In September 1968, songwriting titans Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were on the hunt for a singer for their curious new composition Is That All There Is? The song was something of a departure for the writers of Hound Dog and Jailhouse Rock. It had been inspired by Thomas Mann’s 1896 short story Disillusionment, which deals with what Leiber called “the existential hole that sits in the centre of our souls”. The fatalistic spoken-word verses describe the narrator watching their house burn down, losing their first love, and even facing death, “that final disappointment”, with sanguine grace.
The pair felt the song needed an actress to sell it so offered it to Marlene Dietrich and Barbra Streisand before thinking of Peggy Lee. After catching her show at the Copacabana in New York, they handed Lee a demo. She called them the moment she listened to it. “I will kill you if you give this song to anyone but me,” she said. “This is my song. This is the story of my life.”
It’s not surprising that Lee wasn’t Leiber and Stoller’s first thought. Best known for her smouldering 1958 version of Fever, she had spent years carefully crafting an image for herself as an impossibly glamorous blonde with a seductive purr. Is That All There Is? spoke to the woman behind that image. As a child, on two separate occasions, she really had watched her family home burn down. Her first husband had left her to raise their daughter alone. There was even a lyrical reference to clowns, one of Lee’s lifelong obsessions. She felt that she too had learned to paint on a happy face. “That song completely resonated with her,” says her granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells. “To her it was about looking at everything that’s unfolding in front of you, pulling yourself back, accepting it, and going on living. What she heard was: survivor.”
It was like watching a play unfold, watching her sing one songHolly Foster Wells
Lee, who died in 2002, was born 100 years ago on Tuesday. There had been plans to celebrate the milestone with a tribute concert at the Hollywood Bowl, with performances from Herbie Hancock, Sheryl Crow and Debbie Harry. “Unfortunately the great equaliser, Mother Nature, has put us all on notice,” laments Harry. As a child, she heard Lee for the first time on the radio show Your Hit Parade. “The timbre of her voice was exciting and mysterious against the woodwind and brass. She had a wonderfully smoky voice and a phenomenal sense of time.”
When Lee was born, in the small farming town of Jamestown, North Dakota, she was named Norma Deloris Egstrom. She was the seventh of eight children, and her childhood was an unhappy one. Her father Marvin was a station agent for the Midland Continental Railroad and an alcoholic. Her mother, Selma, died when she was four. Her father remarried, the older children left home, and for 11 years Lee bore the brunt of her stepmother’s physical and emotional abuse. Her only escape was the radio. She fell in love with big band and jazz, and did her chores to a rhythm.
The first time Lee ever sang in public, at church, she was so paralysed with nerves she sang facing a wall. By September 1937 she had scraped together enough confidence to audition for WDAY radio in Fargo. She impressed them, but the programme’s director, Ken Kennedy, couldn’t picture “Norma Egstrom” on a marquee. On the spot, he christened her Peggy Lee. The following year she tried her luck in Hollywood. Arriving in California with $18 and her father’s railroad pass, she wound up working as a carnival barker on Balboa Island. For a time, one of the of the 20th century’s great voices could be heard bellowing: “Three for a dime! You break one, you win!”
Undeterred, Lee continued to seek opportunities to develop her style. On stage one night early in 1941 at The Doll House, a tiny celebrity haunt in Palm Springs, she found herself struggling to hear the music over the roar of conversation and clinking cocktail glasses. Rather than shout over the din, Lee softened her voice. A hush fell. It suited her. “She said she didn’t like the idea of screaming: ‘I love you’,” says Foster Wells. “For her, it should be said softly, with feeling.”
Among the audience at The Doll House was Frank Bering, who owned the Ambassador West Hotel in Chicago. He booked Lee to play their venue, the Buttery Room, which is where bandleader Benny Goodman stumbled across her while searching for a new singer. Years later, appearing on This Is Your Life, Goodman reminisced about the moment, telling Lee: “I was so impressed that I hired you on the spot.”
Singing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra was a dream come true for Lee, but Goodman was a tough boss. On stage she wore a borrowed dress and sang in someone else’s key. Critics compared her unfavourably to Goodman’s previous singer, Helen Forrest, while producer John Hammond assessed her witheringly: “Miss Lee is a lady whose attractiveness occasionally makes the listener forget that she has no vocal or interpretive talent.” Devastated, Lee tried to quit. Goodman refused. Less than a year later, on 27 July 1942, they recorded Why Don’t You Do Right?, which sold 1m copies and made Peggy Lee a household name.
As her star was ascending, Lee was falling in love with the orchestra’s guitarist, David Barbour. Goodman had a strict rule forbidding his musicians from fraternising with their female singer. When Lee became pregnant the couple could no longer keep their relationship secret. After breaking the news to Goodman that they were leaving, the couple married and moved to Los Angeles where Barbour could get work as a session musician. Lee planned to retire to raise their daughter, Nicki, but found she couldn’t stop writing lyrics. “My grandfather would come home at night,” says Foster Wells, “And my grandmother would say to him: ‘Dinner isn’t ready, but the song is.’”
The couple made an ideal songwriting team. After Lee resumed her singing career they had their biggest hit in 1947 with Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me), which spent nine weeks at No 1. Behind the scenes, however, their marriage was collapsing. Barbour, like Lee’s father, was an alcoholic. You can sense her heartbreak close to the surface in her remarkable turn in 1955’s Pete Kelly’s Blues, playing a singer debilitated by drink. Despite having little acting experience she was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar. “Of course, she was an actress while she sang,” says Foster Wells. “It was like watching a play unfold, watching her sing one song.”
Lee was devastated by the breakup. Later in life she would say that her favourite song of her own was The Folks Who Live on the Hill, which is about a couple growing old together. “That was the life she longed for,” says Foster Wells. “To have a stable, wonderful, long-term relationship with someone she grew old with in the same house having children. The life she got was the opposite of that dream.”
She was stylish throughout her life. Quietly cool and chic, confident and powerfulDita Von Teese
The glamorous, sexualised image Lee created for herself was a way of masking that pain. The flirtatious sensuality of her voice, combined with her looks, gave her more of an edge than some of her contemporaries. While the squeaky-clean Doris Day was advertising Lux soap and Royal Crown cola, Lee was the face of Chesterfield cigarettes and Rheingold beer. A press release from the early 50s breathlessly claimed: “Peggy puts more sex into a song than most girls could into a striptease.”
It wasn’t all raunch. Lee was delighted when Walt Disney invited her to collaborate with big band leader Sonny Burke on the soundtrack to 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. As well as writing and singing, Lee voices four characters including Peg, the Pekingese with a tail like a feather boa who vamps her way through He’s a Tramp. That was how the burlesque performer Dita Von Teese discovered Lee, though it was her image that later had an impression on her. “She was stylish throughout her life. Quietly cool and chic, confident and powerful. I think she’s extraordinary, not just for her talent in singing, but as a creator, a lyricist who clearly had high intelligence.”
Lee had no qualms about rewriting songs to better suit the character of “Miss Peggy Lee”. When she recorded Fever she added her own verses with allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Captain Smith and Pocahontas. By some margin her most popular song in the Spotify era, with more than 50m plays, it continues to accrue new fans: teenage Grammy winner Billie Eilish credits it with making her interested in older music. “She’s definitely had influence on my music,” says Eilish. “I wish I was as elegant as her when she performed. Her delivery and the way she sang and moved has been really inspiring to me.”
Lee’s influence has been felt by young musicians for more than a half a century. The Beatles covered Till There Was You in 1963 because Paul McCartney had heard Lee do it on 1960’s Latin ala Lee! Although Lee was initially concerned by the sudden eruption of rock’n’roll, in the end she quipped: “You can’t beat the Beatles, you join ’em.” She recorded versions of Something and A Hard Day’s Night. On a visit to London, she invited Paul and Linda McCartney to dinner at the Dorchester Hotel and McCartney announced he’d written the jazz ballad Let’s Love for her. “They said that instead of bringing her wine or flowers,” says Foster Well, “they brought her a song.”
The young songwriter Randy Newman also caught Lee’s ear – he was brought in at her request to play piano and arrange the orchestra for her recording of Is That All There Is? He remembers Lee being subdued in the studio. “She does it in sort of an almost cheerful, ironic manner,” he says. “I had no inkling that it would be a hit record.”
The strange, melancholy song was indeed a hit, although it would be Lee’s last. She continued to perform into the 1990s, often in a wheelchair. “Ageing in the public eye was hard for her,” says Foster Wells. “She would say: ‘You try singing Fever when you’re in your 70s.’ She was constantly trying to recreate her look. As she got older she changed to a platinum wig and glasses, and made it a little more campy.” Lee released her final album Moments Like This in 1993 and died of a heart attack on 21 January 2002, at the age of 81.
Even amid the immense collection of music that Lee left behind, Is That All There Is? stands out. In the years since Lee’s recording it has been covered by artists as diverse as Chaka Khan, PJ Harvey and Cristina, whose 1980 no wave version was suppressed by Leiber and Stoller when they learned she’d added lyrics referencing Quaaludes and a violent relationship. “It wasn’t a parody; I was quite serious,” Cristina told the Boston Globe. “In fact, when I was asked to punk out the song itself, I said I wouldn’t. It was too good for that.”
It was more than just the lyrical coincidences that made Lee refer to Is That All There Is? as the story of her life. It is a song about the stripping away of illusions, performed by a woman who knew the power of them. She took all the pain of her childhood, and of losing the family she longed for, and remade herself as the superstar Miss Peggy Lee, a fragile heart sheltered behind sequinned armour.
• Ultimate Peggy Lee is available digitally now and on CD and vinyl from 19 June.