(Pictured: Peggy Lee. That’s showbiz glamour right there.)
The other day Peggy Lee’s “Fever” came up on shuffle while I was avoiding work I should have been doing, and as I listened to it, I thought to myself, “Hot damn, this is one fabulous record.” That’s something I have believed for years, but on that day, the imperative of avoiding work led me down a Peggy Lee rabbit hole.
Little Willie John recorded “Fever” in 1956. A number of singers recorded it thereafter, so it was a reasonably well-known song by 1957. One night, Lee’s bass player, Max Bennett, was playing in a club when a member of the audience requested it—and ended up teaching them the two chords the band needed to play it. Bennett liked it well enough, but he didn’t know the Little Willie John version, and the only recording he could find was by pop crooner Ray Peterson. Neither he nor Lee cared much for that version, but she thought that it could be reshaped into a torch song for her nightclub act. Bennett said it was Lee’s idea to strip it down to bass and drums.
Lee opened at the Copacabana in February 1958, a major engagement after four or five years away from the New York nightclub scene, and “Fever” was part of her act. She had no plans to record it, but audience response indicated that she was on to something. She sang it on TV in April, and when a disc jockey in Canada played the TV recording on his show, people loved it. When Lee went to Los Angeles for a recording session in May, “Fever” was one of the tracks laid down. It became a hit, reaching #8 in Billboard and #6 in Cash Box late in August of 1958. It even made Billboard‘s R&B charts. The song also got two Grammy nominations for the inaugural awards, including Record of the Year.
It would be 11 years before Lee returned to the charts in a major way, with a performance even more unusual than “Fever.”
In 1968, Jerry Leiber, inspired by a German short story, wrote a set of lyrics titled “Is That All There Is?” He and Mike Stoller worked them into a song for a British TV special. Its first version on wax was by Leslie Uggams, but Lieber and Stoller were shooting higher. “We wanted a record of the song interpreted by someone who understood this genre,” they wrote. At one point, they thought the song’s German roots might make it a good fit for Marlene Dietrich, but she declined. They sent it to Barbra Streisand’s manager, but he didn’t even bother to forward it to Barbra (who would eventually want to know why it hadn’t been offered to her). Finally, they thought, “How about Peggy Lee?”
Leiber and Stoller gave Lee a demo after she performed at the Copa one night in 1968; she would later say that the song read like the story of her life. She cut it in January 1969. Leiber said a single take of the song, take 36, was one of the two greatest performances he’d ever heard in a studio—but the engineer had failed to start the tape. (Take 37 became the master, although bits were spliced in from earlier takes.)
Capitol Records didn’t want to release “Is That All There Is?” as a single, thinking it was very much out-of-style for 1969. But the label had several artists it wanted to place on The Joey Bishop Show (a late-night competitor with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin). Bishop agreed to take them on if he could get Peggy Lee too; she agreed to go if Capitol would release “Is That All There Is?” Thanks to exposure on the Bishop show, the song became a hit, charting in September and rising to #11 on the Hot 100 50 years ago this week. (In the Top 10 that week: “Suspicious Minds,” “Come Together,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Sugar Sugar,” “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” “And When I Die,” and “Something.”)
Hitting when it did makes “Is That All There Is?” an oddly appropriate epitaph for the 1960s. Lee did not read it as fatalistically as it is possible to do—as existentially bleak as Leiber intended. After each disappointing experience, she resolves to “just keep dancing.” Maybe there will be more . . . next time. As so we went on into the 1970s, thinking exactly the same thing.
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