On May 26, 1920, in a small remote farm town in North Dakota a baby girl, Norma Deloris Egstrom, was born, the seventh of eight children. Her mother would die when she was 4 and her father, an alcoholic railroad worker, remarried shortly thereafter. Raised by her stepmother who was cold and abusive, she stayed away from home as much as possible.
Her parents were of Scandinavian ancestry and her fair skin, blonde hair and striking appearance in her youth set her apart from her peers. She began singing in church and the glee club in high school and resolved to become a singer. She left home for Hollywood at 17 to pursue her singing career, but was unsuccessful and quickly returned home; however, she wasn’t defeated and she began singing on the radio in Fargo, ND. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Calif., where a defining moment in her journey to stardom and fame would take place. Singing before an extremely boisterous crowd in a club, she could not be heard and instead of attempting to raise her voice to compete with the din in the club, she began lowering her voice. Years later she explained, “When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘Softly, with feeling.’ ”
Not quite a “Eureka” moment, but this approach became an essential career defining stylistic technique and led to her “trademark sultry purr.” Paying her dues, she gained experience by traveling and singing with small bands in the late 30s. When she was 21 there was another “Eureka” moment, except this time it wasn’t her problem that was solved, but Benny Goodman’s. The King of Swing had just lost his lead singer and he urgently needed a replacement “girl” singer. He heard Norma Deloris sing in Chicago and hired her on the spot, a stint that would last 20 months, during which she would launch her career as a vocalist (selling several million records) and appear in two movies with Benny and his band. When she wasn’t singing with the band, she was falling in love with the band’s guitarist. Benny had a rule that his musicians could not “fraternize with the girl singer,” so he fired the guitarist, whereupon Norma Deloris quit the band. The two married in March 1943 and moved to L.A. where they began collaborating as composers and lyricists.
A string of hits followed, some performed by others, but many performed by Norma Deloris that became big sellers. By the late ‘40s, she was on top, performing in the biggest superclubs in the U.S. and Europe, but there was a problem. Her husband was an alcoholic and by 1951, their marriage ended in divorce. Norma Deloris would marry three more times, all of which ended in divorce, as she searched for the love and security that eluded her as a child. “They weren’t really weddings, just long costume parties,” she quipped later. Between her marriage interludes, there were affairs with musicians, including Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones.
While her personal life was beginning to spiral downward in the late ‘50s, she continued to have extraordinary success in all the facets of her career well into the 1960s. She had already ascended to “star” status as a vocalist with a defining glamorous and seductive “look,” but this was a façade to conceal her personal pain. Her musicianship was unrivaled among the singers of the day and only Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra were worthy of comparison. Equally comfortable interpreting the Great American Songbook, singing jazz, pop tunes or the blues, she delivered all with her unique style and phrasing and a wonderful sense of rhythm. She continued to compose music and lyrics for songs, penning many hits and even wrote film scores. Nominated for an Oscar for her performance in “Pete’s Kelly’s Blues,” she was one of the highest paid performers of the era.
But all that success couldn’t fill the hole in her soul and is often the case, children of alcoholics don’t escape the curse of their parents’ addiction. Norma Deloris was no exception. Eventually, she succumbed to the pain of her childhood and excessive alcohol and prescription drug abuse followed, along with binge eating, all of which took its toll. By the time Norma Deloris was in her 50s her talents were severely diminished by her pathological behavior. Episodes of double pneumonia, diabetes, and heart trouble followed and exacerbated her declining fortunes. Sadly, many top entertainers continue to perform well past their “prime,” tarnishing their image and disappointing their fans and Norma Deloris was guilty of this failing. It appeared that she couldn’t accept that she no longer had “it” and she sorrowfully continued to perform, in a wheelchair and with a respirator, a shadow of her former greatness. She died at the age of 81.
However, she left behind a musical legacy, recording over 650 songs and 60 albums. She was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning one and receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. She composed music and lyrics for hundreds of songs that have entered the canon of our musical heritage and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
So who was Norma Deloris? Duke Ellington said it best: “If I’m the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen.” The list of her hits is beyond the scope of this article, but a very few highlights are her breakout recording of “Why Don’t You Do Right?” in 1943; her biggest hit, “Fever” in 1958 and a last hurrah in 1969 that tragically asked “Is That All There Is?”
At 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 8 at the Sonnenalp Hotel and at 6 p.m. on Aug. 9 at Vail Square in Lionshead, the wonderfully talented Nicki Parrott will pay tribute to Peggy Lee, singing all of the songs that Peggy Lee (a.k.a Norma Deloris) made famous. The performance on Aug. 9 will include screenings of photos and classic video of Peggy that capture her essence in a unique multimedia format.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 24th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz.