Peggy Lee exhibit

Holly Foster Wells helped the Grammy Museum create an exhibit on her grandmother, singer Peggy Lee. Chronicling “100 Years of Peggy Lee,” it runs through Labor Day.

Holly Foster Wells traveled with her grandmother, singer Peggy Lee, around the world, watching her sing hits like “Fever” and perform in beautiful gowns.

Wells has made it her life’s mission to keep that legacy alive. 

“My grandmother told me this is the job I would be doing,” said Wells, president at Peggy Lee Associates LLC. “She must have known how much it would mean to me. I feel very blessed.”

Now Lee’s fans and visitors to the Grammy Museum can get a glimpse of the singer’s life via the exhibit “100 Years of Peggy Lee,” which runs through Labor Day.

Lee has been called one of the most important musical influences of the 20th century. She penned more than 270 songs, recorded over 1,100 masters and had over 100 chart hits throughout her seven-decade career. 

“It’s not that common to have a career that lasts seven decades, starting in the 1930s,” Wells said. 

“We have artifacts from the 1930s up until the very end of her career. Seeing that longevity and all the things we did and the people we met, seeing the breadth of her career, is amazing.”

A rarity at the time, Lee co-wrote and sang many of her own hits, most notably “He’s a Tramp” for Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp,” as well as “It’s a Good Day” and “Mañana.”  

She’s best known for hits “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “Fever,” “I’m a Woman,” and “Is That All There Is?,” for which she won the Grammy for best contemporary female vocal performance. 

A 13-time Grammy nominee, she received lifetime achievement awards from NARAS, ASCAP and the Society of Singers; was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame; and earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress in “Pete Kelly’s Blues.”

“For someone who was born 102 years ago, it’s amazing,” said Wells, who released the book “Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography” on May 2. 

“She told me that this music would outlive her. I think she had a sense that the music would go on, but people are talking about her story and are interested in her story.”

 

Grandma Peggy

 

Born in the late 1960s, Wells started traveling with Lee in the 1970s, when she was about 6 years old. She and her family lived with Lee in a wing of the singer’s home. 

“She was around from the beginning of my life,” Wells said. 

“Eventually, we moved to Idaho. Every spring, summer and Christmas break, I would go where she was. If she was in Japan, I went to Japan with her. If she was in New York, I went to New York. I went all over with her.”

Wells watched her grandmother prepare for shows and spent time with her at home. She didn’t see Lee as anyone but her grandmother. 

“I didn’t know anything else,” Wells said. “What’s interesting is, when you’re just hanging out with your grandmother at home, you don’t bring up, ‘So, you met Frank Sinatra?’ ‘When did you start singing?’ We really didn’t talk about it. 

“We spoke about what was for dinner, about my homework, regular things. That’s how she was when she wasn’t touring. She was a regular person. She was so creative, always painting or writing songs.”

Lee asked her friends for constructive criticism about her songs — friends like Marlon Brando or Cary Grant. 

“That made it really different and special,” she said. “When she had a show coming up, she was a completely different person. She snapped into gear, and it became serious. We were gearing up for something big.”

 

Remembering Peggy Lee

 

To create the exhibit, Wells worked with associate curator Kelsey Goelz, and together they sorted through artifacts; memorabilia; letters from Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan or the Queen of England; and gowns. 

“She created a timeline of key events in her life,” Wells said. 

“Kelsey looked through my grandmother’s archives and selected items that helped tell the story of her career in North Dakota, from her dream of being a singer to being discovered by Benny Goodman and all the people she worked with.”

The exhibit shines a spotlight on Lee’s songwriting. Wells said in the 1940s, it was uncommon for singers — let alone a woman — to write their songs.

“Kelsey really wanted to bring that out in the exhibit — and she did,” Wells said. “We also included some of her sketches. She sketched her gowns and ideas for the shows and what she was going to pack.”

Lee’s awards are also included in the exhibit, as are her jewelry and a journal.

“That is especially interesting,” Wells said. “You can see her stream of consciousness and what she needs to do. It was so cool to see what was going on in her brain put on paper.”

The showcases are not long enough to include gowns, so Goelz and Wells included accessories like a hat and a sparkly kimono. 

Wells’ grandfather, David Barbour, is remembered as well, as his guitar is in the exhibit. The two met through the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and they wrote “It’s a Good Day,” “Mañana” and “I Don’t Know Enough About You.” 

“I have a pretty amazing job,” she said. “I’m immersed in my grandparents’ music. It keeps them right here with me every day.”