Our Top 10 Peggy Lee Songs list presents the best Peggy Lee Songs like “Is That All There Is?” ” Fever,” “Mariana” ” Sweet Happy Life,” and many more. Born on May 26, 1920, Norma Egstrom spent her childhood living along the Midland Continental Railroad between the communities of Jamestown, Nortonville, and Wimbledon, North Dakota. Her family moved often as her father was a railroad station agent. The same woman who’d become better known by music fans as Peggy Lee was mostly raised by her father and stepmother. Her mother died when she was just four years old.
Already at an early age, Lee’s talent as a singer was realized before graduating from high school. She first served with a college dance band, performing with them after school and on weekends. She began to sing at a professional level in 1936 for a variety of local radio stations in the North Dakota area. In 1937, the same year she graduated from Wimbledon High School, she met Ken Kennedy, a radio personality on WDAY radio station in Fargo, North Dakota. It was the most popular radio station at the time. After auditioning for him, he changed her name to Peggy Lee before putting her singing talent on the air.
Hear Me… Roar?
With the dream of making a name for herself in the entertainment industry, Peggy Lee moved to Hollywood when she was seventeen years old in March 1938. After working as a short order cook and waitress at harry’s Cafe on Balboa Island, Newport Beach, then as a carnival barker at the Balboa Fun Zone, she moved on to audition for the MC at The Jade.
Due to overwork and a poor diet, Lee fainted onstage and was taken to the hospital. While there, it was learned she required a tonsillectomy. Lee moved back to North Dakota for the operation and remained there until she was fully recovered. While there, she performed as a regular at The Powers Hotel in Fargo, plus she toured with Sev Olson and the Will Osborne Orchestras. In 1940, she returned to California and sang at The Doll House in Palm Springs. It was while there she developed her trademark purr sound.
This was her way of competing with the noisy crowd with a sultry vocal performance, which gave the fellow performers cause to quiet down so they could hear her. In so doing, Lee learned how to use soft subtly to captivate the audience. This was enough to get the attention of Frank Bering, who was the owner of the Ambassador East and West in Chicago, Illinois. He offered her to perform at its nightclub, the Buttery Room. While there, this is where Peggy Lee was discovered by Benny Goodman. In August 1941, Peggy Lee joined Benny Goodman and his big band. “Elmer’s Tune” was her first official recording while with the Benny Goodman Orchestra.
Taking Her Place
In 1942, Peggy Lee realized her first number-one hit as a recording artist. “Somebody Else is Taking My Place” served as the first single to do so before it was followed by her second number one hit, “Why Don’t You Do Right?.” While still with Benny Goodman Orchestra, Lee appeared in two movies. 1943’s Stage Door Canteen was the first, followed by The Powers Girl. Also in 1943, Lee married the band’s guitarist, David Barbour, despite the rule that band members were not allowed to fraternize with her. Because of this, Barbour was fired from Benny Goodman’s orchestra.
This resulted in Peggy Lee’s decision to quit the band as she chose Barbour over them. It was her intention to become a full-time housewife and she was quite content to be Mrs. Barbour. There were media stories that suggested she was forced to play wife to her husband but this was not the case. In more than one interview, Peggy Lee admitted she was happy to lead a simple life as a woman who loved her husband very much. The two had a daughter in 1943 together before she finally agreed to go back to her musical career. It was her husband who suggested she has too much talent to keep bottled up at home.
In 1944, she returned to songwriting. While with Capitol Records, she recorded a number of hit songs she and her husband worked together on. “Golden Earrings” was the title song for the 1947 movie it was written for, which became a solid hit. Lee and Barbour were a solid songwriting team that included the number one hit, “Mariana.” In 1948, she joined Perry Como and Jo Stafford to host The Chesterfield Supperclub, a musical program featured on NBC Radio. She also became a regular on Bing Crosby’s radio shows during the late 1940s and early 1950s, as well as on The Jimmy Durante Show.
Unfortunately, because Peggy Lee’s career as an entertainer saw her spend less time at home, the marriage she shared with David Barbour came to an end in 1951. In 1953, she was briefly married to her second husband, Brad Dexter, before moving on to Dewey Martin from 1956 to 1958. In 1964, married Jack Del Rio. Before the end of that year, she experienced her fourth and final divorce.
Aside from a four-year run with Decca, Peggy Lee was a solid fixture as a singer and songwriter for Capitol Records. In 1958, she recorded and released “Fever,” a single that originally came from Little Willie John. Lee altered the lyrics that included material from “Captain Smith,” “Romeo Loved Juliet,” and “Pocahontas.”
As she performed it, this new arrangement earned her nominations in what was the first run of the annual Grammy Awards in 1959. Not only was Peggy Lee prolific as a recording artist, but she was also a busy actress. In 1952, she starred in The Jazz Singer, which was a remake of Al Jolson’s 1927 original. In 1955, she appeared in Pete Kelly’s Blues in a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. During the span of her career, Lee appeared in a flurry of variety shows, as well as several small screen movies and specials.
In 1960, the Hollywood Walk of Fame awarded Peggy Lee with her own star on Hollywood Boulevard. From 1957 until 1972, she was a Capitol Records mainstay as the genre of rock and roll began to overtake the American music scene. When rock and roll first came out as a new sound, she was among the first recording artists to not only recognize the new genre but promote it.
It was during this time the music she produced became standards that would trigger scores of singers and songwriters to burst onto the scene as recording artists and stage performers. The popularity of Peggy Lee was so great that when Miss Piggy Lee of the Muppets was created in 1974, it was fashioned by fellow North Dakota native, Bonnie Erickson. As soon as the puppet became famous, the name was dropped to Miss Piggy.
Peggy Lee vs. Disney
In the 1955 animated Disney classic, Lady and the Tramp, she served as a voice actress and singer for a number of its characters. With Sonny Burke, Peggy Lee co-wrote a series of original songs for the film. When the movie was released in 1987 on VHS, Lee demanded royalties for her performance and songwriting contribution. When Disney refused to pay, she filed a lawsuit in 1988 that eventually led to a $3.8 million win against the company as the courts agreed they were in breach of contract and used her name illegally.
Peggy Lee Legacy
Despite health issues that included diabetes, Peggy Lee continued to perform into the 1990s. On January 21, 2002, she died at the age of eighty-one. Her only daughter, Nicki Lee Forester, came from Lee’s first husband, David Barbour. For nearly seven decades, Lee’s career included a total of sixty albums produced between 1941 to 1996. Her songwriting portfolio has over 270 songs, including material that was designed for other recording artists. She received a total of thirteen Grammy Award nominations and two wins. The first was in 1969 for “Is That All There Is?” for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance. The second was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Peggy Lee was, and still is, a key source of inspiration that influenced an impressive list of world-class recording artists, including Paul McCartney and Madonna.
In 1975, Peggy Lee received the Rough Rider Award from her hometown state of North Dakota. She also received the Pied Piper Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1990. In 1994, it was the Ella Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Society of Singers. Also in 1994, she earned the Living Legacy Award from the Women’s International Center. Peggy Lee was awarded the President’s Award from the Songwriters Guild of America in 1999. That same year also saw her name enter the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2020, Peggy Lee’s songwriting material also entered the Great American Songbook Foundations’ Songbook Hall of Fame.
Aside from the contributions Peggy Lee made to the entertainment industry as an actress, singer, and songwriter, she also has an alcoholic beverage somewhat named after her. While still married to Dave Barbour, she visited the Balinese Room in Galveston, Texas. The two had just come back from a trip to Mexico in 1948 and she made a request to have a cocktail similar to what she drank there. The bartender, Santos Cruz, created the Margarita, which is the Spanish version of Peggy’s name.
In Wimbledon, North Dakota, the Wimbledon depot building belonging to Midland Continental Railroad became the Wimbledon Continental Depot Transportation Museum. Inside, it has been featuring the Peggy Lee Exhibit since 2012 as the upper floor once served as a residence for her family before she graduated from the community’s high school in 1937.
Top 10 Peggy Lee Songs
#10 – Till There Was You
Considered a standout favorite, “Till There Was You” became one of many standout songs that saw Peggy Lee at her jazzy best. This vintage classic, along with all the complex harmonies and soaring vocals, served as a perfect example of how talented she was as a singer and musician.
This was originally written and recorded as “Till I Met You” in 1950 by Meredith Willson. It was retitled for his 1957 Broadway musical, The Music Man, and performed by Barbara Cook. The 1962 movie version was sung by Shirley Jones, not long after Peggy Lee’s 1961 version made such an impression on so many fans, including Paul McCartney and the rest of his Beatles bandmates.
They also recorded their own version of this song, which was used when they unsuccessfully auditions for Decca Records in 1962. Peggy Lee’s version was a number thirty hit in the UK and it was her version that served as a key inspiration to the Beatles becoming iconic rock legends.
#9 – I Go To Sleep
As a singer, Peggy Lee’s niche was using the soft delivery of her vocal talent to win an audience older and keep them enthralled from the start of a song to its end. “I Go To Sleep” was a haunting ballad that became an easy song choice for the soundtrack to Made in Dagenham.
Fans devoted to Peggy Lee and her music regard “I Go To Sleep” as a cult classic featuring her sultry vocals at their finest, as well as the sophistication of the piano and string instruments involved. The origin of this song started with Ray Davies, the main songwriter for The Kinks but was not recorded by the band.
However, this was a recorded demo that was featured as a bonus track on the band’s 1965 album, Kinda Kinks. All in 1965, The Applejacks were the first to record “I Go To Sleep,” then by Cher, and then by Peggy Lee. The most popular recording came from The Pretenders in 1981 as it became a number seven hit in the UK and at least a top ten hit among the European nations of Belgium and the Netherlands.
#8 – Ain’t We Got Fun
In 1921, “Ain’t We Got Fun” was first popularized as a foxtrot by Van and Schenck after it made its 1920 debut in the Fanchon and Marco revue Satires of 1920. In 1949, Peggy Lee’s version became one of the most legendary versions of this carefree song. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number four and joined the ranks as one of her signature tunes.
Full of cheerful jazz and Lee’s unmistakable vocal style, “Ain’t We Got Fun” inspired scores of recording artists to record versions of their own. For a song to simply get caught up in the moment, “Ain’t We Got Fun” portrayed a whimsical side of Peggy Lee, contrasting her trademark brooding style featured in her ballads.
#7 – Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)
In 1949, “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” became a number two hit for Peggy Lee on the US Billboard Hot 100. In Australia, it became a number one hit. Originally “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend” was a country western song written and recorded by actor Stan Jones.
Peggy Lee’s version served as a big hit for her in 1949, as well as for Vaughn Monroe and his version. Monroe’s was the version that earned the greatest success among the several artists who’ve also recorded this classic. Members of the Western Writers of America recognized this song as the greatest Western song of all time. “Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” has many titles, including “Ghost Riders,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “A Cowboy Legend.”
Sung as a folk tale of a legendary cowboy who shared his vision of red-eyed, cattle sporting steel hooves being chased by the troubled spirits of fallen cowboys. It served as a musical warning that failure to become a better person would result in a doomed afterlife. For Lee, singing this from a woman’s perspective was a change of pace compared to Monroe’s version. This song also became a hit for other music legends such as Burl Ives, Bing Crosby, and Johnny Cash.
#6 – Golden Earrings
For the 1947 romantic spy film, Golden Earrings, the title song was originally performed by Mervyn Vye. Also in 1947, Peggy Lee’s version became a hit single that peaked as high as number two on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as a number three hit in Australia.
The movie itself was based on a post-WWII timeline that had a package of golden earrings delivered to a retired British general, who shares a war story to explain why he had his ears pierced. The song, “Golden Earrings,” shared this story in the lyrical form of a gypsy woman who helped him and became his love interest.
#5 – Sweet Happy Life
With the power of Peggy Lee’s voice, there’s no need to sing at the highest volume possible. She figured this out long before the world knew who she was and used this to her advantage. “Sweet Happy Life” was a power ballad that was loaded with emotion as Lee seemed to pour her heart out in this 1966 classic.
On the US Billboard Hot 100, it became a number three hit. Sung as a sweet ballad of appreciation, “Sweet Happy Life” earned its place as an all-time classic that inspired so many fans and aspiring artists. This was the English adaptation of “Samba de Orfeu,” a song that was introduced in 1959 before it was covered by Peggy Lee in the 1966 album, Guitars a la Lee.
#4 – Mariana
“Mariana” was a song Peggy Lee and her husband, Dave Barbour, wrote together. After its release in 1947, it became a number one hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and remained in that spot for nine weeks. In English, “Mariana” means “tomorrow.” Designed and performed as a humorous tune about wanting to put important tasks off until tomorrow, Lee was inspired to write this song while she was vacationing in Mexico.
As popular as this song was, not every fan appreciated the humor. Some felt it was an inappropriate jab against Mexican culture, which wasn’t the case at all. In pop culture, “Mariana” was performed by a series of other recording artists and actors, including the infamous Dean Martin.
#3 – Why Don’t You Do Right? (featuring Benny Goodman Orchestra)
While performing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra, Peggy Lee’s vocal performance behind ‘Why Don’t You Do Right?” became a number four hit on what is now recognized today as the US Billboard Hot 100. In 1936, it was originally titled “Weed Smoker’s Dream” as it was recorded by the bluesy jazz genius, Kansas Joe McCoy.
Classified as a woman’s blues tune, it has since become a standard, especially after Peggy Lee made it so popular in 1942. Lee’s version is one of the best-known and was featured in the 1943 Hollywood production, Stage Door Canteen. This was the song that earned Peggy Lee nationwide recognition for her sultry jazz vocals, and it also served her boss at the time, Benny Goodman, well. Lee admitted when Lil Green recorded his version in 1941, it inspired her to cover “Why Don’t You Do Right?” herself.
#2 – Is That All There Is?
In 1969, Peggy Lee won a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her hit single, “Is That All There Is?” which was released in 1968. This song was originally performed in 1967 by Georgia Brown for a television special. The first authorized recording of the song came from Leslie Uggams in 1968 but it was Lee’s 1969 version that made it a popular hit on the US Billboard Hot 100.
It peaked as high as number eleven, serving as her first top forty hits in eleven years. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary Songs chart, it peaked at number one. This became one of Lee’s signature songs as she brilliantly performed as someone sharing life events from a less than enthusiastic point of view.
The inspiration behind the song began in an 1896 story, Disillusionment, when a Nazi escapee settled in Holywood after fleeing from Europe, hoping for a better life that ended in bitter disappointment.
#1 – Fever
In 1958, Peggy Lee covered Little Willie John’s “Fever” and released it as a newly arranged song. Her version earned this song three Grammy Award nominations in 1959. Fever was also a 2004 Hollywood production that covered the life story of Peggy Lee and her achievements. “Fever” was one of her signature songs and among the best recognized. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it peaked as high as number eight.
Despite the popularity of “Fever,” it was rejected by over twenty recording labels before it was finally released. This was the song she performed at the White House for then-president Dwight Eisenhower. The song revolved around a woman feeling restless about her love interest as if suffering from a fever. In 1992, “Fever” was released again, this time becoming a number seventy-five hit in the UK.
Feature Photo: General Artists Corporation (management), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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