May 26, 1920-Jan. 21, 2002
Peggy Lee
Credit: Peggy Lee: Bob Willoughby/Redferns/Retna

k.d. lang remembers Peggy Lee

I first heard Peggy Lee when I was about 20, and I instantly became a total junkie. ”Latin ala Lee!,” which had her singing Broadway songs, was my first big Peggy Lee record. That was my drug for a long time. I never got tired of listening to and studying her choice of songs, her phrasing, her incredible versatility, her sense of humor. I just never got tired of listening to her. She helped me define who I was as a singer, in terms of what I thought was beautiful and hip and cool. She was the Madonna of her day.

She came up in the big-band era, but then crossed over into the pop charts with songs like ”Fever” and ”Is That All There Is?” and really helped define the jazz-pop world. I should know better than to cover Peggy Lee songs, but I just love singing them so much. I’ve done ”Fever” and ”Black Coffee,” but ”Don’t Smoke in Bed” is my favorite.

She had a beautifully rich voice, but her subtlety and her humor set her apart: small hand gestures, eyebrow insinuations, tiny ironic inflections, holding a word and then dropping a turn of a phrase in at the last minute that made you really see the humor. In ”Fever,” just the way she says fever, so simple, so subtle, not trying to make it sexier than it is, but making it sexier than it could ever be otherwise.

I met her briefly at a 1984 show in Edmonton, then again in 1988 for a Rolling Stone photo shoot of artists and their idols. She was totally elegant, totally old-school Bel Air stardom, totally glamorous, yet really eccentric and intellectual. Her intellect led to the way she delivered a lyric, with humor and wisdom.

One of the last times I saw her, she was doing a couple of shows at the Hilton in New York a few years ago. She was singing from a wheelchair and she had a big silver wig on. She could hardly sing, but her presence was enough. (Lee died of myocardial infarction in L.A.)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR k.d. lang‘s most recent album, ”A Wonderful World,” features duets with Tony Bennett.