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Peggy Lee bio by James Gavin puts singer in spotlight

Singer Peggy Lee, seen here in the 1940s,

Singer Peggy Lee, seen here in the 1940s, is the subject of a new biography by James Gavin. Credit: Getty Images

IS THAT ALL THERE IS?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, by James Gavin. Atria, 601 pp., $32.

Peggy Lee fused a minimalist vocal style and an arresting stage presence to transcend generations as both idol and influence. Jazz-blues giants from Louis Armstrong to Ray Charles admired her timing and tone, while pop-rockers from Paul McCartney to Madonna worshipped her calibrated intensity and dramatic instincts.

She wore her yearning for the spotlight with a near-glacial composure that, given her mercurial temperament and stormy offstage life, may have been an even greater work of art than all her signature recordings, including the unlikely 1969 hit that gives James Gavin's biography its title.

With the same reportorial elbow grease and musical savvy found in Gavin's biographies of Lena Horne and Chet Baker, "Is That All There Is?" surges forth as an epic American saga; it begins on the North Dakota prairie where Norma Delores Egstrom decided at age 15 that she was a singer good enough to leave behind a troubled childhood for the life of a big band songbird.

According to Gavin, the teenager who would be Peggy Lee had an uncanny affinity for black bands such as Count Basie's, where slick invention sprang from a taut beat. Her breakthrough came from her association with another white crossover artist, Benny "King of Swing" Goodman, with whose orchestra she patented what she called her "softly, with feeling" style capable of handling both rowdy blues and gossamer ballads.

It was in Goodman's band that Lee also found the love of her life: guitarist Dave Barbour, for whom she carried a candle even after their tempestuous marriage ended in 1951. Subsequent marriages and affairs couldn't dim that flame for Barbour, who died in 1965.

By that time, Lee's fame had reached iconic stature, thanks to such 1950s triumphs as her supporting-actress Oscar nomination for "Pete Kelly's Blues"; her songwriting and studio work on Disney's "Lady and the Tramp" and a streak of hits that included "Lover," "Fever" and "I'm a Woman."

Her professional momentum slowed by the late 1960s after which the setbacks outweighed the successes. Gavin tabulates both with sometimes numbing thoroughness, citing, without sensationalizing, her delusions, excessive drinking and drugging, and testiness with employees, friends and family.

Still, even through debilitating illnesses, Lee continued to stand and deliver her music until she could no longer stand. And then she would sing sitting down. Peggy Lee made singing -- and living -- look easier than it actually was.

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