Peggy Lee, 81, a celebrated singer who was the epitome of jazz coolness in the 1940s and 1950s for her sultry purr on such tunes as "Fever" and who won a Grammy Award in 1969 for her sly and poignant version of "Is That All There Is?," died Jan. 21 at her home in Bel Air, Calif., after a heart attack.
Ms. Lee, a professional vocalist since age 14 who also became an esteemed composer and actress, made hundreds of recordings and more than 50 albums. She carved out a reputation as one of the premier jazz stylists of her generation, often mentioned in the same breath as Ella Fitzgerald, Mildred Bailey and June Christy, and won the highest accolades of her profession.
She distinguished herself while singing in the early 1940s with bandleader Benny Goodman, then at his peak. Where other vocalists of the big-band era may have taken a back seat to brassy compositions or tried to beat the band for sheer volume, Ms. Lee traveled a different route. Without sacrificing swing, she perfected an intimate and insinuating phrasing technique.
"Many singers confuse shouting with emotion," New Yorker jazz critic Whitney Balliett once wrote. "Peggy Lee sends her feelings down the quiet center of her notes. She does not carry a tune; she elegantly follows it."
She counted among her admirers Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong -- and a hefty contingent of children who may not even know her name but certainly recall her inviting voice in the Disney animated feature "The Lady and the Tramp" (1955).
She was the sound behind the elusive Siamese cats and also co-wrote with Sonny Burke much of the soundtrack, including "The Siamese Cat Song" (with the familiar lyric "We are Siamese if you please").
Her intermittent film roles included Danny Thomas's love interest in the remake of "The Jazz Singer" (1953) and an alcoholic blues singer in "Pete Kelly's Blues" (1955), which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.
Her composing career brought her lasting renown with several pop standards, including "Man~ana (Is Soon Enough for Me)" -- a catchy ditty that sold more than 2 million records in 1948 -- and "It's a Good Day" and "I Don't Know Enough About You." She co-wrote those numbers with her first husband, guitarist Dave Barbour, while she was pregnant and mostly homebound.
Ms. Lee was making $250,000 a year by the early 1950s, making her one of the highest-paid singers on the supper-club circuit.
She stayed fresh over the years by reevaluating her repertoire, constantly adding tunes by younger composers such as George Harrison, Paul Simon and the team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller's slinkily elegiac tune "Is That All There Is?" earned her the Grammy for best contemporary female vocal performance.
Numerous ailments sidetracked her over the years, from a bout with double pneumonia that brought on lung damage in 1961 to later episodes with diabetes and heart trouble attributed to weight and glandular problems.
She underwent double-bypass heart surgery in 1985 and fractured her pelvis after falling in 1987. A stroke in 1998 impaired her speech, essentially ending her career.
She had tried to carry on as long as possible, sometimes performing with the aid of a portable oxygen tent and wheelchair. She saw in music balm for a life of considerable heartbreak. "Music has never stopped being a consolation to me," she told the jazz writer Gene Lees.
Even after the critical flop of her Broadway show "Peg" in 1983, she rebounded by aggressively performing at nightspots and concert halls worldwide.
When she took to the stage at Washington's Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 1987, she told the crowd, "Your part is to applaud until I'm thoroughly seated in the chair. My part is to get there."
Ms. Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, N.D, the seventh of eight children born to an alcoholic railroad station agent. Her mother died when Ms. Lee was 4 but not before leaving her happy memories of singing and playing piano together.
Her stepmother was physically abusive, she said in her 1989 autobiography. Once, she beat Ms. Lee with a heavy leather razor strop, the metal end of which scarred her face. Her injuries were visible in photographs taken decades later, she said.
She credited her religious faith with helping her overcome that early mistreatment and weather marital and medical traumas. Her upbringing also inspired a determination to live independently.
Music provided another respite during her childhood. "In first grade, in Jamestown, we had a little rhythm band," she told Lees. "It always fascinated me that I could keep time. And a lot of them couldn't."
Growing up, she spent as much time away from home as possible, singing in the church choir and high school glee club. After graduation, she moved to Hollywood with $18 to her name. With little luck -- she was reduced to working as a carnival spieler -- she returned home.
She found work singing on Fargo's largest radio station, whose manager renamed her Peggy Lee. He said Norma Egstrom would not "sound right" if she should find work in a night club.
After serving as featured vocalist with well-known territory bands, she resettled in California and took a huge leap forward in forming her style. It began at the Doll House, a Palm Springs club where she had trouble being heard over the din of the crowd. She found that only by lowering her voice and making audience members strain would they stop talking.
The owner of the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago caught her act one night and asked her to sing at his hotel's Buttery Room. Goodman heard her in Chicago and immediately hired her replace Helen Forrest, his star singer who had left to join Artie Shaw.
Ms. Lee likened her years with Goodman to "a boot camp," filled with dreadful early reviews, anxiety over filling Forrest's place and the glares of the perfectionist bandleader.
She made her landmark recording of "Why Don't You Do Right" after Goodman heard her singing along to a phonograph. It became a classic and established Ms. Lee's personality as a coolly sexy and practical lover who demands that her boyfriend "get outta here, and get me some money, too."
Among her other recordings with Goodman was a sublime version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean."
After marrying the band's guitarist, Barbour, in 1943, they settled in California and collaborated as performers and composers on a series of delicately arranged songs for Capitol Records, then a fledgling firm started in part by songwriter Johnny Mercer.
With Barbour's spare lines and Ms. Lee's minimalist, sensitive interpretations, the sessions produced some of her most enduring work. "Golden Earrings" was a million-seller, followed by "Man~ana," which sold more than 2 million records in 1948.
She said Barbour's alcoholism hastened the end of their marriage in 1951. But through three more marriages she told interviewers Barbour was the love of her life. They were planning a reconciliation when he died in 1965.
"I kept blaming myself for his alcoholism and the failure of our marriage," she once said. "And I finally understood what Sophie Tucker used to say: 'You have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song.' "
She left Capitol for Decca in the mid-1950s and had a best-selling single with an up-tempo, Latinized version of the standard "Lover." Capitol had refused to let her do the song because Les Paul and Mary Ford had just had a hit with it.
She returned to Capitol in the late 1950s, and her subsequent releases included such highlights as "The Man I Love," with an orchestra conducted by Sinatra, and "Beauty and the Beat" with the George Shearing Quintet.
During those years, she continued composing, notably writing theme music for the cult Western "Johnny Guitar" (1954) and contributing lyrics to the Duke Ellington number "I'm Gonna Go Fishing," used in the James Stewart courtroom drama "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959).
She was vigilant about her financial interests over the years, a product she said of her torturous upbringing. In 1991, a California court awarded her $2.3 million for her work on "The Lady and the Tramp" as her share of the profits from the videocassette sale of the movie. She won on the basis of a clause in her pre-video era contract barring the sale of "transcriptions" of the movie without her approval.
She was a leading plaintiff in an ongoing case involving hundreds of musicians and their families against Vivendi Universal's music branch. She claimed that the company failed to pay her and other musicians who recorded with the Decca Records label before 1962 millions of dollars by underreporting sales and overcharging for services.
Last week, Vivendi Universal agreed to pay $4.75 million in back royalties to settle the suit.
In 1990, she came to Washington to receive the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers' Pied Piper Award for lifetime achievement. She wrote more than 100 songs during her career.
In her spare time, she painted. She also wrote poetry to relax, and a book of verse, "Softly, With Feeling," came out in 1953.
Her three other marriages also ended in divorce, to actors Brad Dexter in 1955 and Dewey Martin in 1958 and percussionist Jack Del Rio in 1965.
"They weren't really weddings, just long costume parties," she once said.
Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage; three grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.