arts / music / songwriting / Uncategorized

February 10: Is That All There Is?


I played the Peggy Lee recording of Leiber & Stoller’s wonderful song on my Swing Easy show last Tuesday, and then yesterday, the new Soul Music series on BBC Radio 4 was devoted to the song. Here’s a TV performance of the song by the great lady in 1969, with a quote from her autobiography, published in the Shiraz Socialist blog.

Last autumn I sang the song at a Christian Aid gig I organised in my church. I made the lyric more autobiographical, ‘cos I did live through the Blitz, and I did work in a circus:
When I was just a little child I lived through the London blitz.
A house just up the street was hit by a flying bomb and blown to bits.
I’ll never forget the sight and the smell of dust and smouldering ruins.
I picked up a broken doll and my mum said: What’re you doin’?
I didn’t reply, just stood there quiet as a mouse.
And I said to myself, Is that all there is to a house?

SUNG: Is that all there is?
Is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball If that’s all there is

When I was 28 years old I went off with a circus, driving from town to town.
Putting up posters with never a care, travelling the whole country round.
I never saw the show, just organised the circus parade
Then drove away, leaving behind the plans I’d made.
Never saw the elephants and the ringmaster in his scarlet coat.
But one day I stayed behind, cos it was really getting my goat.
It was such a tawdry affair, so I wanted to know
And I asked myself: Is that all there is to a show?

SUNG: Is that all there is?
Is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball If that’s all there is

Then I fell in love, head over heels in love, with the most wonderful girl I could find
People thought we both were crazy but we said: Never mind.
Then one day she was off, took off with another guy
She never explained what went wrong, left me just wondering – why?
I thought I’d die, but I didn’t, but still I ask heaven above:
Tell me, is that all there is to love?

SUNG: Is that all there is?
Is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball If that’s all there is

I know what you must be saying to yourselves, is his life just one long disappointment?
And all there is left is the date with his final appointment?
But each day I know is a new day and when I awaken
I must put behind all the liberties taken.
My arrows fly into the target, but although I miss
I know in my heart that’s not all that there is.

That’s not all there is, that’s not all there is
Though the music might stop, my friends, I’ve gotta keep dancing
I’ll stay off the booze and still have a ball
Though that’s all there is.

I’m working on recording my new words some time soon.

‘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.

Peggy pic

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