All There Is

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(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.

Peggy Lee died in 2002 at the age of 81. There’s a fabulous website devoted to her career, and I strongly recommend to you its essays on “Fever” and “Is That All There Is?” 

If you haven’t voted for which podcast episode you’d like me to post tomorrow, here’s your last chance.

15 responses

  1. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but “Is That All There Is?” is one of the two biggest tune-out songs of 1969 (the other being Roy Clark’s “Yesterday When I Was Young”). It might have been that I was 13 and middle-age ennui was lost on me—except I’ve heard them over the years and still never warmed up to either.

    No disrespect to Peggy—loved “Fever”, “Why Don’t You Do Right” and especially “Black Coffee”—or Roy, who was a remarkable musician.

  2. I was sixteen when “Is That All There Is” hit, and I got it. So much so, I guess, that I really don’t want to hear the record ever again. But I’ll keep on dancing. (Was there ever a greater season for Top 40 than that autumn? Don’t answer that.)

  3. For such a big song, “Is That All There Is?” never gets played on oldies stations. I wouldn’t have even known it was a hit unless I read it somewhere. I think I first heard it in ’89 or ’90. when I was in my early twenties. I bought a reissue 45 of “Fever,” and “ITATI” happened to be on the other side. I played it once just to hear it. I never spun that side of the 45 ever again.

    1. My guess is it doesn’t fit with the usual oldies format. The song was already a bit of an outlier in 1969.

      Incidentally, Martin Scorsese used “Is That All There Is?” effectively in After Hours which is one of his more atypical films.

      1. “Mad Men” had it in a scene where it worked well, too.

    2. JP: I think it’s partly that it doesn’t fit, but also that it really wasn’t as big as number 11 suggests. It helps to remember that Billboard’s chart numbers at the time were based largely on wholesale sales (despite the verbiage at the bottom of the chart).

      “Is That All There Is” has a chart trajectory very much like a novelty record. Debuts on the Hot 100 at number 76, then goes 50, 33,17, 14, 13, 11, 14, 23, 28 and gone. All the way off the Hot 100.

      And I’m betting that five week plateau in the teens would have been a lot shorter if there’s been hotter records, but this was a pretty weak chart:

      1. Wedding Bell Blues-Fifth Dimension
      2. Suspicious Minds-Elvis Presley
      3. Come Together-Beatles
      4. I Can’t Get Next To You-Temptations
      5. Baby It’s You-Smith
      6. Sugar, Sugar-Archies
      7. Hot Fun In The Summertime-Sly and the Family Stone
      8. And When I Die-Blood, Sweat and Tears
      9. Something-Beatles
      10. Smile A Little Smile For Me-Flying Machine.

      “Suspicious Minds” “Sugar, Sugar” and “Hot Fun” were all on their way down. “Come Together” and “Something” were two sides of the same 45.

      And look at what Peggy just managed to beat out on that best week:

      12. Tracy-Cuff Links (down from #9 the week before)
      13. Little Woman-Bobby Sherman (down from #7 the week before)
      14. Jean-Oliver (down from #8 the week before)
      15. Going In Circles-Friends of Distinction (up one from the week before)
      16. You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling-Dionne Warwick (up two)

      And the album peaked at #55, which means on its best week, there were 54 albums that sold better.

      1. Mike Hagerty: I actually like most of the songs listed! Couldn’t call it a weak lineup. The only other song I could see the Peggy Lee cut being compatible with would be “Jean” (not a favorite of mine).

      2. JP: I like them too. What I mean by weak is that three of the top ten were past their peak (should be easy to do better if you’re close) and two were actually only one (“Come Together/Something”). For Smith to hit top 5 and Flying Machine top 10, there had to be a lull in monsters, and that benefitted Peggy in this case.

      3. Nice post, JB! I’ve always wondered if the song influenced the creation of Ruth Gordon character in Harold & Maude.

  4. Always liked Randy Newman’s arrangement of the song – complete with tuba and banjo.

  5. Thanks for a solid job as always on writing about this record, JB. I’d just add that Leiber and Stoller spent years denying that the song’s inspiration came from their aggravation of running Red Bird Records from 1964-66, which is a story all in itself. Also, the record’s appearance on the Hot 100 probably was influenced by its success on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart, where it was #1 on Oct. 18 and 25, 1969, prior to its pop peak this week. Henry Mancini believed “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet” didn’t break out until its success on the AC chart in 1969, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened here. The two charts had more alignment in this period than, say, November 1967-February 1968, where 5 AC chart toppers from “More Than the Eye Can See” by Al Martino to “In the Misty Moonlight” by Dean Martin all failed to make the pop top 40.

    1. If that’s the case, then Billboard was letting the tail wag the dog. The Easy Listening/Adult Contemporary chart was one of the least reliable charts in terms of sales.

      I was surprised to see that KHJ in Los Angeles went early on “Is That All There Is”, adding it on October 1. It went Hitbound-23-11-3 (its peak on October 22—three weeks before its Hot 100 peak)—then 11, 16, and gone entirely by November 12. Five weeks on the chart.

      Again, a novelty record-like trajectory, explaining why its post-chart life has been less than a lot of records that got that close to the Top 10.

  6. Years ago, when I was PD of a local Music Of Your Life affiliate, we played a number of Peggy Lee songs. This wasn’t one of them and I wasn’t unhappy about that lol.

  7. I actually saw an aged Peggy Lee in concert in the 80’s, in a very small theater in Westwood, CA. (My aunt took me. I’m not sure why. I never knew her to be much of a Peggy Lee fan, but I think she just wanted a night out with her nephew, so Peggy Lee it was). The woman BARELY moved onstage. She just stood there and sang, and as I recall seemed vaguely out of it, but maybe that was just the way she was. It wasn’t my type of music at the time (I’m way more open to that stuff now), but there was something magnetic about her. Maybe because she seemed to be holding back so much, it drew you in.

    1. Andy: Peggy had poor health for many years. By the 1990s, she was performing from a wheelchair.

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