Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee is the only biography of the late, great singer Norma Delores Egstrom of Jamestown, North Dakota. Best known for her renditions of Fever and Is That All There Is?, Lee is widely considered by musicians and musicologists alike to occupy a perch in America’s female pop-music pantheon with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, although many factors have combined to diminish her historical stature: her lack of productivity in later years, her increasingly diva-like behavior, and her ultimately unclassifiable oeuvre: she sang each and every kind of American music (except country; Peggy refused to sing country). And she sang them all brilliantly.
Lee had a particularly difficult upbringing, the daughter of an itinerant, alcoholic railroad man who endured beatings from her stepmother as a young child. She was married four times, once happily: to the guitarist Dave Barbour, whom she met when both were performing with Benny Goodman’s band. From the mid-nineteen forties to the early nineteen sixties, Miss Lee, well, ruled. She died in 2002.
In the course of writing and reporting the book over a four-year span, as I interviewed countless remarkable musicians and listened to thousands of extraordinary songs, I was able to take a trip back to an extraordinary era in American history: when popular music spoke for an entire nation. (It sounded pretty good, too. I used to think Trey Anastasio of Phish was our nation’s most gifted instrumentalist ever. Then I listened to Benny Goodman play the clarinet.)