A native of Waterloo, Iowa, and the younger sister of actress Ann Sothern, Bonnie Lake was better known during the big band era as a songwriter rather than a singer. Though she spent only a brief time on the bandstand, swing era enthusiasts best remember the blonde vocalist today for her single recording with Artie Shaw.
Lake began her songwriting career as a teenager in the mid-1930s. In 1935, the Dorsey Brothers recorded her tune “I’ve Got Your Number.” That same year as well Benny Goodman recorded Lake’s “Sandman,” co-written with Ralph Reed. The Dorsey Brothers would adopt “Sandman” as their theme song, and it remained so for Jimmy Dorsey in his early years as a solo bandleader. In 1936, Louis Armstrong recorded “Red Nose,” a song Lake co-wrote with her other sister, Marion. In 1937, she sold a song to dancer and actor Buddy Ebsen, who planned to use it in his next film. She formed a lifelong friendship with Ebsen, remembered fondly today for his role as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies television program in the 1960s, and the pair forged a frequent song writing partnership that lasted for the next 50 years.
In 1938, Lake sang with Johnny Cascales’ West Coast orchestra. She also continued selling songs. In 1939, both Jack Jenney’s orchestra and Bob Zurke and his Delta Rhythm Boys recorded Lake’s song “Cuban Boogie Woogie,” co-written with Charles La Vere. Andy Kirk recorded the tune in 1941.
Marriage to Jack Jenney
In November 1940, Lake married Jack Jenney and settled in New York. During the 1930s, Jenney, also a Waterloo native but seven years older than Lake, had been a highly sought after trombonist in New York band circles, never lacking for radio and recording work. After playing with such bands as Austin Wylie, Isham Jones, and Red Norvo, he formed his own orchestra in September 1939. His recording of “Stardust” is still considered the greatest trombone solo of all-time. Jenney was a very disorganized man, however, and his band went far into debt. He disbanded in mid-1940 and worked as part of the house musical staff on CBS and NBC before joining his friend Artie Shaw’s orchestra later that year.
Shaw disbanded in early 1941 and formed a new outfit in August, with Jenney again as a member. Shaw’s vision was to build a 52-piece concert orchestra, but American Federation of Musician rules forced him to scale back to a 32-piece dance band, which included 15 strings. Needing a vocalist, Shaw brought Lake onboard. Lake toured with the band and recorded one song, “This Time the Dream’s on Me.” Reviewers at the time were unimpressed with her voice, calling it “thin and listless.” She and Jenney both left Shaw in late September after Jenney suffered a physical collapse. She was replaced by Paula Kelly.
In early 1942, Lake and Jenney formed a trio with pianist Lester Ludke, with Lake as vocalist. Later that year, Jenney made another attempt at leading his own band, taking over Bobby Byrne’s group when Byrne was inducted into the service. On July 1, 1943, Lake joined her husband’s orchestra as vocalist during an engagement in Denver. Jenney, as before, was disorganized, and he struggled, finally throwing in the towel in October. He and Lake then settled on the West Coast, and he began working casual dates, hoping to start radio work soon. The Navy had other plans, however, and Jenney was drafted before year’s end.
Soon after his induction, Jenney fell ill with “a fever” and was confined to a Navy hospital for several weeks before being discharged from the service. Returning to civilian life, he continued working as a musician, but incapable of leading a well-disciplined life he developed kidney problems, and on December 16, 1945, Jenney passed away from peritonitis following an appendectomy. During the last year of his life, Lake and Jenney, along with Eddie De Lange wrote the memorable tune “The Man with the Horn,” famously recorded by both Harry James and Boyd Raeburn in 1946.
Late 1940s and Beyond
During the summer of 1946, Lake became choral director of a 10-piece singing group. In October of that year, Erskine Hawkins recorded “Sad Eyes”, a tune Lake had co-written with Jeanne Burns in 1944. Lake remarried in December 1946 to radio and television director Hugh Murray. The couple divorced in May 1950, with Lake charging cruelty and asking for alimony.
In 1950, Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney recorded Lake’s “Love Means Love,” co-written with Carl Sigman. Also in 1950, Lake and Ebsen wrote the novelty song “Wild Card,” which became the theme for the motion picture Behave Yourself. As part of a series of film music recordings, MGM signed Lake to provide vocals to the song, backed by Russ Case. This led to further collaborations with Case that same year and the next, and in June 1952, Case and Lake married. Case went on to direct orchestras for the television programs of Perry Como and Julius LaRosa, with Lake serving as choral director on LaRosa’s show. Case and Lake separated in late 1955 and divorced early the next year. In early 1956, she recorded on Decca with her own vocal group as Bonnie Lake and the Beaus, and in May she served as one of three star co-hosts of the United Cerebral Palsy telethon in Monroe, Louisiana.
Lake’s relationship with her actress sister was always strained, and the two had been estranged for several years when they reconciled in 1956 and formed Bara Music Corporation, a music publishing business. Lake began to write songs for Sothern, sometimes with Sothern’s collaboration, moving back to New York and then to Las Vegas, where she formed part of Sothern’s stage act. In 1958, the sisters returned to California for Sothern’s well-remembered television program. Lake and Sothern co-wrote the show’s theme song, “Katy”, as well as other songs used in the series.
In October 1960, Lake married for the fourth and last time to public relations man John J. Dickman, six years her junior. The pair divorced in December 1961, with Lake citing Dickman’s violent temper and crude language as making her nervous and embarrassing her in front of friends. Dickman also once threw a wastebasket at her. She asked for no alimony.
In early 1961, Lake’s relationship with Sothern was once again strained when she applied for guardianship of their mother, who passed away the following year. In 1964, Lake returned to New York with two Broadway musicals to sell, one co-written with Ebsen.
Lake suffered an embolism in 1972 which caused her to have one thumb and one finger amputated as well as a pacemaker installed, after which she and Sothern reconciled again. She spent the rest of her life dealing with health issues, returning to the hospital again in 1977 and 1979 for further surgeries. In 1986, she helped Ebsen write the song “Wrong Train,” an anti-drug song which he recorded with blues singer Margie Evans. Ebsen sent a copy of the recording to then First Lady Nancy Reagan in hopes it could become the official theme of her anti-drug campaign.
Bonnie Lake passed away in 1992 at age 75.
Lake’s age was given in a January 1937 newspaper article as 19, making her birth year 1917. Other online sources list her birth year as 1916 or 1920. ↩︎
Cascales, born Juan Cascales, a Mexican immigrant, later went on to greater fame under the name Johnny Richards. ↩︎
Jenney had divorced from singer Kay Thompson in 1939. ↩︎
Jenney also filed for bankruptcy, due to his debts as a bandleader, at the same time he re-joined Shaw. ↩︎
Shaw would have been required to pay $20,000 up front in rehearsal fees for the larger concert orchestra. Dance band leaders were allowed to rehearse without additional fees. ↩︎
Joe Marsala briefly took over the band before Dean Hudson reorganized it in November. ↩︎