29 January, 1969
Randy Newman beamed. The session was going well. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller seemed equally delighted. At last, Is That All There Is?, their bastard child of a song raised on thoughts of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, was actually taking shape before their eyes and ears. Great news for Jerry and Mike, whose earlier efforts to provide their creation with some degree of immortality had failed to live up to expectations.
But now Peggy Lee, ever-eloquent and able to fashion almost any material into something uniquely her own, was there outfront at Hollywood’s Western Recorders Studio, moulding the song into a sultry sensation destined to be hers forever.
Is That All There Is?, originally inspired by Disillusionment, an 1896 short story by German author Thomas Mann, had announced its arrival through the voice of British singer Georgia Brown, who first delivered the series of vignettes that comprised Leiber & Stoller’s song on BBC TV’s Show Of The Week in May 1967. Marlene Dietrich heard it but turned it down, while Barbra Streisand’s management thought the song hardly worth passing on for consideration by the star they represented.
“This is my song. This is the story of my life.”
The gifted Leslie Uggams did record the song but to little effect and, eventually, Leiber & Stoller sent a demo to Peggy Lee who immediately recognised that the duo had created nothing less than a mini-masterpiece. “I will kill you if you give this song to anyone but me,” she threatened. “This is my song. This is the story of my life.” Peggy Lee recalled in her autobiography that her obsession to record the song for Capitol Records met with resistance everywhere, many rating it “weird”. “They said it was too far out, they said it was too long, they said and they said…”
Eventually, she took the demo to Glenn Wallichs who, along with songwriters Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva, had founded Capitol Records in 1942. She recalled that Wallichs was embarrassed by her action, saying, “Peggy, you don’t have to play a demo, you helped to build Capitol Tower. You just record anything you want.”
Arranger Johnny Mandel had played Lee one of Randy Newman’s early albums and she’d been impressed. When the time came to record Is That All There Is?, she remembered Newman. “I asked him to write the arrangement. It turned out to be perfect for his style,” she recalled.
A consummate actress who had received an Oscar nomination for her role as an alcoholic jazz singer in the film Pete Kelly’s Blues, Lee felt that Is That All There Is?, in which the verses were spoken and only the refrain sung, provided an opportunity to use her thespian ability. That she was intent on creating something out of the ordinary there is little doubt. Jerry Leiber revealed in the Leiber & Stoller autobiography Hound Dog that Peggy originally stipulated she would record just three takes and no more. But when the first takes didn’t happen the way she anticipated, her desire for perfection set in and she settled down for the long haul.
One Of The Greatest Performances Ever...
Said Leiber: “Being a trouper, Peggy kept going. At take 15, I suspect she took a belt because her takes were improving. Take 30 was good but take 36 was pure magic – one of the greatest performances ever. Peggy had done it, we had done it. The enormous potential of this little song had been realised.”
But there was one problem. The engineer, unbelievably, had failed to press the ‘record’ button. Peggy, stoic to the very end, offered to record the song one more time. The 37th take is the one that, with a little judicious splicing from other takes, provided the finished master. But, for many years after, Jerry Leiber raved about that lost “greatest take in the history of takes”.
Meanwhile, Capitol were having doubts about releasing Is That All There Is? as a single. However, at the time the label was hoping to promote some of their newer acts on The Joey Bishop Show on American TV. Would Peggy appear on the show as one of Capitol’s name acts?
“Yes, if you release my record,” she stipulated. The deal done, Is That All There Is? arrived in the shops and clambered to Number 11 in the US charts, providing the girl born Norma Egstrom with her first Top 20 hit since Fever in 1958. And when the Grammy Awards came around, Peggy duly picked up the plaudit from Glen Campbell and Della Reese for Best Contemporary Female Vocal Performance. So much for weirdness.