Fever: The Life and Music of Miss Peggy Lee, By Peter Richmond, Holt, 464 pp., illustrated, $30
Throughout this effusive biography, one can sense Peter Richmond's feisty indignation over the fact that singer Peggy Lee is rarely mentioned among such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughn. In fact, he comes uncomfortably close to being dismissive of these jazz luminaries as he elevates Lee to what he calls the ''Mount Rushmore of American pop-jazz," beside Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Bing Crosby.
Richmond doesn't need to work so hard. Surely, anyone who's heard Lee's voice could never forget it or fail to recognize her as one of the more prominent singers of 20th-century popular music. She could swing with balmy ebullience or cool élan, and, when the mood and moment required it, she could turn a song inside out with a devastating been-done-wrong ache. And, unlike most of her peers, Lee was also an accomplished songwriter.
Lee's autobiography ''Miss Peggy Lee" was published in 1989. Yet ''Fever," named for the singer's sultry signature song, is the first major biography of Lee, a remarkable fact given her long career and often tempestuous life, which ended in 2002.
Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, Lee was raised in North Dakota. Her father was a gentle man with a tendency to drink too much, and when Lee was 4 her mother died shortly after giving birth to her seventh child.
When Lee's father remarried a year later, his young daughter's life took a dark turn. Her new stepmother was a mean-spirited woman who, according to Lee, physically abused her. With such bleakness, the girl's anywhere-but-here yearnings came early, and music provided both ephemeral comfort and hope for a better life. Lee always knew what to do with a song, and she learned to sing along with the sounds of Duke Ellington and Count Basie spilling from her radio.
''With their joyous urgency, their buoyant flow, these songs and anarchic stylings spoke to a girl whose true language, from the very start had been the music inside her," Richmond writes.
By 14, Lee had moved from singing at PTA meetings to performing on the radio, and seven years later she was the featured vocalist with Benny Goodman's band. It wasn't always an easy tenure -- Goodman's withering glare could reduce Lee to tears. Yet her confidence blossomed, and in 1943 she scored her first major hit with the teasing song ''Why Don't You Do Right?"
As this book's subtitle implies, this is the story of both Lee's life and music, and Richmond is as analytical about the person as about the performer. Still, this book isn't rife with celebrity dish. Of course, that's not to say that the author ignores Lee's acrimonious personal life. She married and divorced four times and had numerous lovers, including actor Robert Preston and producer Quincy Jones -- something Jones never bothered to mention in his 2001 autobiography.
Richmond, a GQ contributing editor, handles such salacious details with discretion. That approach only seems to falter in his discussions of Lee's drinking. While recognizing her heavy consumption -- woozy under the influence of cognac, Lee gave a disastrous performance at the White House in 1970 -- Richmond never flatly acknowledges Lee's drinking as a problem, although it clearly was.
Still, this is a small flaw in a very engaging book presented with as much style and aplomb as Lee delivered in her many classic songs. The legendary Ellington, with whom Lee wrote the delightful ''I'm Gonna Go Fishin'," once said, ''If I'm the Duke, man, Peggy Lee is Queen." With ''Fever," she finally gets an elegantly written biography fit for royalty.