Peggy Lee cast a spell when she sang, and the radiant, eccentric star’s mystique still lingers today. Before Nellie McKay, Jane Monheit, and others pay tribute to Lee on January 21 at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook, James Gavin, the evening’s host and author of Is That All There Is?: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee, shares 10 must-hear songs.
Otis Blackwell–Eddie Cooley; special material by Peggy Lee and Sid Kuller
Peggy Lee’s defining hit has been covered by singers ranging from Shirley Horn to Madonna, but no other version captures Lee’s brand of cool sexual heat. The minimalist arrangement was her idea: just bass, percussion, and “those provocatively snapping fingers,” as a reporter wrote at the time.
Don't Smoke in Bed (1947)
In the midst of a declining marriage to her Prince Charming, guitarist Dave Barbour, Lee recorded this three-minute film noir in song: a woman’s terse farewell to her husband as he sleeps. The icy string quartet and florid, semi-classical piano bring a chill to her parting words, “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed.”
Sans Souci (1952)
Sonny Burke–Peggy Lee
The title is French for “carefree,” but in this tempestuous bolero Lee is a siren who scandalizes a village. She sounds, in turn, like a purring kitten and a witch. “I’ve tried to figure out why I was so angry when I wrote that,” said Lee in 1990.
They Can't Take That Away from Me (1956)
George & Ira Gershwin
During Peggy Lee’s five-year period on the Decca label (1952–1957), she recorded this happiest of goodbye songs. Even as she trades phrases with the roaring big band of Sy Oliver, she sounds as though she’s singing from across a pillow.
Black Coffee (1953)
Sonny Burke–Paul Francis Webster
The ghost of her idol Billie Holiday haunts this album, a dramatic breakthrough for Lee in 1953. Leading the quartet was Jimmy Rowles, the pianist she and Holiday shared. The cover shows a forlorn table setting: a cup of black coffee, a cigarette in a holder, and a fading rose. In the title song, Lee sings craggily about a woman’s fate: to “drown her past regrets in coffee and cigarettes.”
St. Louis Blues (1961)
The Quincy Jones–led orchestra on this track is like a speeding freight train, and Lee is on fire. She barks, belts, and swings as hard as the band, while barely raising her voice.
Is That All There Is? (1969)
Jerry Leiber–Mike Stoller
Leiber and Stoller leapt from “Jailhouse Rock” to Brechtian art song with this existential monologue, which summed up the confusion of the ‘60s and gave Lee a new start. “I’ve lived that whole thing,” she said after she first heard it. Lee connected profoundly with Jerry Leiber’s words, which express an emptiness that nothing in life can fill, along with a dogged drive to keep searching.
(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay (1969)
Otis Redding–Steve Cropper
Lee was so grounded in the blues that rock and soul were only steps away. On her album A Natural Woman, she pulled off what almost no singer of her day could: She covered, with complete credibility, songs by the likes of Sly & the Family Stone; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and Otis Redding. On this track, the horns blare and Sisters Love (three former Raelettes) wail, but nothing disturbs Lee’s brooding introspection.
Say It (1975)
Jerry Leiber–Mike Stoller
In this ballad from Mirrors, her then-reviled, now-celebrated 1975 album of Leiber and Stoller art songs, Lee is an aging Cinderella, begging a “bright and shining youth” to tell her he loves her—“for I love a lovely lie.” Johnny Mandel’s lush arrangement brings a fantasy ballroom to life.
Touch Me in the Morning (1977)
Michael Masser–Ron Miller
On her album Live in London, a frail and diminished Peggy Lee took on an AM-radio hit and gave it a depth its authors had probably never imagined. As sung by Lee, this is the plea of a spent older woman, too tired to fight but not to feel, on the last night she’ll ever spend in anyone’s bed.
Listen to the full playlist: