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Singer Peggy Lee Dies at 81

Sultry pop and jazz singer Peggy Lee, best known for hits like “Fever” and “Mañana,” died on Monday, January 21, from a heart attack. Lee died in her Bel Air, Calif. home with her daughter, Nicki Lee Foster, by her side. She was 81.

Lee had health problems throughout her life, including diabetes, glandular issues, weight problems and a couple of serious falls that nearly killed her. She also battled heart problems for many years, including four angioplasties and a double bypass in 1985 and a debilitating stroke in 1998. Lee also suffered from problems of the heart throughout her life, having married four times: the husbands included guitarist Dave Barbour, actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and percussionist Jack Del Rio.

Lee (nee Norma Egstrom) was born in Jamestown, N.D., on May 26, 1920. Her troubled childhood included abuse by her stepmother. She began singing professionally (50 cents a night) at age 14, and sang in various cities in the Midwest over the next few years, but it wasn’t until 1941 that she received her big break. While in Chicago, working with a vocal group, Benny Goodman heard Lee and asked her to replace the soon-departing Helen Forrest. She recorded with Goodman a few days later, debuting with “Elmer’s Tune,” but it was in 1943 that she had her first major hit with the band, “Why Don’t You Do Right?” She left Goodman’s group, and the music business, later that same year after marrying the band’s guitarist, Dave Barbour, father of Nicki.

After the marriage failed, Lee entered the music world again and began her successful solo career, which included a brief sojourn to Hollywood and films like 1955’s animated classic The Lady and the Tramp (where she collaborated on the songs with Sonny Burke and was the voice for the dog who sang “He’s a Tramp (But I Love Him)”) and 1955’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, where she was cast as a drunken blues singer and for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Her managers preferred the money they made off Lee as a singer, however, so Hollywood was out and recording and touring were in.

Lee recorded more than 600 tunes, and she won a Grammy in 1969 for “Is That All There Is?,” and she wasn’t afraid to sue major corporations to get her cut of the proceeds. She went after unpaid royalties from Disney for The Lady and the Tramp and Vivendi Universal for her many hits from the years she spent with their subsidiary, Decca.

In addition to her daughter, Nicki, Lee is survived by her grandchildren David Foster, Holly Foster-Wells and Michael Foster; and three great-grandchildren.

Originally Published