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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published May 26 2012

Eriksmoen: Lee not only singer but also songwriter, talented actress

The only female singer to have “Top Ten” hits in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s was born and raised in North Dakota. Peggy Lee was not only a popular singer but an important songwriter and a talented actress who was nominated for an Academy Award.

Life had been difficult for Lee while growing up, but it contributed to the attributes that made her strong. She later commented, “My strength came from the training I got as a girl, working as a hired hand on a farm. I shucked grain, pitched hay and drove the water wagon for a threshing ring.” Peggy Lee will not only be remembered for her great songs and memorable movies but also as the inspiration for a popular drink, a beautiful rose and an endearing Muppet.

In 1943, bandleader Benny Goodman fired his guitarist, Dave Barbour, for dating his female vocalist, Peggy Lee. She then quit the band and the two got married. In 1944, Lee began recording for Capitol Records, producing a number of big hits. “Waitin’ for the Train to Come In,” recorded in 1945, was drawn from her experience as a depot agent in Wimbledon, N.D., and became her first top 10 hit.

In 1946, Lee was voted “best female vocalist” by both Downbeat and Metronome magazines. She hit the top 10 again in 1947 with “Golden Earrings” and became the co-host of the radio show “Rhapsody in Rhythm.” One of the regulars on that show was Skitch Henderson, who also started his professional musical career in North Dakota.

In 1948, Lee had a No. 1 hit with “Mañana” and joined Perry Como and Jo Stafford as rotating hosts of the popular radio show “Chesterfield Supper Club.” That same year, Santos Cruz, a Texas bartender, claims to have created the “margarita” in recognition of Peggy Lee. Margarita is the Spanish form of Margaret, the formal version of Peggy.

After another top 10 hit, “Bali Ha’I,” Lee was named “the nation’s most popular female vocalist” by Billboard magazine in 1950. That year, she first ventured into the movie business with small roles in “Stage Door Canteen” and “The Powers Girl.” Lee and Barbour divorced in 1951, and in 1952 she switched from Capital to Decca Records and co-starred opposite Danny Thomas in the movie “The Jazz Singer.” The New York World-Telegram reviewed the movie and reported that Lee had “a very promising start on a movie career.”

During the next two years, Lee was busy in the movie industry but not as an actress. She composed the lyrics to songs for “Woman They Almost Lynched,” “Johnny Guitar,” and “About Mrs. Leslie.” Then, in 1955, Lee was given the challenging role of Rose Hopkins, a despondent and alcoholic blues singer in “Pete Kelly’s Blues.” In real life she did not drink but was able to draw upon her experience growing up with an alcoholic father. For her moving performance, Lee was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress. She was beat out by Jo Van Fleet, but the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, made up of moviegoers and ticket buyers, voted her the “Audie” statuette. That same year, Walt Disney put out the animated movie “Lady and the Tramp” in which Lee was the voice of the female heroine, a dog named Peg, and two Siamese cats.

After that successful year in the cinema, Lee anticipated a number of movie roles. But they did not come. Lee said, “I never received any offers after tha, and I never figured it out.” She then speculated that since she convincingly played an alcoholic, she likely “was typecast as an alcoholic.”

In 1956, Lee returned to Capitol Records and, two years later, recorded her biggest hit, “Fever,” which soared to No. 1 on the hit charts.

With a diverse career that included music publishing, television, movies and concert performances, she decided it was time to consolidate all of her work into one company and, in 1958, established Peggy Lee Enterprises.

By the early 1960s, health issues began to plague Lee. She was diagnosed with diabetes and, in 1961, was hospitalized with double pneumonia. Lee reached what she called the “high spot” in her career when she performed at the Philharmonic Hall of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City in 1962 and, later that year, was appointed chair of the Tom Dooley Foundation. In 1963, Lee attained North Dakota’s highest honor, receiving the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award.

During the 1960s, many of the earlier popular singing artists found their careers waning with the Beatles Invasion. Lee “became one of the first mainstream performers to record material by the Beatles” and her popularity remained. During that decade, she had three top 10 hits with “I’m a Woman” in 1963, “Pass Me By” in 1965, and “Is That All There Is” in 1969. For her 1969 hit, Lee finally won a Grammy Award after seven previous nominations.

In 1974, Bonnie Erickson, whose mother grew up in Drayton, was asked by Jim Henson to create a new muppet. Erickson was a fan of Peggy Lee and admired the confidence and independence she personified. She modeled the Muppet on Lee and named her Miss Piggy.

In 1983, Lee made her Broadway debut in the autobiographical musical “Peg.” She co-wrote 22 songs used in the production, and the song that best described her early life in North Dakota was “One Beating a Day,” which illustrated the mistreatment she received at the hands of her stepmother. That year, a light pink hybrid tea rose was introduced and given the name the Peggy Lee Rose in the singer’s honor.

Lee continued performing but was slowed down after undergoing double-bypass heart surgery in 1985 and suffering a serious fall in 1987.

In 1990, she received the Pied Piper Award, the highest accolade presented by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Other awards presented to Lee were the President’s Award, the Ella Award, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In 1999, she was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.

Peggy Lee died on Jan. 21, 2002. Her memory was honored with concerts at Carnegie Hall in 2003 and the Hollywood Bowl in 2004.

When the 2006 movie “Infamous” was planned, the role played by Gwyneth Paltrow was supposed to be Peggy Lee, but the name was later changed to Kitty Dean. In the future, actress Reese Witherspoon is planning to make a movie about the life of Miss Lee.

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“Did You Know That” is a Sunday column that focuses on interesting people, places and events that had an impact on North Dakota, or even the country. It is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.