Radio 4’s excellent Soul Music series today dealt with Peggy Lee’s 1969 recording of ‘Is That All There Is?’, one of the strangest and most enigmatic chart hits ever.
Soul Music takes takes a piece of music or a particular performance, and simply carries interviews with people (some directly connected to the music/performance, others not) about what it means to them. It’s often very moving.
The interviewees today had very different interpretations of what the song, and Ms Lee’s performance, meant…
Hope or despair? For or against suicide? Existential angst or a simple statement that friends and family are all that really matter in the end?
One person we didn’t hear from was Peggy Lee herself: she died in 2002. But here’s what she wrote in her autobiography:
‘Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friend, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball,
If that’s all there is…’
I picked up the needle from the demo record on the turntable and said to Snooky Young, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Thats’s a weird song,’ he said. ‘You going to sing that?’
‘Yes, I think so. I can’t get it off my mind.’
‘Well, you do all those kind of arty songs and people seem to love them…’
I thought of ‘Don’t Smoke in Bed’ and a few others and remembered how I often had to fight to get to do things I believed in, but little did I know at the time what a battle I’d have with ‘Is That All There Is?’ Before this, its authors, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, had written ‘I’m A Woman’, truly my cup of tea, and, of course, their huge success, Elvis Presley’s record of ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’ (although I still think ‘I’m a Woman’ was more colourful, filled as it was with word-pictures, and it did swing).
When 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 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.’
Delighted to hear it, Jerry and Mike and I set about doing just that. Earlier, Johnny Mandel had brought me one of Randy Newman’s very first albums, telling me, ‘You’ll love this fellow,’ which I did, and asked him to write the arrangement. It turned out to be perfect for his style.
So now the record was made, our faith in it ran high — I couldn’t believe my ears when Capitol Records said they were turning thumbs down on it.
Is that all there is?
No, because, fortunately, there was a television show they wanted me to do, which I wasn’t keen about. Well, you know what I did. I said, ‘Yes, if you’ll release this record, I’ll do the show,’ and they agreed.
Hallelujah. It became a hit, went ‘across the board’, but that’s not all there is to it. It dramatized for me what my life had been and would continue to be, a struggle, sometimes for things more serious than a song, but the lesson was there — stick to your guns, believe, and more than you ever imagined can happen.
Wikipedia, however, states:
The song was inspired by the 1896 story Disillusionment (Enttäuschung) by Thomas Mann. The narrator in Mann’s story tells the same stories of when he was a child. A dramatic adaptation of Mann’s story was recorded by Erik Bauserfeld and Bernard Mayes …
One difference between the story and the song is that the narrator in Mann’s story finally has a sensation to feel free when he sees the sea for the first time and laments for a sea without a horizon. Most of the words used in the song’s chorus are taken verbatim from the narrator’s words in Mann’s story.
Judge for yourself: