Sunday, December 14, 2014

Excellent biography of Peggy Lee!

Book cover from
Author James Gavin's excellent book (published in November of 2014) is a must-read for anyone who appreciated the music and the stardom of Peggy Lee, one of the world's greatest big-band, jazz and pop female vocalists. All North Dakotans should read this book too; it gives us natives of a "desolate state," as Gavin refers to it, a realization that--if one has a dream and is willing to work really hard at it--you can go from a small-town, Wimbledon, N. Dak., to living on the same block in Beverly Hills as Frank Sinatra. The biography, entitled Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee is published by Altria Books and runs 608 pages. I read it on my Kindle.

Peggy Lee sang on the radio in Valley City, N. Dak., on KOVC, the same station I was on as a high school-age disc jockey back in 1958. She performed from the same studio that I worked in, part of the Rudolf Hotel building from the 1930s until the early 60s. The late Bob Ingstad, Sr., hired her and, I'm happy to say, he hired me too, at age 15. As a teenager, I didn't appreciate the pop culture history that had been present in that studio, but I do now.

Of course, this book is about Peggy Lee, not me. And it's a good one. She started out in life as Norma Delores Egstrom. Her dad was a depot agent for the Midland Continental Railroad in Wimbledon, north of Jamestown, in the central part of the state. She received the name "Peggy Lee" from Ken (Sydness) Kennedy. I worked with Ken at WDAY during the 1960s and he loved to re-name everybody, including himself. But I must admit, Peggy Lee would be an easier sell in show biz than "Norma Egstrom."

Gavin has done his research, tracing Lee's history back to her childhood, which was a troubled one. There was her alcoholic dad and then, according to the book, a step-mom that would make Cinderella's witchy-mom seem like "mother of the year." 

Lee went on to experience several troubled marriages; she was obsessive about her career and drove a lot of friends, employed helpers and husbands nuts. Lee had one child, a daughter, with her first husband, guitarist Dave Barbour. Nicki Lee Barbour Foster died on November 18 of this year (2014) at the age of 71. She left Hollywood and her mother's home decades ago and spent most of her married life in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Gavin's detailed yet easy-to-read narrative mentions a number of North Dakotans, including Wes Anderson, curator of the Barnes County Historical Museum in Valley City. Also included is the late Lloyd Collins, long-time organist at Olivet Lutheran Church in Fargo and employed by Nels Vogel Music in Moorhead, Minn. He was Lee's accompanist during their engagement at the Powers Hotel in downtown Fargo and they also performed together on WDAY Radio. The studio, at that time, was only a block or so away from the Powers on the 8th floor of Fargo's landmark Black Building.

Peggy Lee's Hollywood musical career branched off into movie acting. She played Rose, an alcoholic "gun moll" and "sometime singer" in a movie that starred and was directed by Jack Webb, of radio and TV's Dragnet series. And she scored an Academy Award nomination for that performance. 

Gavin serves-up fascinating details about her television appearances with Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Petula Clark and many others.

I have to chalk this one up as one of my favorite books for the year and I highly recommend it. If you would like more information and/or to order a printed book or a full-text version for your Kindle (includes photographs), click on over to Amazon