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Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Is That All There Is?"

Peggy Lee - Is That All There Is? (1969)

This was from the 60's? I thought it was an old 40's song.




Crazy song, with neat trivia attached, and it should never have been a hit.Written in the late 60's by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller it was recorded by Dan Daniels, Leslie Uggams, Guy Lombardo, and Tony Bennett over the course of about 20 months. None of those recordings were hits. Leiber and Stoller were Jewish-American songwriters of the 50's, penning classics for The Drifters, The Coasters, Ben E. King, and Elvis, but hadn't had a real big hit in years, almost a decade. Peggy Lee hadn't had a big hit on the pop charts in over a decade, but she insisted that her label release her version as a single. Odder still than the pedigree, the song is an existential remembrance, staged as a cabaret song. The verses are spoken word for goodness' sakes. The singer is talking about how nothing gets through to them emotionally, so forget about it, let's just drink and dance and not worry about whatever is going to come next. The single, and the album of the same name sold very well, giving her a number 11 hit on the pop charts, and a Grammy. Her older fans still loved her, and the detached existentialism connected with the disaffected youth of America.

Almost unknown at the time, singer songwriter Randy Newman wrote the arraignment for the strings and band. He starts by playing piano in a style you can almost hear as his. During the first "verse" the piano and strings gives us a old time feeling, carefree youthfulness, recalling porch swings and picnics on the lawn. The chorus is backed by subtle strings and a guitar that makes us recall a cabaret stage. The second verse is about the circus, so Newman gives us horns, but bent through the lens of a cabaret they are crooked almost discordant trumpets and an oom-pah style tuba. The third verse adds more strings and a clarinet. Her final verse is about how even death would be a disappointment, so even though life offers nothing, why kill herself. The back and forth between verse and chorus, particularly when Peggy Lee; who sang (and wrote) It's a Good Day talks about suicide and then sings /...let's break out the booze and have a ball.../ is so sharp it's like whiplash.And yet sometimes, you know exactly what she's talking about.

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