Miss Peggy Lee
Listen/Download – Peggy Lee – Is That All There Is
Last week was an especially sad one, considering that we lost both Nick Ashford (of Ashford and Simpson and co-composer of many soul classics) and one of my personal idols, Jerry Leiber of the team of Leiber and Stoller.
I’ll go ahead and assume that most Iron Leg readers are familiar with at least some part of the Leiber and Stoller oeuvre, from their work with the Coasters and the Drifters in the 50s and 60s, their time running the Red Bird/Blue Cat/Tiger labels or later stuff like their producing Stealers Wheel in the early 70s.
I consider the pair to be one of the greatest songwriting/record-crafting teams of the classic era, making music of extraordinary energy and excitement.
As soon as I heard that Jerry Leiber had passed, though there was certainly work to be done at Funky16Corners (If you get a sec drop on by the mothership at Funky16Corners and check out my tribute to the man from last week) it also occurred to me that tribute had to be paid here at Iron Leg as well.
Though the vast majority of the L&S legacy is rooted in R&B and soul, there is a lesser-known chapter in their later years that has held a certain fascination for me.
Allow me to head back many decades to my youth, when my old man brought a certain Peggy Lee 45 into the house.
Though I listened to a lot of my Pop’s records, most of them were jazz or classical.
There was very little contemporary pop in our house, aside from the odd Simon and Garfunkel or 5th Dimension album, or 45s like Joan Baez covering ‘The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down’.
My Pop had been a Peggy Lee fan since her days as a big band singer and had kept up with her career as a pop and jazz singer, often playing her early 60s collaborations with George Shearing.
However, by 1969, Miss Peggy Lee had been without a hit since 1963 and ‘I’m a Woman’, a tune written by none other than Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
Lee, Leiber and Stoller came back together in the late 60s.
Pieced together from sessions recorded between mid-1967 and early 1969, the album ‘Is That All There Is’, and the single of the title song were both huge hits for Lee.
Now, I know the idea of a 7-year old kid becoming enamored of such an unusual song might seem odd, but that’s the kind of kid I was (and sometimes still am).
When I played my Dad’s 45 of the song over and over again in 1969, I had no idea who Leiber and Stoller were. I also had no inkling of Weimar cabaret and theater, nor of the music created by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
I mention Weill and Brecht (who’s music I would become fascinated with as an adult) because ‘Is That All There Is’ is a song created out of the zeitgeist of their catalog. One need only hear ‘The Threepenny Opera’, ‘The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoggany’, ‘Happy End’ or later Weill work like ‘Knickerbocker Holiday’ (source of ‘September Song’) to realize what Leiber, Stoller and the arranger of ‘Is That All There Is’, a young fellow by the name of Randy Newman, had in mind.
Though the song was initially performed by British singer Georgia Brown, it was first recorded by a New York City disk jockey named Dan Daniels in 1968 (I’d love to hear that!).
It was also recorded by Leslie Uggams prior to Peggy Lee’s version, but it was Lee who took it to the Pop Top 40, and to Number One on the Adult Contemporary charts.
It is a work of singular genius, unusual even for the late 60s, haunting, and especially apt coming from a survivor like Peggy Lee.
If you looked at the label and wondered about ‘International Wrestling Match’, it was the title of an off-Broadway play that Leiber and Stoller were planning on turning into a musical, in which they were planning to include ‘Is That All There Is’. It never came to fruition, making the label credit an obscure but interesting footnote.
She would go on to record another album with Leiber and Stoller, 1975’s ‘Mirrors’ which was written entirely by L&S and arranged by Johnny Mandel. Though none of it rises to the level of ‘Is That All There Is’, it’s still quite interesting and if today’s selection is up your alley (or in your wheelhouse) you ought to pick it up.
I hope you dig the tune, and I’ll be back next week.
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