Steve Futterman
February 08, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

They don’t dub people ”Sir” or ”Dame” in our country, but there are still means to confer distinction. Norma Delores Egstrom came to be called ”Miss” Peggy Lee, a simple sobriquet that heralded an artist of refinement and grace. Lee — who died in Bel Air at age 81 on Jan. 21 of myocardial infarction after suffering a stroke three years ago — was one of the century’s best-loved vocalists, whose subtle swing and cool sensuality sustained a legendary career for six decades.

Born in Jamestown, N.D., Lee got her first break in 1941 with big-band giant Benny Goodman. Their hit ”Why Don’t You Do Right?” set the stage for the striking blonde’s solo career. A talented songwriter, Lee cowrote her 1948 No. 1 hit ”Manana” with the first of four husbands, guitarist Dave Barbour (with whom she had one daughter); a series of successful singles and albums for the Capitol and Decca labels followed, including 1957’s ”The Man I Love,” on which a fervent admirer, Frank Sinatra, conducted Nelson Riddle’s arrangements.

An Oscar nod for her supporting role in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) and Lee’s multi-character turn in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp (1955) confirmed her versatility. A 1958 adaptation of the R&B standard ”Fever” — her seductive vocal fronting a spare foundation of bass and drums — was an early example of Lee’s expansive tastes. Collaborating with pop songsmiths Leiber and Stoller, the singer also had hits with their ”I’m a Woman” and the Grammy-winning ”Is That All There Is?” in 1969. Loyal fan Paul McCartney wrote the title track for her 1974 album Let’s Love.

The woman whose ”wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists,” as Frank Sinatra once said, inspired generations of artists. ”She was an iconic singer, an exceptional musician and composer,” says rising jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit. ”Peggy was incredible.”

Essential Recordings

The Man I Love (Capitol, 1957); Mirrors (A&M, 1975); Black Coffee and Other Delights: The Decca Anthology (1994)

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