Peggy Lee: Bye Bye Blackbird

Peggy Lee was an American singer whose unique style bridged the genres of swing and jazz. Famed for her smouldering delivery of many jazz classics, she was described as intelligent, witty and sensual.

As well as being renowned for her sultry, purring vocals, Lee was also a talented songwriter and actress, whose career spanned six decades. Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, in Jamestown, North Dakota, in May 1920, she was always single-minded and determined in her pursuit of success.

One of eight children born to railway station agent Marvin Egstrom and his wife, Selma Egstrom, she sang on her local radio station, KOVC Radio, in Valley City, as a teenager. By the age of 17, she had adopted the stage name Peggy Lee and had left home to move to Los Angeles to follow her dreams.

Peggy Lee

Career highlights

Lee found work as a singer in The Doll House, a famous Palm Springs restaurant frequented by celebrities. She was spotted by legendary bandleader Benny Goodman and his fiancée, Lady Alice Duckworth, who were customers. They were looking for a replacement for their former singer Helen Forrest, who had sung with Goodman's swing band.

Goodman was impressed and invited Lee to join the band in 1941. She had her first number one hit record, Somebody Else Is Taking My Place, in 1942. This was the start of her long and fruitful career at the top.

As well as having a string of hit records, she also collaborated with some of the biggest stars of the era, singing duets with Judy Garland, Andy Williams, Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and Louis Armstrong, to name but a few.

She famously sang I'm Glad We're Not Young Any More live on the Bing Crosby Show with Crosby, Sinatra and Armstrong. Fans said it should have been released as a record.

Radio and acting

Lee also had a career as a radio host, when she joined Perry Como and Jo Stafford to co-present the NBC Radio show, The Chesterfield Supper Club, in 1948. She was a regular on Bing Crosby's radio shows and the Jimmy Durante Show throughout the late 1940s and early '50s.

In 1952, she starred in The Jazz Singer (a remake of the 1927 film starring Al Jolson) alongside Danny Thomas. She also starred in Pete Kelly's Blues in 1955 as an alcoholic blues singer, a role which won her an Academy Award nomination for best-supporting actress.

She provided vocals for a number of characters in the Walt Disney animated movie, Lady and the Tramp, in 1955, including Mrs Darling, the two slinky Siamese cats and the dog, Peg.

Bye Bye Blackbird

One of Lee's most popular songs was her recording of Bye Bye Blackbird from her 1955 album, Songs from Pete Kelly's Blues - the soundtrack of the film of the same name.

Written by composer Ray Henderson and lyricist Mort Dixon in 1926, it was one of the most popular songs of the 20th century and was recorded by many artists over the years, including Dean Martin, Julie London, Sammy Davis Jnr, Joe Cocker and Johnny Mathis.

New York-born songwriting team Henderson and Dixon were famous in the golden era of American musicals. Henderson's Broadway show, a reworking of the Ziegfeld Follies, in 1943, ran for more than 550 performances, the longest-running Follies show in history.

Dixon was a noted lyricist, whose chief collaborator was Henderson. While the lyrics to Bye Bye Blackbird were probably his most famous, he also wrote best-sellers such as I Found a Million Dollar Baby and The Lady in Red in 1935.

Lyrics

Bye Bye Blackbird was written as a feel-good song. The narrator is a young man who's tired of living in the big city, so he has decided to go back home to his rural roots. Rather than being an admission of failure, it's the start of the next chapter of his life and the realisation he wants to go home to familiar turf.

There has been much speculation about whether the narrator is singing to a lady friend in the city, after realising he prefers his wholesome girlfriend, described as "sugar sweet", in his hometown.

An alternative interpretation is that after being tied up with a fast city girl and living in the mean streets, the young man wants to go back and see his mother, saying goodbye to city life.

Regardless of the precise interpretation, the blackbird is seen as representing a dark period in his life, but he has come out unscathed on the other side and is finally ready to move on with his life.

Popular culture

The song remained popular throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s in the United States. This was attributed to its optimism and the theme of a new beginning.

It has featured in many modern movies: Joe Cocker's version was on the soundtrack of the 1993 feel-good film, Sleepless in Seattle, featuring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It was also on the soundtrack of the 2009 gangster film, Public Enemies, starring Christian Bale and Johnny Depp, when Diana Krall performed her version.

Peggy Lee remained one of the world's most famous singing stars until her death at the age of 81 in January 2002. She suffered ill health in later life as a result of her diabetes and often performed in a wheelchair in the 1990s, proving that the show must go on.

This winter, rather than saying Bye Bye Blackbird, a lot of householders will be welcoming blackbirds and other winter visitors into their garden by leaving out food and fresh water, to help them survive the cold winter months.

Solent Plastics stocks a range of products suitable for storing bird food, such as our airtight plastic storage boxes and trunks to protect perishable items from water, dust and damp.

Please contact us for more information.