The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography:
Observations About The Song "Is That All There Is?"
by Iván Santiago-Mercado
Generated on Feb 5, 2016
I. Scope And Authorship
This essay focuses on Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller's composition "Is That All There Is?," with particular emphasis on Peggy Lee's hit record. Versions performed earlier than Lee's receive coverage, too. The respective autobiographies of Lee, Leiber & Stoller were my primary sources of information, along with many of the interviews that each artist gave over the past three decades. (On a separate topic, and as a side note, I should point out a matter of authorship that was recently brought to my attention. Some of the information that I provide below has been appropriated by certain websites -- including one dedicated to songs -- without any credit given. The webmasters in question should either locate the exact sources on their own or, otherwise, provide a credit for this page.)
II. Thomas Mann's "Disillusionment"
The original inspiration for the song "Is That All There Is?" was a short story that Jerry Leiber read on the recommendation of Gaby Rodgers, his wife at the time (and a German by birth). Entitled Disillusionment
, it was written in 1896 by German author -- and 1929 Nobel Prize winner -- Thomas Mann. Leiber became fascinated with the story's insight into what he once described as "the existential hole that sits in the center of our souls."
In essence, Disillusionment
is a philosophical essay posing as short fiction. The narrator of the story is intrigued by the habits of a stranger who regularly strolls around the Piazza di San Marco, apparently a favorite haunt of the narrator's. Each day, the stranger walks up and down the plaza while muttering and smiling to himself. When the narrator and the stranger finally meet, the stranger embarks into a long meditation on human life, which he describes as nothing but a series of disappointments. Resorting to a series of autobiographical vignettes to illustrate his perspective, the malcontented stranger argues that our life's experiences never live up to our expectations.
III. Leiber's & Stoller's Creation Of "Is That All There Is?"
Jerry Leiber picked two biographical vignettes from "Disillusionment" and rewrote them into verse. One of the vignettes pertained to a domicilial fire. The other dealt with conjugal abandonment. A third vignette, conjuring up a visit to the circus, was created by Leiber himself. He set all three verses in parlando, thereby establishing an even closer connection between his inspiration and his recreation.
When Mike Stoller first heard the verses that his songwriting partner had penned, the composer felt that they "ached with the bittersweet irony of the German cabaret." Hence Stoller set them to music inspired by the works of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
IV. "Is That All There Is?" Travels To Great Britain And Meets Georgia Brown
At this point, Leiber and Stoller received a request to write a song for a TV special featuring Georgia Brown. Known at the time for her career-making appearances in Weill's The Threepenny Opera
and Bart's Oliver!
, the British actress-singer must have seemed an ideal match for the verses that Leiber had written. She had even recorded a Weill songbook, September Song: Music of Kurt Weill
, released on London Records in 1963. Subsequent albums had earned her a mixed reputation as an overly dramatic but committed belter of showtunes.
The initial meeting with Brown is the subject of various paragraphs in Leiber & Stoller's autobiography. Stoller also shared his memories of the meeting during an interview for the webzine Blue Railroad
. The following quote collates the more relevant points drawn from those two sources: "Then we got a call from Hilly Elkins, who was managing Georgia Brown ... [She] was finishing her Broadway run of Oliver!
and heading back to London for a TV special. She needed a song ... She came over with her ... manager, and an arranger, Peter Matz. And we played this for her, and she said, It’s great, it’s great. But it’s all talking, I need something to sing.
Jerry and I agreed. We happened to have a chorus lying around, a leftover section from another song that didn't work. It came complete with lyrics. We played it for Georgia and she loved it. She said, That’s it. I’m gonna do that on my television special in London on the BBC.
When Georgia left, we looked at each other and agreed that the chorus made no sense. It contained the lines They all wear coats with the very same lining and they pass bank notes on the 7th day
. Obviously, this had nothing to do with the idea in the vignettes. We both vowed to write a refrain – he the lyrics and me the music." After this meeting and subsequent conversation, the two songwriters then parted from one another, and each spent some time writing their respective parts for the chorus.
When they met again , the duo was taken aback at the realization that what they had written separately "fit perfectly together. In a long lifetime of collaborating," the craftsmen marveled in their autobiography, "this has never happened before or since." Like the vignettes, the freshly written chorus drew some of its inspiration from Mann's story. Most notably, the song's central, titular query ('is that all there is?') is also found in "Disillusionment." On the other hand, the chorus' lines about 'boozing,' dancing and 'having a ball' are concepts not found in the short story, but introduced by the songwriters.
Next, an arrangement was prepared by those directly involved in the production of the TV special. The arrangement did not prove to Leiber & Stoller's liking. For that reason, British arranger, conductor and composer Peter Knight "took it home and brought back the arrangement that we had described, in a way, to him, and it was magnificent ... We all flew to London, where the TV special was a great success."Georgia's Back
was the vocalist's second special in the BBC Show of the Week
series. It aired on May 13, 1967. Unfortunately, the performance does not seem to have been preserved. (In those days, the network's policies did not include the taping of live programs for later rebroadcast. If any reader is aware of the existence of a copy -- perhaps taped by a viewer -- I would appreciate receiving a message about it, at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
V. "Is That All There Is?" Visits The American Labels
After the debut of "Is That All There Is?" in British television, Leiber and Stoller (or otherwise their song publishing company) plugged the song to various record labels. WMCA disc jockey Dan Daniels recorded a version at Columbia's subsidiary Epic. Promotional copies of the yet-to-be-released single were promptly sent to radio stations. WMCA, in particular, aired it repeatedly in February and March of 1968. However, Daniels' record was never commercially issued, probably because Leiber & Stoller were not keen on having this particular version become the song's debut on record. Apparently, Epic and Daniels decided to respect Leiber & Stoller's wishes.
Meanwhile, at Atlantic, the songwriters were scheduled to produce an album for Leslie Uggams. Now becoming increasingly concerned that "Is That All There Is?" had yet to appear on record, they took the opportunity afforded by this project to include the song among those that Uggams recorded in the summer of 1968. Released in August 1968 and featuring arrangements by Pat Williams, What's An Uggams
ended up including three of Leiber & Stoller's compositions. The album's version of "Is That All There Is?" remained an album cut (i.e., not picked for singles or airplay) and went unnoticed.
Leiber & Stoller also made plans to include the song in a musical that was to be based on Jeff Weiss' Obie-winning play International Wrestling Match
. But the producers (not Leiber & Stoller) eventually backed out of the project, and the musical was never produced.
VI. From Marlene Dietrich To Barbra Streisand: "Is That All There Is?" Searches For A Diva
"We wanted a record of the song interpreted by someone who understood this genre," asserted Leiber & Stoller in their autobiography. The genre in their minds was German cabaret, as popularized by Kurt Weill & Bertold Brecht. Not surprisingly, Lotte Lenya was the first vocalist considered. They also thought of Claire Waldorf, an actress with the Berliner Ensemble. Nevertheless, Leiber & Stoller promptly came to the realization that commercial American record companies were unlikely to embrace either choice. Hence the notion of approaching Lenya or Waldorf was summarily dismissed.
Having the song's inspiration in a German background still running through their thoughts, Leiber & Stoller settled on Marlene Dietrich, a celebrity whose potential to catch the interest of record companies was greater than Lenya's and Waldorf's. Hence they proceeded to send a demo of the song to the singing actress. At the informal meeting that followed, Dietrich politely declined. While obliquely giving high praise to the song, she deemed it unsuitable for her act: "that song ... is who I am, not what I do."
Afterwards, less bent on finding a German candidate to sing the song, Stoller proposed offering the number to Barbra Streisand. "She is an actress," he reasoned with Leiber, "let's send it to her." Although the song was indeed sent to Streisand's manager, no reply was ever forthcoming. The songwriters surmise that Streisand's manager did not deem the number remarkable enough to merit its mention to the singer. "When Streisand finally heard the song years later, she wanted to know why it had not been offered to her," Leiber & Stoller were eventually told.
VII. "Is That All There Is?" Makes Peggy Lee's Acquaintance
Finally, Leiber thought of Lee. "How about Peggy Lee?," he suggested to Stoller, "this song has Peggy written all over it." Or so is the version of events presented in Leiber & Stoller's autobiography. Elsewhere, including Peter Stoller's excellent notes for the CD Peggy Lee Sings Leiber & Stoller
, Leiber is quoted as having said, "the best singer out there is Peggy Lee ... but she doesn't sing these sort of pseudo-German translations; that's not her bag. But, let's send it to her anyway; she might dig it."
The pair of New Yorkers were in luck. They didn't even have to seal, send and deliver a tape to Lee's headquarters in Los Angeles. It so happened that the singer was in town at the time, performing at the Copacabana club. The songwriting team attended one of her concerts, and tried to reach her at her post-performance party. They succeeded, giving her a demo right then and there. According to Leiber, a week later they received a most threatening call from the Scandinavian-American lady: "I will kill you if you give this song to anyone but me. This is my song. This is the story of my life."
Peggy Lee's own version of the song is essentially the same one, except for a few details. The artist corroborated that she received the song at the post-performance party and that, to her, it read like the story of her life. However, Lee remembered that the number which Leiber & Stoller really wanted her to sing was not "Is That All There Is?" but "Some Cats Know." (I am inclined to trust her recollection on this matter. "Some Cats Know" is indeed a song that has Peggy all written over it
, far more so than "Is That All There Is?". Presumably, the tape that the songwriters handed to Lee included both numbers -- and perhaps other compositions of theirs, too. I imagine that the two gentlemen were expecting no better than a lukewarm reaction to "Is That All There Is?," if any at all; the lady's ultra-enthusiastic phone call must have been a very pleasant surprise for them. Six years later, she would also record "Some Cats Know" as part of her album Mirrors
, which Leiber & Stoller produced.)
And that was how, after a period spent shopping the song around, and after a couple of very early versions (1968) without any signficant impact, "Is That All There Is?" was brought to Peggy Lee's attention by the songwriters themselves.
VIII. The Peggy Lee Recording Session
Lee, Leiber & Stoller came to an agreement: she would record "Is That All There Is?" and they would produce it. The two men flew to Los Angeles, where Lee was at the time (after having finished her New York concert engagement), and arrangements were made for a recording date. The payroll reports at the American Federation of Musicians show that Leiber, Stoller, and Lee held a two
-song session at United Recording Studio on January 24, 1969. Given the number of songs recorded, the trio's ultimate goal must have been the release of "Is That All There Is?" on a 45-rpm single. The standard "Me And My Shadow" was the other song attempted on the date.
As dramatically told by Leiber in Hound Dog: The Leiber And Stoller Autobiography
, "[w]e had a reputation as demanding producers, so Peggy set the rules from the start. I'll do three takes
, she said, and no more
... The initial takes weren't great. She had to ease her way into the mood and find that sweet spot. At take 10, she still didn't have it. But being a trouper, Peggy kept going. At take 15, I suspect that she took a belt because her takes were improving. Take 30 was good, but take 36 was pure magic. I looked at Mike and Mike looked at me and we could do nothing but jump up and down with joy. This was one of the greatest performances ever. Peggy had done it. We had done it. The enormous potential of this little song had been realized." (In various interviews, Leiber has similarly rated this performance as one of the two greatest takes that he ever produced in his career, the other one being Big Mama Thornton's performance of "Hound Dog.")
Continues Leiber: "Let's hear it back, I told the engineer. We waited. Silence. We waited a little longer. More silence. What's wrong?
, asked Peggy. I'm dying to hear the last take
. Then came the words that cut through me like a knife. I forgot to hit the record button
, said the engineer. What do you mean you forgot to hit the record button?
, I screamed at the top of my lungs. This has to be a f*ckin' prank! No one forgets to hit the record button. This was the greatest take in the history of takes! Stop joking! Let's hear it! Play the goddamn thing!
"But there was nothing to play. Nothing to do. Nothing had been recorded. Killing this kid would have been too kind. Yet Peggy, bless her heart, was stoic. Guess I'll have to sing it again
, she said bravely. And she did. Take 37 was nothing short of marvelous. That's the take the world knows today. She is melancholy, she's sultry, she's fatalistic, she is in tune, and she delivers the song with a wondrous sense of mystery. It is good -- it is, in fact, very, very good -- but it is not, nor will ever be, take 36."
The 37th take was thus used as the master, with various splices from the other takes -- splices of the spoken parts, in particular. The mastering and mixing process was performed by Leiber & Stoller with the involvement of a second engineer (Bill Halverson). Lee is not known to have been present during that process, which was completed over subsequent dates at a different studio (Wally Heider).
For further details about the recording date, see session dated January 24 & 29, 1969 in this page
of the Peggy Lee sessionography.
IX. Too Much, Too Little, But Never Too Late: Peggy Lee Versus Capitol Records
Peggy Lee tells in her autobiography that "[w]hen I came to record Is That All There Is?
there was resistance everywhere. They said it was too far out, they said it was too long, they said and they said ... So I went to [then-retired president of Capitol Records] Glenn Wallichs with a demo record (something I hadn't done before), and Glenn seemed embarrassed. Peggy, you don't have to play a demo, you helped build this Capitol Tower. You just record anything you want.
Thrilled to hear such words of encouragement from one of the company's co-founders, Lee continued to work on the project with Leiber and Stoller.
In their own autobiography, the songwriters-producers muse that "for some reason [Capitol] didn't like it. At this point of her career Peggy wasn't selling records, and this one -- this existential treatise -- was hardly what the company wanted to hear." The men's assertion that Lee was not selling records is an overstatement. While her record sales were nowhere near those of Capitol's most popular rock, folk, and neo-country acts of the day, neither were they at a nadir. (Another overstatement on the producers' part is their claim that Is That All There Is?
was the biggest hit of Lee's entire career. Independently of how the superlative 'biggest' is defined, that honor still would have to be bestowed on one of her various earlier million sellers and/or big top 10 hits.)
Though recorded during the first month of 1969, Lee's master record of "Is That All There Is?" was not issued until late 1969. Believing that it had no commercial potential, Capitol's brass still resisted issuing it as a single. In due time, the brass would be proven of wrong, of course.
Mike Stoller has explained in fine detail the turn of events that followed: "The company wanted to promote some of its new acts and hoped to get them on Joey Bishop's late-night TV show. Joey wasn't that interested in those artists, but agreed to host them if he could also get Peggy. Always cagey, Peggy saw her chance. I'll go on the Bishop show
, she said, if you release 'Is That All There Is?' because that's the song I'm singing on the show
. Capitol capitulated. They pressed up some 1,500 copies of the 45 and Peggy gave a brilliant performance on national television. The minute she took her bow and Joey kissed her cheek, the phones start ringing and ringing some more. The first pressing sold out within hours. Within days the song was being requested from coast to coast."
Indeed, the record proved to be not only a solid mainstream hit but also a somewhat controversial topic of watercooler conversation, due to its tantalizing lyrics. And that was not all there was. A year after its recording date, the number would earn Lee her first Grammy for Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance
(after having previously received 8 Grammy nominations, with more to come). In the ensuing decades, "Is That All There Is?" would become perennially associated with Lee and, naturally, with Leiber & Stoller.
X. Cat And Dogs: Leiber & Stoller Versus Peggy Lee, Part 1
The working relationship between Peggy Lee, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (Lee and Leiber in particular) was sometimes akin to that of cats and dogs. Strong wills and divergent backgrounds seem to have been at play. The male producers and songwriters have asserted that the female vocalist had a "mercurial temperament." According to Stoller, "Peggy was a woman given to extreme moods. There were times when she treated us with great respect and expressed even greater gratitude. Other times we'd go to the studio to discover that we were in the doghouse ... No explanations were given." On the flip side, Leiber's personality could be abrasive at times -- a circumstance that has been acknowledged by the songwriters themselves, and also by other acts who have worked with them. "Mike Stoller was an easy-going guy whereas Jerry Leiber was much more the pushy Building type," reminisced Gary Brooker, co-leader of the British rock group Procol Harum, who worked with the pair in 1975. "They had a lot of very strange habits and were very set in their ways .... They wanted us to do all these songs they'd had rejected by Peggy Lee! We'd say, can we do 'Baby I Don't Care?'
They'd go, did we write that? No, let's do this one we wrote for Peggy.
Mind you, they did produce Pandora's Box
which got us in the charts."
Lee's own perspective of their professional relationship is not on record, unfortunately. It is clear, however, that she was not fond of having others try to tell her what to do -- particularly when it came to her craft. (For one instance, consult my notes under the session dated November 14, 1962 in this page
-- specifically, the portion entitled Recording Session
.) Later in her career, Lee would actually make occasional, passing comments about the difficulties of being an assertive woman in a male-dominated industry. Male egos can be easily bruised, she mused.
XI. Waiting For Disappointment: Jerry Leiber Versus Peggy Lee, Part 2
In his autobiography (and elsewhere), Jerry Leiber presented himself as a great fan and admirer of Peggy Lee. His deep admiration for singers such as Lee and Sinatra was clearly genuine, and life-lasting. Not surprisingly, the ever-lively lyricist considered Lee's version of "Is That All There Is?" definitive, and enthusiastically told so to the press on numerous occasions. He also referred to Lee as one of his favorite all-time singers. When it came to the vocalist's interpretation of his lyrics, however, Leiber did have bones of contention here and there. Most notably (and understandably), Lee's change of one particular line of Is That All There Is?
displeased him. While singing what would become the master take, "she had actually blown the last line, which indicated to me that, on the deepest level, she really didn't understand the song. The lyric reads, I'm in no hurry for that final disappointment
. But Peggy said, I'm not ready for that final disappointment
. Back in the studio, I didn't have the heart to tell her that, especially after the lost take. But the key to the song is in the concept of redemption. And that final line -- I'm in no hurry
-- is, in fact, a joke. I mean, who is in a hurry for the final disappointment? Not being ready
connoted a far more somber attitude and misses the irony. But whatever you might say about Peggy, she was a smart dame and a brilliant singer and, for all the travails, the song got over and gave her new life." Leiber certainly had a point, although I see no valid reason for his induction that Lee had no understanding of the song's message. (To validate his point, we would need to find out, among other matters, whether she also changed the lyric in any of the 35 preceding takes. Since Leiber himself consider take #35 perfect, it would be reasonable to assume that she sang the line as written in that take.)
It is also worth pointing out that Lee found her own way of generating amusement out of the line in question. When performing the song live, she would make a pause between the word "final" and the word "disappointment." Laughter from the audience would invariably ensue.
On record, however, Peggy Lee's interpretation is indeed thoroughly serious -- and arguably devoid of irony, too. Given the playfulness and the sense of humor that comes through in many of Lee's other interpretations, a solemn approach to "Is That All There Is?" was not to be expected by default. One logical explanation for her solemnity is that, according to what she herself shared with the songwriters (right after she listened to their demo), Lee felt that the song told "the story of her life." Hence, for the definitive version of a song which she saw as her life story, the singer might have chosen to keep a sober and heartfelt mood. The very modification of the aforementioned phrase (from I'm in no hurry
to I'm not ready
) could perhaps be explained as a conscious (or unconscious) desire to tailor the song to her own mood at the time. The possibility of approaching death, in particular, could have felt as no joke to her.
In any case (and while I myself prefer Leiber's original wording), Lee's choice strikes me as more in keeping with the persona that her singing tends to project in non-upbeat numbers. Aside from those tunes in which she is playing a character (e.g., "Mañana," "Who Gonna Pay The Check," etc.), her persona comes off as that of a 'grown-up' ... an adult. From that perspective, the phrasing I'm not ready
sounds more in keeping with her persona than the casual and somewhat jovial demeanor underlying I'm in no hurry
XII. Is There More?: Peggy Lee Versus Jerry Leiber, Part 3
Whereas Leiber expressed discontent about Lee's approach to a key line of Is That All There Is?
, Lee voiced misgivings about the somewhat existentialist, somewhat cynical interpretative stance that the songwriters had wanted her to adopt. "My attitude is that there is more," Lee told the press, a few years after the number had become a hit. From her perspective, the song was a commentary on "the experience you go through in life that's necessary for growth." The character that she depicts in song might feel momentarily disillusioned, might wonder if that's all there is
, and might spend part of her time mindlessly "boozing and balling around," but what ultimately matters is that her spirit will not permanently shut down. After each disappointing experience, she will still keep on "dancing." By choosing to remain (inter)active instead of isolating herself into a state of inertia, the character is allowing for the possibility of having more experiences of significance in her life, no matter if they too turn out to fall below expectations. Even when her presumed final moment comes, she will still be asking and wondering about the possibility that there could be more.
The singer tried to communicate this positive approach to the song by emphasizing certain words in the chorus -- words that she felt conveyed glimmers of hope, of wanting more. Lee's approach found shelter in the fact that the song's character is not categorically stating that "that's all there is," but asking and wondering about it. Choosing not
to interpret the titular question as a rhetorical or cynical one, she felt that the mere act of posing such a query evinced an underlying expectation, on the character's part, that there would be "more." Lee also seemed to think that, as long as the desire for "more" remained, so did the possibility for growth or transcendence.
Of course, Lee's perspective ran counter to the implications that the song conveyed on the surface, and to the philosophical tradition that inspired it.
At the heart of Lee's rethinking of the song is the spiritual philosophy to which she remained most close through her life. For a 1987 article published on the Science Of The Mind
magazine, Lee's friend Elaine St. Johns interviewed her on matters pertaining to their shared philosophy of life and to the man of whom both were disciples, Ernest Holmes. Toward the end of the article and interview, the song Is That All There Is
came up for discussion. Wrote St. Johns: "[Peggy] has consistently refused to sing a lyric devoid of hope because I can’t sing what I don’t believe
. When she considered recording the haunting lament Is That All There Is?
by Leiber and Stoller, she knew it was based on Thomas Mann’s essay Disillusionment
, but it didn’t say that to Peggy. To me
, she explain[ed], it was just the opposite. It said we go through one experience after another, some of them negative, into a positive, as we learn, grow stronger, can go on to new experiences because there is always more. But I waited a whole year before introducing the song until I felt sure I could get this interpretation across. Finally ... I was satisfied my listeners would understand the hopeful affirmation – There is more!
From their response, 95% of them did, some even writing to her to say it had turned their lives around. It not only became a classic but was the subject for editorials and sermons, including one in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on an Easter Sunday."
Members of Lee's audiences and some spiritually oriented individuals might have very well gathered an affirmative message from the singer's interpretation, just as the article claims, but audiences at large and casual listeners were (are) a different matter. Press commentary from around 1970 alluded to listeners' complaints about the recording's allegedly nihilistic attitude. There were even tabloid allegations of suicides inspired by it. Over the years, the artist counter-reacted to the accusation of negativism by lightening the song's mood and message. At concerts from the mid-1970s onwards, sometimes she would even add mocking lines to the song. (The mocking lines were delivered in the theatrical tradition of asides, addressed at the audience.) Such asides proved very divisive among audience members. Upon hearing them, some patrons would laugh hard and heartily, while others would wait until after the show to express their disapproval to Lee, in conversations with her: they yearned to hear the number in the stoic manner in which she had originally sung it.
Tellingly, Peggy Lee's 1983 autobiographical Broadway show included a self-penned number whose lyrics reinforce Lee's above-explained outlook on afterlife. The very title of this number comes off as Lee's answer to Leiber & Stoller "Is That All There Is?" and to Mann's "Disillusionment." The title? "There is More."
XIII. Reception Of "Is That All There Is?"
As already explained in some of the paragraphs found above, "Is That All There Is?" proved a resounding success immediately upon its release, thereby corroborating Peggy Lee's instincts about the song's appeal. For details about its chart and award successes, consult the notes under the session dated January 24 & 29, 1969 in this page
of the Peggy Lee sessionography.