Peggy Lee, the legendary pop and jazz singer whose best-known song, "Fever," was covered by Madonna on 1992's Erotica, died Monday from a heart attack at her home in the Bel Air community of Los Angeles. She was 81.
Lee's sensual tone, striking musical diversity and ability to write her own songs made her a popular female vocalist for decades. And though she was raised in a musically conservative swing era, Lee embraced developments in pop, and over the years she worked with younger, more contemporary artists including Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney.
She recorded more than 600 songs, including the hits "Fever," "Mañana" and "Is That All There Is?," which won her a Grammy in 1969. Lee was also nominated for Grammys for Miss Peggy Sings the Blues (1988) and The Peggy Lee Songbook: There'll Be Another Spring (1990).
Lee was born in Jamestown, North Dakota, on May 26, 1920, as Norma Deloris Egstrom. When she was 4 years old, her mother died and her father skipped town, leaving her with an abusive stepmother. She later called the years of regular beatings a learning experience that taught her to be independent.
She became a singer at age 14 and moved to Fargo to sing on a local radio station several years later, changing her name to Peggy Lee at the recommendation of the station's program director. Lee wrote some of her most famous material with her husband Dave Barbour, who was a guitarist in Benny Goodman's orchestra. Together they penned such tunes as "It's a Good Day," "Golden Earrings" and "Mañana." Barbour was one of four men Lee married over the years.
In addition to being a well-loved singer on record, Lee also made her mark on the stage and in film. Her 1983 Broadway show, "Peg," documented her difficult upbringing and intriguing life but closed after just 18 performances. She fared better onscreen. She appeared in "The Jazz Singer" in 1952, wrote songs for and sang in "Lady and the Tramp" in 1955 and earned a 1956 Oscar nomination for her role as a drunken blues singer in "Pete Kelley's Blues."
Though she stayed active through the decades, she suffered ill health and was frequently troubled by weight and glandular problems. In 1961 she collapsed with double pneumonia during a show at a New York nightclub, and in 1976 she suffered a near-fatal fall in a New York hotel. In 1985 she underwent double-bypass heart surgery.
In 1998 she suffered a stroke that impaired her speech and prevented her from singing, but it didn't stop her from recently leading hundreds of artists in a $4.75 million unpaid royalties case against Universal Music. She also was awarded $2.3 million in back royalties in 1991 for video sales of "Lady and the Tramp."
Lee is survived by a daughter, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.