Some pop songs, a select few, really, cant be dismissed. Theyre simply too beautiful, emotive, humorous, ebullient, hypnotic or strikingly weird. The best tunes have a one or more of these characteristics.
Songwriting and producing partners Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were the driving forces behind Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Yakety Yak, On Broadway, Love Potion No. 9, Stand By Me and numerous other hits. But when the news broke last week that lyricist Leiber had died, all I could think of was Peggy Lees Is That All There Is? The oddest song in the Leiber/Stoller canon, and by far the most fascinating, its the one I cant dismiss.
Unlike most great recordings in my collection, I discovered the song by chance. Or maybe it discovered me. Years ago, after trading in some unwanted stuff for fresh essentials at the old Vinyl Fever music store in South Tampa, I had about $5 left in store credit. Back to the bargain bin.
Following much rummaging and deliberating, it caught my eye: Peggy Lee All-Time Greatest Hits Volume 1. I opened the jewel case and found the disc to be pretty much scratch free. The CD had been issued by the Curb label in 1990. A mere 11 tracks that clock in at just under a half hour. The liner notes indicated they were the original recordings and I made the $4 purchase mainly just for Fever -- the only song of Lees I knew.
Back at my apartment hours later, I finally got around to giving the CD a spin. The album opens with Its a Good Day, a tender song that also swings, showcasing Lees underrated jazz chops. Smart purchase, I thought, before the second track started.
Then everything stopped except the music. The room was reduced to just me and the recording. I was on the edge of my blue futon staring at the stereo, half expecting the voice to emerge from the black speakers and join me for a drink.
A couple poignant notes on the piano and then Lee begins to speak, her voice sounding at once intimate and mystical, sultry yet spooky as she recalls being a little girl watching the family home go up in flames. Haunting strings caress her words.
And when it was all over, I said to myself, Is that all there is to a fire?
The melody picks up a little speed, recalling a German cabaret number, and with it the breezy chorus sung with more than a hint of melancholy:
Is that all there is, is that all there is / If thats all there is my friends, then lets keep dancin / Lets break out the booze and have a ball / If thats all there is.
During the second verse, at age 12, the singers father takes her to see The Greatest Show on Earth. She watches the clowns, elephants and dancing bears. A beautiful lady in pink tights performs acrobatics high above the heads of the audience.
I dont know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, Is that all there is to a circus?
Another refrain and then the singer has fallen in love. The couple takes long walks and sit for hours gazing into each others eyes. Then he leaves her. The singer thinks shell die from the heartbreak. But she doesnt.
And when I didnt I said to myself, Is that all there is to love?
On the next refrain, the singer cuts it short right before finishing the line, Lets keep dancing. It sounds spontaneous.
I know what you must be saying to yourselves, she tells me, the spellbound listener. If thats the way she feels about it, why doesnt she just end it all?
I cant believe my ears: A philosophical pop ditty that would have appealed to the pioneering existentialist Soren Kierkegaard.
What would the singer give as her reason to keep on living in a world she saw as one large, grey canvas of dissatisfaction?
Oh, no, not me, she says, a hint of mischief in her voice. Im in no hurry for that final disappointment.
And I laughed, a sad laugh, and waited for the chorus to come around again. The song ends at just over the four-minute mark. That evening I must have spent a couple hours listening to Lees definitive version of Is That All There Is?
Later I learned it was composed by Leiber and Stoller with an orchestral arrangement by a young Randy Newman, a favorite singer/songwriter of mine who also has a talent for cerebral, bittersweet songs. My other discovery was that Leiber used fairly well-known source material for Is That All There Is? He took the idea, and several words almost verbatim, from an 1896 short story by famed German writer Thomas Mann. Titled Disillusionment, its about a tourist not impressed by the gorgeous Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.
Released in 1969, Lees recording of Is That All There Is? won a Grammy Award and just missed cracking the Top 10 on the Billboard 100, something she had only done once before, in 1958, with Fever. Lee died in 2002, having never again reached the pop charts. The song also marked the final major hit for Leiber and Stoller after a decade-plus run of astounding success.
The songwriting team rightfully earned their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Leibers legacy is rich and secure. He and Stoller gave listeners many wonderful pop songs. But only one I cant dismiss.
For I know just as well as Im standing here talking to you, when that final moment comes and Im breathing my last breath, Ill be saying to myself, Is that all there is?
Wade Tatangelo, features writer/columnist, can be reached at (941) 745-7057. Visit his blog at heraldbuzzworthy.blogspot.com.