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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 19 2012

Eriksmoen: Peggy Lee’s soft singing became her signature style

Peggy Lee’s signature singing sound was “a soft and cool style.” She developed this sound in 1940 while performing at a restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif., when Jack Benny and his radio entourage arrived. Knowing that she would not be able to sing over the clamor, Miss Lee began to sing in a seductive whisper. “The softer she sang, the quieter the audience became.” This became a secret she never forgot and soon became her trademark.

After a brief experience of singing at the Jade Supper Club in Los Angeles in 1938, 18-year old Peggy Lee returned to North Dakota, upon a doctor’s recommendation, to have her tonsils removed. The surgery was botched, and she ended up back in the hospital after her throat hemorrhaged for eight hours.

Upon recovery, Lee journeyed to Fargo in the winter of 1938-39 to resume her singing career at WDAY. She later persuaded the manager of the Powers Hotel to allow her to sing to the customers at the hotel’s coffeehouse, where she was accompanied by the organist, Lloyd Collins. College kids loved her, and Lee proved to be a mainstay on radio and at the coffeehouse for the next two years.

Ken Kennedy, the program manager at WDAY, had a cousin in Minneapolis, Sev Olsen, who had recently put together a nine-piece band and needed a lead singer. With Kennedy’s blessings, Lee journeyed to Minneapolis and joined the Olsen orchestra. She also got a job as a regular at the Radisson Hotel’s Flame Room and was featured on radio station KSTP.

In 1940, while performing on the “Standard Oil Hour” over KSTP, Lee was heard by big band leader Will Osborne. He contacted Lee and asked if she would be interested in becoming his lead female singer. She accepted, and for the next three months went on tour with the band. After arriving in St. Louis, Lee said she noticed “a lump in my throat.” She needed another operation, and after it was over, an intern dropped her headfirst onto the operating floor, smashing her front teeth. By the time she recovered, Osborne’s orchestra had temporarily disbanded. Lee hitched a ride with the band’s manager to California.

She returned to the Jade Supper Club and after a short stay moved to Palm Springs. Lee got a job at the Doll House, a Polynesian restaurant, and one night Jack Benny brought his radio cast into the Doll House for supper and to catch the entertainment. With all of the excitement in the restaurant, the nervous Lee soon discovered she could not sing over the noise and, to protect her delicate vocal cords, resorted to singing in a whisper. The night club quickly became quiet to listen to this seductive sound, and Lee realized she had discovered a unique style.

People soon began flocking to the Doll House to hear Lee. Frederick and Edna Mandel, owners of the Detroit Lions and a chain of department stores in Chicago, became a couple of her biggest fans.

A friend of the Mandels was Frank Bering, owner of Chicago’s Ambassador West Hotel. The entertainment hub of Bering’s hotel was the Buttery Room, “which specialized in romantic, intimate-sounding music.” The Mandels convinced their friend to come to Palm Springs and hear Lee because they believed she would be an ideal vocalist for the Buttery Room. Bering auditioned Miss Lee and asked her to become a regular performer at his hotel.

One night, Alice Duckworth visited the Buttery Room while Lee was singing. Duckworth became so impressed with the vocalization of Peggy Lee that she excitedly told her fiancé about the fresh sound of this singer. Duckworth was engaged to Benny Goodman, who was about to lose his lead female vocalist, Helen Forrest. The next night, Goodman attended Lee’s performances at the Buttery Room and realized he found Forrest’s replacement. Peggy Lee recounted that experience:

“He was looking at me strangely, I thought, but it was just his preoccupied way of looking. I thought that he didn’t like me at first, but it just was that he was preoccupied with what he was hearing.”

Goodman talked with Lee after she completed her routine, but nothing was established about her status with his band. It has been reported that in August 1941, Goodman called and said he would like to talk to Lee. After finishing her performances at the Buttery Room, Goodman began playing records and the two engaged in small talk. As she was about to leave, she asked, “Well Benny, aren’t you going to ask me about anything?” Goodman offered her the job as his featured female vocalist and, “she accepted immediately.”

Goodman’s band was at the height of its popularity, and for the next 18 months Lee toured the U.S. playing hotel engagements, college proms, theater dates and radio programs. It was also with Goodman that she made her first recordings. In July 1942, Lee recorded her first million-seller, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Singing for a big band meant she had to change much of the sultry, soft jazz style that she had developed earlier.

For the most part, Lee got along with Goodman, but for a period he let her know he didn’t seem to approve of her phrasing. Lee could not figure out what he meant, so she told trumpeter Harry James about Goodman’s comments. James suggested that she should tell Goodman that she understood and would follow his suggestion. He then added, “Just sing the way you’ve always been doing and see what happens.” Lee followed his advice and Goodman never again tried to alter the way she should sing her songs.

Some of the major recording hits that Peggy Lee made with the Goodman band were “These Foolish Things,” “Where Or When,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Elmer’s Tune,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” “How Long Has This Been Going On?” “My Old Flame” and “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

Besides gaining national popularity, Lee benefited in other ways during her tenure with Goodman. She said he “taught me discipline and the value of rehearsing and even how to train.” Lee also found a husband and song writing collaborator in Dave Barbour, who was Goodman’s guitarist. The two fell in love and were married in March 1943. Shortly after, when the band had finished a California engagement and was planning to return east, the two told Goodman they were leaving the band to try to make it on their own.

(Next week we will conclude our story about Peggy Lee.)


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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.