Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Is That All There Is?
Two great American songwriters left this world this week: the great Nickolas Ashford, first of Motown songwriting fame and later of the duet Ashford & Simpson with his wife Valerie; and Jerry Leiber of the Leiber and Stoller songwriting team responsible for many classic early rock and pop hits. I have to say that while I've long thought Ashford & Simpson incapable of writing anything other than a masterpiece, most Leiber & Stoller songs are not really to my taste. With one important exception: the song made into a hit in 1969 by the great Miss Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is."
Unlike much of their other work such as "Hound Dog," "Kansas City," or "Stand by Me," Leiber & Stoller's "Is That All There Is" is not a swing-your-hips, tap-along stormer of a tune. It's a deeply cynical, existentially world-weary expression of disillusionment and disappointment. Performed by Peggy Lee to utter perfection long after her own girlish romantic optimism had transformed itself to an almost stiff aloofness and detachment, the song is better served with a shot of whiskey than a champagne toast. I remember hearing it the first time as a young boy on the radio and being transfixed by its daring lyricism: I was amazed somebody was celebrating such a message of hopelessness. It still provokes a dark chuckle every time I listen to it. It was probably the first time I ever heard the interpretive genius of Peggy Lee as well. I read this week that the song had been first offered to Marlene Dietrich who turned it down. Lee's knowing delivery is an absolute triumph, transforming the work of pop ditty songwriters into that of high cabaret artistes.
It makes me surprised that Leiber & Stoller didn't go on to write musical theater. But after a song like this, well, maybe that's just all there needs to be.