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"Is That All There Is" by PEGGY LEE
Written by hitmakers Lieber & Stoller, arranged and conducted by a young Randy Newman, "Is That All There Is" is the song of Peggy Lee's life.
Is that all there is to a fire?
“If you give this song to anyone else, it’s your life,” Peggy Lee told Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller. She was still rightfully billed as the Queen of American Popular Standards, but by 1969, those standards weren’t nearly as popular. She was 49 and a lot had changed in pop music since she last had a hit with “Fever” in 1958. The reason she desired this song so strongly, however, is not that she heard a comeback hit in what the songwriters had presented. This song, she was sure, was an account of her own life, from broken love affairs to the burning of a family home.
Lieber and Stoller had written a string of pop hits in the 1950s, starting with “Hound Dog,” which they didn’t write for Elvis Presley, to “Jailhouse Rock,” which they did. They also wrote “Yakety Yak,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and a few dozen other hits, enough to fill a long-running Broadway revue in the ‘90s, Smokey Joe’s Cafe. What Lee1 didn’t know is that Lieber and Stoller first offered this more grownup song to Marlene Dietrich, who also heard herself in the song but told them “It is me. Not what I do.” They then sent the song to Barbara Streisand’s manager, who it seems never passed it along to the ascendent star. They didn’t have particularly high hopes for this perhaps nihilistic song inspired by a Thomas Mann2 story, but the truth in Lee’s threat is that she would give them the performance of their lives. The one that made the record was almost as good.
“Is That All There Is” was recorded in June of 1969 and would be released that October on an album that bore its name. Prior to the recording session, Lieber and Stoller met with Lee in her Los Angeles home, where she played them a record she had been enjoying, Randy Newman’s eponymous first album. Call it fate or good luck, but Lieber had already tapped Newman to arrange the song for Lee. The young songwriter had shown a deft hand at balancing melancholy cynicism and resilient hope, necessary for a half-spoken song with nods toward German cabaret. Still, their shared good taste only bought them so much leeway with Lee, who had a well earned reputation for getting her own way.
At the onset of the session, she told Lieber and Stoller, who themselves were known to put artists through 50 takes in a session3, that she would do three takes and that they shouldn’t ask her to do any more. After seven or eight takes, she reminded them of what she said, that she would only do a couple more. Around take 15, she was noticeably feeling the track and starting to show off a bit with her vocal phrasings. Then there was take 36. In their 55 years in making records together, this is the one Stoller recalled as “the greatest performance we’ve ever had.”
They excitedly called Lee into the control booth for playback, only there was nothing to hear. The engineer hadn’t pressed the record button. Lieber and Stoller were apoplectic. Lee just said “okay” and went back into the studio for take 37, the one that would earn her a Grammy for Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Female.4
Lee’s vocal style was a deadly combination of tone and uncanny timing that bridged Tin Pan Alley to modern jazz. She was never a Girl Singer, as the Big Band ingenues were called. With respect to Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, Dinah Shore, and the like, Lee was more soulful. She deployed her sultry purr strategically — seductive, yes, but specifically to beckon you into the music. And while there were plenty of autocrats behind the microphone, few could lead a band the way she did, conducting with an outstretched pinky or the cock of an eyebrow. She was a platinum blonde icon of gold-standard America whose time was at its end. Even her label, Capitol Records, thought she was past it in 1969, only pressing 1,500 copies of the single5 in exchange for her agreeing to appear on The Joey Bishop Show. Lee’s voice, however, was one to cut through the din of late-’60s social and political upheaval, using a lesson she learned playing for raucous crowds in the ‘40s:
I knew I couldn't sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made, the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn't hear me, they began to look at me. Then, they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, 'softly with feeling'. The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience — softly, with feeling.6
Lee’s power was in how deeply she felt a song, deploying her vocal artistry to put audiences under that same spell. No matter that there’s enough in “Is That All There Is” that could be seen as biographical. Broken love affairs? Sure, she’d had some famous ones between short-lived marriages. And “Is that all there is to a fire?” Growing up, her home did burn down, twice. Here, she takes a song that could be just a bit of theater and — softly , with feeling — makes it as personal to the audience as it is to her.
I know what you must be saying to yourselves
If that's the way she feels about it why doesn't she just end it all?
Oh, no, not me, I'm not ready for that final disappointment
Because I know just as well as I'm standing here talking to you
That when that final moment comes and I'm
Breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself
Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is
Lee made an important alteration to Lieber’s lyrics during those 37 sessions, changing “I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment” to “I’m not ready.” For one, Lee’s line simply sounds better. Secondly, her timing was exquisite, and the shorter line is more taut within the rhythm. Still, Lieber didn’t like it; his line was meant as a joke, an indication of good-humored resolve to see life through no matter how disappointing. Lee’s line, which she of course purrs in a near whisper, goes harder, suggesting that one day she will be ready. It’s darker, but the weight of that self-determination is one of the reasons the song endures.
Peggy Lee was no nihilist. She wasn’t performing a philosophical argument; she believed that “Is That All There Is” was her life. Norma Deloris Egstrom From Jamestown, North Dakota, where those houses burned, willed herself into becoming Miss Peggy Lee. Through a life that was by many accounts marked by profound disappointments, she learned she could always both lose and find herself in music. She fiercely protected that space for herself; there are words given to women with that much fight in them, the most polite of which is “difficult.”
Her sincere performance of “Is That All There Is” isn’t at all morose – you can sense where she’s having a bit of fun with her phrasings. In that, she makes clear what’s lost in the common misconception nihilism7 as a philosophy of meaninglessness: Accepting that there’s no inherent meaning in all the stuff that makes up a cultural narrative is actually an affirmation of life. Music is a way of saying yes to the world. And if that's all there is, that’s enough. Let's keep dancing.
This live version is pretty great, with a little boogie-woogie piano taking over for the jaunty Paris café strumming of the original’s nylon-string guitar
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27 Song Playlist
This mix leans heavily on the Live At Basin Street East, New York, 1961 record because of its pure uncut Peggy Lee vibe; you feel her as a musician a bit more. Also, there’s a bit more attention to songs she wrote or co-wrote, like “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “He’s A Tramp,” “I Love Being Here With You,” and "I’m Gonna Go Fishin’.” (That song, which she co-wrote with Duke Ellington, rips.)
Are you folks enjoying Notes on Substack? I haven’t dipped a toe in. Please let me know if you dig it and what you like about it. I already feel like I have too many messages that go unanswered, but you know, I’m open to new stuff.
Thanks for reading. Seriously. I’ve got a birthday coming up, and I usually struggle with the idea of what I might want8. That there’s a lot of you who sign up to read what is really just me trying to figure out why a song happens to strike me and discovering stuff along the way… It feels like a real of a gift. Thanks again. Let’s keep dancing.
Lee and the songwriters weren’t new to each other; they already had a hit together with “I’m A Woman” in 1962, which became the title track to Lee’s album the next year. (The song also appears on Is That All There Is.) The compilation Peggy Lee Sings Lieber & Stoller, a remixed and expanded version of their 1975 record of art songs with Lee, Mirrors, was released in 2005, three years after her death.
“Disillusionment,” 1896. If anyone knows of a good edition, I’d appreciate the tip.
They said “We don’t write songs. We write records,” and turned to producing so that no one would muck up the recording. Their last hit as producers was “Stuck In The Middle with You” by Stealer’s Wheel. in 1972
The category existed only from 1970-1971, after which it became Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, which then became Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, after which it was discontinued.
It sold a lot more than that, going #11 on the Pop charts and topping Adult Contemporary.
from Miss Peggy Lee: An Autobiography
For example, this from “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” a top Google search result, is utter horseshit: “A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.” The thing is, when you make the point that the cultural narrative has no inherent meaning, those with a deep investment in that narrative will twist rhetoric in all sorts of ways, confusing “let’s think this though in its most terrible form” thought experiments for nefarious didacticism… Anyway, don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.
A good FYI for anyone who might mistake me for being at all cool.