As coronavirus derails plans for a concert to celebrate the centenary of Lee’s birth, Kevin EG Perry looks back on a singer whose seductive style masked rejection and pain
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.”