Dakota Datebook

Peggy Lee, Part 2

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Yesterday we began the story of North Dakota native, Peggy Lee, who ultimately achieved top songwriter ratings from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. She was nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, but because Ella Fitzgerald dominated that arena, Lee won only once. But at the 1995 Grammies, Peggy was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Backing up to 1950, Peggy Lee made a significant move onto the big screen in Paramount’s Mr. Music, starring Bing Crosby. In 1953 she played a feature role in Warner Brothers’ remake of The Jazz Singer. Two years later, her performance as a despondent alcoholic blues singer in Pete Kelly’s Blues earned her an Academy Award nomination and an “Audie” award from the Council of Motion Picture Organizations for performance. She also wrote lyrics and did several voices for the Disney animated classic, “Lady and the Tramp.”

Unfortunately, Peggy’s personal life didn’t match her outward success. Although she continued her song-writing collaboration with Dave Barbour, their marriage broke up soon after Lee started her movie career. Four years later, she married actor Brad Dexter, but ten months later, they divorced. Husband number three was actor Dewey Martin; he lasted only three years. Her 1964 marriage to percussionist and bandleader Jack Del Rio lasted only a year.

Throughout her career, Peggy Lee never forgot her home state. For Marion Piper’s 1964 book, Dakota Portraits, Lee wrote a piece called What North Dakota Means to Me, which reads, “Good, strong, kind, honest people. Rich, fertile ground that yields wheat and corn and oats and marvelous vegetables that are full of flavor and health. Crisp, cold winters and violent blizzards that are softened by being snowbound and being snug and warm inside. And then the beautiful spring with melting snow and budding trees and crocuses on the hills.”

“The sound of whippoorwills singing,” she continued, “while you walk through the pasture to bring the cows in for milking. But most of all, the people, helping each other in time of need; building strength of character as they learn to live with the elements; learning to do so many things that are useful all through life, giving you the feeling of a strong inner core to count on wherever you may go. The sweetness of old friends who show you with warm, smiling eyes that they are glad when something nice happens to you.”

Lee was a perfectionist who practiced every aspect of every performance, including specific ways in which she planned to use her hands, and it had paid off. Peggy Lee reached the “high spot” of her career in September 1962, when she was selected to appear at the Philharmonic in New York’s Lincoln Center, a venue that was traditionally reserved for classical musicians.

Peggy lived by the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “God will not have his work done by cowards.” To Peggy, that meant not letting one’s personal problems get in the way of their life’s work. “I’ve had to remember that rule several times during my career,” she said.

When Lee died in January 2002, many expressed their admiration for her, including Tony Bennett, who called her the “female Frank Sinatra.” Singer k.d. lang said, “I usually don’t get sad about the death of people who led full lives. But I’m sad about Peggy Lee. She represents an era that is leaving us, one where vocals were king, and I honestly can’t think of a better vocalist in that jazz-pop crooning style… I view her as my finest teacher of vocals.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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