FARGO — From a young age, Holly Foster Wells was being groomed to take over her grandmother’s estate. That’s no small task when your grandmother was Peggy Lee, one of the most influential singers of the 20th century.
“She didn’t want to be forgotten,” Foster Wells says from her home in the Los Angeles area.
She recalls Lee telling her, “This music is going to outlive me and I need someone to manage my legacy.”
Eighteen years after the star’s death, Foster Wells has her hands full as Lee’s music is more popular now than it’s been in decades.
The singer’s classics are reaching millions of new listeners thanks to prime positioning in hot new Netflix shows “Hollywood” (“It’s a Good Day")” and the second season of “Dead to Me” ("It's Been A Long, Long Time" and "Why Don't You Do Right"), both of which started streaming weeks ago.
Her music has also been featured in recent seasons of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Good Place,” “The Beach Bum,” “Fear the Walking Dead” and countless commercials.
"And with the coronavirus, we've seen a spike in people playing 'Fever,'" Foster Wells says.
“You may not know who she is, but you certainly know her music,” she adds.
More people will be learning about Lee this week as fans around the world celebrate what would be her 100th birthday. Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom on May 26, 1920, in Jamestown, N.D.
While some planned festivities have been scrapped due to the coronavirus outbreak, Lee’s legacy will be marked on the Grammy website broadcasting a Zoom discussion between Foster Wells and singers k.d. lang, Billie Eilish and Eric Burton of psychedelic soul band Black Pumas.
“Having them talk about the influence my grandmother had on their career is amazing,” Foster Wells says.
Accolades for Lee were never hard to come by. Tony Bennett called her “the female Frank Sinatra,” and Ol’ Blue Eyes himself was just as smitten, saying, “Peg is just about the best friend a song ever had.” Duke Ellington even noted, “If I’m the Duke, she’s the queen.”
She even made a fan of rocker Paul McCartney, who wrote “Let’s Love,” the title track for her 1974 album.
Even with the appreciation of her peers, Lee would remind herself that she was still “Norma from North Dakota.”
“She was always very grateful,” Foster Wells says. “She was incredibly proud to have those North Dakota roots.”
That’s saying a lot, since her years in North Dakota were not easy. The seventh of eight children, Lee adored her mother, but after she died when Lee was just 4, her father remarried a woman who was abusive.
“Her dad was an alcoholic, but she still loved him and she ended up doing his job a lot of the time,” Foster Wells says.
She started singing on local radio, but when she came to WDAY in Fargo, then the largest station in the state, DJ Ken Kennedy said Norma Deloris Egstrom was no name for a star and renamed her Peggy Lee.
At 17, she left for Los Angeles and started playing nightclubs, but sometimes struggled to be heard over the crowd. Rather than sing louder, she did the exact opposite.
“She decided to go inside of herself and she just got softer and softer. She kept thinking, ‘Soft, with feeling.’ And that’s how she captured the audience,” Foster Wells says. “She could belt a tune, but she didn’t like to. She liked singing softly.”
Lee’s subtlety and vocal restraint became her calling card, and in 1941, she became the vocalist in the Benny Goodman band and recorded her first hits, “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place" and “Why Don’t You Do Right.”
She would go on to land other hits, like “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me),” “Fever” and “Is That All There is?” which in 1969 brought in her first Grammy. She was later honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Four years later, she’d be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
She didn’t just leave her mark on radio and records. Walt Disney sought her out to write and record songs and voices for “Lady and the Tramp” in 1955, the same year she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Pete Kelly’s Blues.”
In all of her work, she was determined that it should be the best she could do.
“People labeled her ‘difficult,’ or ‘diva’ or worse,” Foster Wells says.
“Our relationship ended a few times,” songwriter Mike Stoller told the Chicago Tribune in 2014.
Stoller and songwriting partner Jerry Lieber wrote a number of Lee tunes, including “Is That All There is?”
“Among other things, Peggy worked off anger. If she wasn't angry, nothing was happening,” he said.
“She could be really difficult,” Foster Wells says. "She would say, 'It’s my name on the album, my name on the marquee. People are paying good money to hear me. I want it to be what I want it to be.'"
She famously fought Capitol Records to release “Is That All There Is?” after the label deemed it unsuitable.
“There are so many things we take for granted now, that women can be in charge of their own career,” Foster Wells says. “But she was doing it at a time when it wasn’t done in a male-dominated society.”
Her style was appreciated all over the world, and in September 1988, when President Ronald Reagan invited French President Francois Mitterand to dinner at the White House, Lee was invited to sing the blues. Lee brought Foster Wells, who was then 20, and the guest list also included oceanic explorer and filmmaker Jacques Coutsteau, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and comedian and actor Jerry Lewis, “because the French love Jerry Lewis,” Foster Wells says.
After the dinner, Secretary of State George Shultz approached Foster Wells and asked her, “What's it like being Peggy Lee’s granddaughter?”
“And I’m thinking, ‘What’s it like being secretary of state?’” she says.
During a tour of the China Room in the White House, Lee pulled her granddaughter aside and said, “Look where music will take you.”
“That was something she always said. Now, 30 years later, I’m traveling all over the world talking about her music,” Foster Wells says. “Seeing her get recognition for all of the work she’s done is so satisfying.”