It’s not simply a question—it’s a song. And it fits my mood today: that of a weary traveler on the road of life, wandering, wondering… is that all there is? The song, written …
It’s not simply a question—it’s a song. And it fits my mood today: that of a weary traveler on the road of life, wandering, wondering… is that all there is? The song, written by the amazingly prolific team (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Love Potion No. 9,” “Fools Fall in Love”) of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, was originally recorded by Leslie Uggams. I had no clue (until today) that Uggams had any connection to the song and neither did the rest of the world, as far as I can tell.
Uggams has enjoyed a highly successful career as a singer (“Birth of the Blues,” “Someone to Watch Over Me”) and an actress (“Roots,” “Empire”) and although she released Lieber and Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” in 1968, for whatever reason, nobody noticed. But when the incomparable (IMHO) Peggy Lee released her version in 1969, the world took note, and Lee’s chart-topping version earned her a Grammy award for Best Female Pop Vocal. All in all, Lee (“Fever,” “I Am Woman,” “Big Spender”) was nominated for 12 Grammy’s over six decades and inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. I never met her, but my grandfather did. He was a big band leader in the 1930s and toured the U.S. for a while, occasionally encountering Peggy along the way. I still have his autographed album, “Peggy Lee-Blues Cross Country,” that she recorded with Quincy Jones in 1962. But it was the song in question that famously asked the question that haunts my reverie today.
“I remember when I was a very little girl,” the musical fable begins, “our house caught on fire. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face,” she sings “as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement. I stood there shivering in my pajamas,” Peggy intones, making the words her own, “and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire?”
And then, the famous reprise: “Is that all there is? Is that all there is? If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing. Let’s break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is...”
I was still a kid when the song became a hit, and yet, it gave me teen-angst pause and makes me wonder if my existential crisis kicked in way back when. I’ve lost six friends in as many months—some to the dreaded COVID-19—but last week, my pal Jen Franklin succumbed to cancer at 36 years old. We were close. I even wrote a piece for the River Reporter regarding her work with thoroughbred horses while we were neighbors living in the western end of Sullivan County. When we were both diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, we’d have long conversations about life, death and the pursuit of happiness.
“And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth,” Lee says. “There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears, and a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads. And so, I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle,” Peggy speaks more than sings, whispering her troubles aloud. “I had the feeling that something was missing,” she admits. “I don’t know what, but when it was over, I said to myself, ‘Is that all there is to a circus?’”
I thought about my friend Jen now, flying high above our heads, her loving spirit and the uplifting effect she had on those whose lives she touched in her all-too-brief time on planet Earth. “Is that all there is?” I asked aloud, wondering if Jen could hear me. “If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing.”
I thought about others now gone but have made a difference in my life. I thought about grampa. I thought about my own mortality and the fragile thread that we all cling to, none of us knowing when we will “shuffle off this mortal coil,” as Shakespeare would say. I thought about whether I’d leave my mark on the world in any way. I’m no Peggy Lee, but I sometimes wonder if my voice has even been heard amidst the din of a troubled world. I’d like to think so. I heard Jen.
“I know what you must be saying to yourselves,” Peggy Lee’s jazzy, whiskey voice echoes in my head. “If that’s the way she feels about it, why doesn’t she just end it all?” Good question, Peggy. Good question.
“Oh, no, not me—I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment,” her memorable lament concludes. “For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you [that] when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself, ‘Is that all there is?’”
Fun Fact: Norma Deloris Egstrom (May 26, 1920 – January 21, 2002) was known professionally as Peggy Lee. From her beginning as a vocalist on local radio to singing with Benny Goodman’s big band, Lee created a sophisticated persona, writing music for films, acting and recording conceptual record albums combining poetry and music.