Having witnessed Madonna in full-throttle-self-centered-diva-mode multiple times over the years, I didn’t dispute the veracity of the recent news that the pop superstar was reprimanded for repeatedly texting during a New York Film Festival screening of 12 Years a Slave. (According to eyewitnesses, after being politely asked to stop texting, Madonna spun around and hissed “it’s business…enslaver!“) Call me a cynic, but this quote sounds much more like the real Madonna than when she sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Enslavers aside, no anecdote from my personal celebrity sheath of shame so completely pierces Madonna’s sanctimonious, bedazzled cloak of narcissism—I mean spirituality—as clearly as the night I witnessed the meeting of the “Material Girl,” k.d. lang, and the late, great Peggy Lee.
It was the summer of 1992 and I was working for Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin, who was hosting an intimate after-party celebrating lang’s sold-out Radio City Music Hall show in a midtown atrium that connected two east west streets somewhere in the mid-West 50s. I was the only person who bore witness to Madonna’s scalding breach of sensitivity because I was standing right next to her—and I assure you she didn’t say “namaste.” Nowadays that long-ago moment would have been memorialized on a iPhone camera and disseminated on the Internet within minutes—a totally digital TMZ moment during the analog-Liz Smith era. After the jump, the back story of how these women were musically connected and how they happened to physically intersect at the exact moment that I was standing there.
When the U.K. paper The Guardian asked lang about her early-90s friendship with Madonna a few years back, she answered, “we had the same publicist [Liz Rosenberg] and it helped Madonna and it helped me…I don’t think Madonna ever really liked me, to be honest. We’re very different people.”
The Seymour Stein Connection: In the 1990s lang and Madonna were label-mates on Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group, then owned by Time Warner, Inc; hence the Jerry Levin-hosted soiree (the fact that Time Warner had just launched a joint venture company with Madonna called Maverick was an additional reason why Levin and Madonna would be in the same room). Seymour Stein was one of the great old-school record men. He was (and is, still) brilliant: you can name any song and he will tell you who recorded it, what year, its chart position, and even what color the label was. It was because of great A&R people like Stein who had a golden ear for talent and songs, that great artists were discovered, nurtured, and important songs from earlier eras were passed down to younger artists. This important exchange of information—an intellectual transaction, of sorts—is all but gone in the post-record label digital world of the 21st century where we are all, recording artist and consumer alike, essentially on our own, without the guidance of great musical minds like Mr. Stein.
I had run into Seymour in the mid-summer of 1992 in the lobby of 75 Rockefeller Plaza where we both worked. His nickname for me was Rhonda Fleming, after the flame-haired 1950s starlet, because of my long red hair. When I asked what was up with Madonna’s new album, he excitedly informed me, “I got her listening to Peggy Lee. She is going to cover ‘Fever’ or ‘Why Don’t You Do Right.’ Stein understood how cool Peggy Lee was and I could see what a thrill he got from this music publishing equivalent of a home run. I remember our conversation specifically because although I knew “Fever” quite well, I had never up to that point heard “Why Don’t You Do Right,” written in 1936 by Joseph “Kansas Joe” McCoy, which I subsequently sought out and fell in love with. This was the magic of the old media structure: in a sense, both Madonna and I—and subsequently the whole world—learned and grew because of Seymour Stein’s knowledge and passion for pop music history.
The k.d. lang Breakthrough: In March, 1992 Sire Records released k.d. lang’s Ingenue, a watershed album which transformed the androgynous, alt-country crooner with the golden voice into a huge mainstream pop star. Ingenue even spawned a top-1o pop hit with the loping ear worm Constant Craving. There’s no question that 1992 was k.d.’s biggest year. In retrospect, it was also my biggest year—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
A 1997 clip of lang singing “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” a song associated with Peggy Lee, conveys what made k.d. such a tremendously exciting artist at the time and communicates not only her incredible vocal ability—a stunning mash-up of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, and Judy Garland—but also her unusual charisma and sex appeal. This last point was not a small thing as lang was an out lesbian years before it was the done thing—such was the power of her talent and considerable charm that she transcended obstacles like homophobia and musical genre limitations with the same ease and thrilling attack of a sustained money note. “Don’t Smoke in Bed” was included on her 1997 album Drag, an album whose concept actually stemmed from lang’s attraction to the Peggy Lee decades-old recording of the song. As she said at the time, “it was a song I’ve been intrigued with for twenty years.”
In late August of that year, Lang performed two sold out shows at Radio City Hall. In his glowing New York Times review, Jon Pareles described the young singer as a throwback to Patsy Cline and Peggy Lee and placed her squarely on a continuum of the great torch singers. I was at the show one of those nights with Seymour Stein, the president of Sire Records and Jerry Levin, the Chairman of Time Warner, and I will never forget the power of lang’s voice as she filled the huge room with sound. It was nothing short of thrilling.
The Peggy Lee Piece: Miss Peggy Lee got her break singing with Benny Goodman in the 1940s and parlayed that success into one of the great recording careers of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Remembered today for her success as a recording artist and as a headliner during the golden age of nightclubs, what is less well known is that in addition to being one of the great interpreters of songs, Peggy Lee was also an accomplished songwriter, having written songs for Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp as well memorable collaborations with legends like Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. By any estimation, she was one of the most influential singers of the 20th-century, appreciated for her elegant, laid back touch. In a sharp contrast to what constitutes pop singing today, Peggy Lee never, ever oversang. Here she is performing “Fever,” one of her signature songs, on a mid-1960s TV show. She is accompanied by Max Bennet on bass and Jack Sperling on drums.
k.d. lang wasn’t the only one who was performing in New York City that August, because Peggy Lee herself was opening Club 53, the new supper club at the Hilton Hotel on 6th Avenue. I believe she was the first artist to perform at that venue, a throwback to the rooms she had ruled in the 1950s and 1960s. At that point Lee was struggling with multiple health problems and confined to a wheelchair, but that didn’t still her mighty spirit. Though she’d had a stroke which had affected her speech, she was still “Miss Peggy Lee”—charismatic, funny and, from time to time throughout the set, able to summon the spirit of her earlier days. I remember one aspect of this illusory power specifically: at the end of each song as the lights dimmed and Lee held a final pose, there would be a single moment in the transition from light to dark where you felt like you were seeing Peggy Lee in her youth through the haze, like a light through fog. It was positively captivating and I will never forget the eerie, magical feeling of time travel that fell over the room.
She’s No Lady, Madonna: The night I went to Miss Lee’s show at the Hilton, Madonna blew in with Seymour Stein and an entourage, giving the otherwise retro experience a big dollop of Page Six cred (remember, this was 1992 and Madonna’s fame was at her peak). It was fun to watch Madonna watching Lee sing “Fever,” knowing that the younger singer was about to refocus worldwide attention on the 1956 song by Otis Blackwell and Eddie Cooley, which Lee first recorded in 1958 and, over time, became closely associated with her (it is a little known fact that Lee rewrote the lyrics to the song. It is my understanding that the verses that begin”Romeo Loves Juliet” and “Captain Smith and Pocohontas” are Lee contributions, as is the finger snap rhythmic approach). Indeed when Erotica was released a few months later, Madonna’s cover of “Fever,” produced with Shep Pettibone, became her fifteenth number one dance record.
A Less-Than-Harmonic Convergence: The paths of the three great singers, all at different phases of their careers, seemed to in some way dance around each other throughout 1992 and, strangely, I always seemed to be present when they did . All of the energy of this female vocalist triumverate, which had seemed to be building to some sort of critical mass (at least from my diva-friendly perspective), finally converged a few weeks after Peggy’s engagement at the Hilton ended. On Wednesday, August 25th, k.d. performed her first of the aforementioned two sold-out shows at Radio City. She was sublime.
As I mentioned at the top of the piece, Sire Records threw an afterparty honoring k.d., no doubt pulled together by publicist Liz Rosenberg. Because the event was held in an unusually narrow atrium with too many tables, too many people and Madonna, the biggest pop star in the world at that moment, I remember the energy in the space being very strange. Mingling was out of the question, with all of the stars coralled at the far end of the room, like penned in animals. Because I worked for the Chairman, the layout of the oversubscribed event in no way prevented me from standing at “diva ground zero”—right next to Madonna, k.d. and my boss, the Chairman of Time Warner, Gerald Levin. The fact that I had little to add to the dialogue was of no consequence to me. When I was young, I was bold and entitled.
It was from this vantage point that I listened to their conversation. k.d. seemed much more comfortable in her skin than Madonna did— no surprise there—and had a much easier rapport with Gerald Levin, the ultimate “suit.” Madonna simply did not know what to do or how to act if she wasn’t the absolute center of attention and this was certainly k.d.lang’s night.
Suddenly there was a commotion at the opposite end of the atrium. I looked up and beheld what looked, at first, like a billowing, shimmering cloud, but upon closer inspection, turned out to be Peggy Lee, slowly being rolled into the room in her wheelchair. Even though she had been battling health issues, she was still every inch the great star: cloaked in a voluminous satin dress with fur trim and matching satin shoes; her white blunt cut wig shimmering in the light; her make-up just perfect; and, most perplexingly, a small bejewled crown perched atop her wig. I will never forget my ex-boyfriend’s sarcastic, cold reaction to Peggy’s visage, suggesting that she looked like an inflatable version of Janice from the Muppets and, even worse, that the unusual crown upon her head was actually a device that enabled Miss Lee to receive messages from outer space.
Turns out this was only the second and third most insensitive comments uttered in the five full minutes it took the star to negotiate the obstacle course of a room, for the most insensitive and disrespectful comment was just around the bend. One had to stop and admire this woman, who despite having had a stroke and a myriad of other health problems, had not given up. She was still performing and, though diminished, still very much alive. She was certainly someone worthy of respect and reverance, especially from a younger singer like Madonna. This was, unfortunately, not the case.
Miss Lee’s wheelchair operator tried his best to negotiate the tiny spaces between the tables in the decidely not-handicapped-friendly party space. She slowly made her way toward the back end of the room where we were. It was painful to watch, this terrific legend bumping in to chair legs and roadblocks the whole way in her attempt to get to k.d. and Madonna. The whole time she smiled proudly; she handled what what could easily have been considered an ignominous entrance with tremendous class. A few moments after I noticed Peggy Lee’s appearance, Madonna and k.d. noticed the commotion and looked up at the clumsy caravan approaching in fits and starts at one mile an hour, like a bumper car. So what did Madonna do? Did she move toward Peggy Lee to split the distance? Did she try and move tables aside to create space. Did she ask a hovering minion to help make way for one of the 20th-century’s greatest recording artists? Did she even make a welcoming gesture? No Stargayzers, Madonna did none of these things. What Madonna did do was size up the logistical challenge of the moment, turn to k.d. lang and hiss “Oh shit, where the fuck is she gonna go?”
Moments later, when Miss Lee finally rolled up at the feet of Madonna, the younger singer proved to be a far better actress than she had ever demonstrated on film, as she gushed over Miss Lee. I remember feeling grateful that Peggy Lee would never have to know that Madonna’s true level of respect could fill a thimble.
More Madonna in Stargayzing:
More kd lang:
More Peggy Lee:
Stargayzing Interviews James Gavin about His Book: Is That All There Is? The Strange Life of Peggy Lee
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*Alvaro is a world-renowned artist celebrated for his portraits and illustrations of the icons of film, music, and pop culture, as well as his “girls”—the super models. A true New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised in the South Bronx, Alvaro’s work is distinctive for projecting a contemporary streetwise sensibility while simultaneously evoking the timeless glamour of classic Hollywood.