GQ contributing editor Richmond gives the great singer-composer her due.
Perhaps because Peggy Lee (1920–2002) sang with deceptive ease, her artistry has received less critical attention than that of such peers as Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Her biographer here rights that wrong. Richmond finds Lee’s life and talent taking root in pain; she grew up in North Dakota during the Depression under stress from an alcoholic father and a physically and verbally abusive stepmother. To escape, Lee turned to singing. In strong scenes that evoke America’s golden age of popular song, the author traces her career. Lee sang first on radio, then with big bands; her style eventually emerged under the tutelage of a dour Benny Goodman. Work with the King of Swing also led to marriage with guitarist Dave Barbour. The two composed the hits “Mañana” and “It’s a Good Day,” songs with a carefree attitude that belied the turbulence of their relationship. Eventually, Barbour’s alcoholism and moody, jealous behavior helped end the union. As three successive marriages also collapsed, Lee made work the center of her life. Richmond assesses her career—decades of recordings, club and television appearances, some film acting—in meticulous, detailed critiques. He cites as Lee’s hallmarks impeccable taste, flawless timing and intense personal involvement with her music. He also describes the mercurial temper of a diva. As hospital attendants wheeled Lee towards the operating room for heart surgery, she berated a devoted musical director for usurping her authority by handing out checks to her band. He forgave her. After all, no one sang “Fever,” “Is That All There Is?” and “The Folks who Live on the Hill” as stunningly as she.
A vivid montage of American pop at its peak.