The 81-year-old Lee—who defied the odds and hung on until a fatal heart attack Jan. 21—was one of the great flowerings of the golden age of American pop. Whether singing jazz or Broadway standards, Lee was "a master at phrasing and interpreting," says Tony Bennett, who calls her the "female Sinatra." On such classics as the 1958 hit "Fever," Lee, a ripe blonde whose beauty mark gave her a courtesan's allure, didn't just sing: She seduced with a voice that was featherlight and shimmeringly sexual. One songwriter friend, Lee once told the Chicago Tribune, "said I had a voice like a streetwalker...if you ever stopped, you'd never leave." She added, "I think I know what he means—the sensuousness."
An exception to most of the female vocalists of the day, she wrote or cowrote many of her songs (with the likes of Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones) and knew how she wanted them to sound. The original arrangement for "Fever," says Foster, called for an orchestra. "My mother said, 'Throw this out. What I want is bass and drums and finger-snapping—and thats 'Fever.' "
Late in life she even took on Mickey Mouse. She had earned less than $5,000 for writing and singing songs for Disney's 1955 Lady and the Tramp. "When the cartoon was reissued on video in 1987, she sued for royalties and won $3.8 million. "I'm not being a saint, saying 'I don't want the money,' " she said of the landmark case. "I want it."
Her strength could be traced to her hard upbringing in and around Jamestown, N.Dak. Norma Deloris Egstrom, as Lee was born, was only 4 when her mother, Selma, died of toxemia. (Lee later recalled that as a tribute she made up lyrics—"Mom's gone to dreamland on the train"—to an old popular tune.) After her father, Marvin, a railroad worker, remarried, her new stepmother regularly whipped her with a leather strap. "Out of that adversity," says Foster, an artist, "came a woman who could deal with anything."
As young as 14, Lee was singing professionally on a local radio station. Performing in noisy nightclubs after graduating from high school, she developed the vocal technique that made audiences hang on her every note: "I dropped the volume way down and sang with quiet intensity." Hearing her in Chicago in 1941, Benny Goodman hired her for his band and made her a star. In 1943 his guitarist David Barbour made her a bride. She briefly left show business to raise Nicki, who now has three children and as many grandchildren. But Lee and Barbour were incompatible. "She was always busy doing glamorous things," says Bennett, 75, "and he was a cowboy-type guy." He was also an alcoholic. After their 1951 divorce, she told PEOPLE in 1984, "I finally understood what [torch singer] Sophie Tucker used to say: You have to have your heart broken at least once to sing a love song." Although she ran through three more marriages—between 1955 and 1965 she wed and divorced actors Brad Dexter and Dewey Martin and bongo player Jack Del Rio—Lee and Barbour remained friends. When he died of a heart attack in 1965, "I was destroyed," she said.
The career, though, flourished. She even flirted with movie stardom, winning a supporting actress Oscar nomination playing an alcoholic singer in 1955's Pete Kelly's Blues. She cruised through the rock era with a little help from fans like Paul McCartney, who presented her with a song, "Let's Love." An influence on pop stars including k.d. lang and Madonna (who recorded "Fever") as well as jazz artists like Diana Krall, she was performing as late as 1995 despite horrible health. A diabetic, Lee had suffered lung damage from pneumonia in 1961. She underwent double-bypass surgery in 1985. Two years later she broke her pelvis ("I have a bruised coccyx too," she said not long after, "but nobody mentions that"). Still, "she had great faith," says her daughter. "It was not ever, 'Why me?' "
In fact, it always bothered Lee that many listeners thought her 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?" was just a beautiful bummer about the meaninglessness of life. "Because I've been through the death experience, I believe the song is positive," she once told The New York Times. "There is more."
Karen Brailsford in Los Angeles and Mark Dagostino in New York City