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American Songstress Peggy Lee Dead at 81 - 2002-01-23

Peggy Lee, one of America's best-known jazz and pop singers, died of a heart attack Monday, at her Los Angeles home. She was 81.

For more than 40 years, the blonde-haired singer captivated audiences with her smoky, sultry vocal style. Her light blonde hair and sensual demeanor added to her allure. She sang jazz, blues and pop with an air of dreaminess, but could also summon a powerful voice for more up-tempo numbers.

Apart from her singing, Lee was an accomplished songwriter, poet and painter.

Peggy Lee was only in her 20's when she had a hit in 1948 with "Manăna." During the 1940's, she was hailed as one of the country's most popular vocalists. Legendary bandleader Duke Ellington even referred to her as "The Queen."

Born Norma Egstrom in the state of North Dakota, Peggy Lee survived a sad childhood, where she was abused by her stepmother. Music became her escape, and, as soon as she was able to leave home, she began singing in night clubs throughout the Midwest and California.

When Lee joined Benny Goodman's orchestra as a vocalist in 1941, the exposure catapulted her to stardom. Her 1943 recording of "Why Don't You Do Right" with Goodman sold more than one million copies, a rare accomplishment in that era. She appeared in several films and received an Academy Award nomination for her acting role in the 1955 movie, Pete Kelly's Blues.

That same year, Peggy Lee contributed to the score of the popular Walt Disney animated film, Lady And The Tramp. She composed some of the music, sang, and even did character voices for the movie. When Lady And The Tramp was released on home video in 1987, a whole new audience discovered the talents of Peggy Lee.

She explained why the songs were just as popular in the 1980's and 90's as they were in the 1950's. "I know I've always written in a standard manner," she said. "I never use any trendy sayings or cliches, because later they always date the song. I don't feel that these things do. They fit the characters so that they always stay that way, and I hope they always will."

Songs by Peggy Lee remained on the record charts from the 1940's to the 1970's. In 1969, she won two Grammy Awards for "Is That All There Is," a song about dealing with disappointment.

Peggy Lee made her Broadway debut in 1983 at age 63 in the autobiographical musical, Peg for which she wrote the story line. Lee once explained what motivated her to keep active in the entertainment business for more than 40 years.

She said, "I love the whole creative process of singing and writing songs. I have such great musicians, and they inspire me. They're always giving me a little push saying, 'why don't you sing some of your things (compositions)?' They're wonderful."

Lee was a popular concert performer, and could sell out nearly every venue in which she appeared. She liked to surround herself with exceptional young musicians, and even asked former Beatle Paul McCartney to produce one of her albums.

In the midst of all her popularity, Peggy Lee had her share of serious illnesses. She suffered from diabetes, had heart problems, and was close to death several times. She was hospitalized in October of 1992 for severe bronchitis, which left her in a weakened condition.

Despite all the adversity in her life, Peggy Lee had a philosophy that helped keep her strong. She said, "I think it's a combination of love for what I do and faith. And I just gather more and more faith as I go along and get a little stronger about it. I've acquired a certain serenity about things. If you lie on enough operating tables, you finally say, 'Well, O.K., whatever you say.'"

American songstress Peggy Lee, died Monday in Los Angeles. She will be remembered for her many singular contributions and recordings, especially her signature tune, "Fever," which was a Top Ten hit in 1958.