Forget “Fever,” Peggy Lee’s best song in my book is “Is That All There Is?,” the Lieber & Stoller-penned, cabaret-esque title track off her 1969 album. At first it might seem strange that the songwriters responsible for “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” would write a song with such pathos, but these guys were not just pop-makers, and the songs they gave Peggy Lee to sing are especially poignant. She did a whole a record of their songs six years later called Mirrors, which was cool because the cover was silver-reflective and you could kind of see yourself in it.
After I had seen Martin Scorcese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, I fell in love with the song “Where or When”, which figures prominently in the movie. Here’s a scene of Alice trying out to be a singer in a seedy bar. This is the same Alice that inspired the television show Alice, about a single-mom widow who becomes a waitress at Mel’s diner. (An aside: My friend swears that Vic Tayback, who played Mel in the show as well as the film, acted in porn later on, which she discovered by watching her stepdad’s secret stash of tapes. I’ve never been able to verfiy this).
I discovered a beautiful version of this song sung by Peggy Lee, when she first broke big by singing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Here’s her version from the early ’40s.
In conclusion, an altogether different version of “Is That All There Is?” off of the Ze Records label from 1980. Harvard-educated Cristina Monet (who just went by Cristina- who did it first, her or fresh-from-the-Detroit-suburbs Madonna?) partially-rewrote the lyrics to fit into the bombed-out-Berlin-esque downtown scene she was a part of. It’s a queer and sadistic and amazing cover, and just offensive enough to have her label get sued by Lieber & Stoller, who made it disappear from reissues until 2004. Check out her albums Doll In a Box and Sleep It Off.