out as one project and it became a lifetime passion,” Stevenson says.
The same thing happened to Stacy Sullivan, a noted Los Angeles jazz singer who will bring her Peggy Lee Tribute show to Jamestown and Fargo next weekend. Saturday would have been Lee’s 92nd birthday.
Watching videos of Lee’s performances on YouTube, she was captivated by her interpretations and movement, her elegance and her tremendous joy.
“You see her matching wit with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. There’s no one funnier than she was, or powerful and confident,” Sullivan says.
“She had a great ear for talent,” Sullivan adds. “She worked with the finest musicians in the world. To hear them talk about Peggy Lee … I’ve never spoken to a musician who didn’t have the utmost respect for her musicianship.”
It could be easy to sum up Lee’s life with her long catalog of hits, such as “Fever,” “Is That All There Is?” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Or her film appearances, including her Academy Award-nominated performance in 1955’s “Peter Kelly’s Blues.” Or her personal struggles, such as her poor upbringing, four divorces or the health problems that plagued her. A biopic of Lee’s life starring Reese Witherspoon is in the scriptwriting phase.
But Stevenson, Sullivan and, most of all, Lee’s granddaughter Holly Foster Wells, work to ensure another side of Lee is remembered: a shrewd businesswoman who paved the way for female songwriters and stood up for artists’ rights.
“I think about this all the time: I am running a company right now in 2012 that she started back in the 1940s,” says Foster Wells, referring to Denslow Music, the publishing company named for a street Lee and Foster Wells’ grandfather, Dave Barbour, once lived on.
“I don’t know how she had the foresight back then to know that she should hold on to her publishing, or that it could be valuable later,” Foster Wells says. “When she’d go write with other people, she would really negotiate to keep her end.”
Foster Wells points out that Lee never went to college or had any formal musical training. But she had instincts that served her well: musical instincts when it came to arranging and composing, and business instincts to protect her work.
Perhaps the most noted of these efforts is Lee’s legal suit against the Walt Disney Co. in 1988.
Lee charged Disney with breach of contract in the release of a video cassette of “Lady and the Tramp” without her consent. Lee voiced four characters in the animated movie, and
co-wrote six of its songs.
In 1991, she was awarded $3.83 million in the landmark case.
In 1999, Lee was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Universal Music Group, which resulted in a $4.75 million settlement in 2002, the year of her death.
She was also part of royalty suits against Capitol Records, which were settled confidentially in 1999.
Sullivan, the jazz singer, recognizes what Lee did for her and other artists.
“She was not afraid of a battle,” Sullivan says, crediting her tenacity to her North Dakota upbringing. “There was a strength in Peggy that came from working the farm and running the railroad station. She was a survivor.”
One of the songs Sullivan will perform at the tribute concerts here is “The Folks Back Home,” written by Lee for “Peg,” the short-lived Broadway musical about her life.
Both Sullivan and Foster Wells describe it as a “love letter” to the people of North Dakota.
This weekend will mark Foster Wells’ first visit to her grandmother’s home state. She, her sons and two brothers will attend the tribute concerts, as well as the grand opening of the Midland Continental Depot site, and tour places important to Lee’s life.
Foster Wells knows people have many different perceptions of Lee, including the sexy, mysterious siren and the difficult diva, both which were partly true, she says.
But people probably don’t know the down-to-earth Lee, who had a strong work ethic, a wicked sense of humor, a fierce loyalty for the people who worked with her and a pervasive creative streak, Foster Wells says. Stevenson has an original painting by Lee, and says Lee even did artwork for a greeting card company.
“The thing that intrigues me the most is where did it come from?” Foster Wells says of her grandmother’s creativity. “She had this instinct and intuition about who she wanted to be and what she wanted to sound like.”