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22 April 2015

Peggy Lee & Marlene Dietrich: They're Playing Our Song!

Many Dietrich admirers know that Marlene never got around to singing two songs written for her, which have gone on to become standards: Autumn Leaves and Speak Low. (In  both cases, she withdrew from the projects they were written for).

Peggy Lee's biographer, James Gavin, adds another unsung classic to the list: Is That All There Is?, which became a late-career hit for Lee. (It is also the title of Gavin's book).

According to Gavin, songwriters Leiber and Stoller had Dietrich in mind when they wrote the song. Burt Bacharach arranged a meeting with Dietrich at her New York apartment where Jerry Leiber performed the song for Marlene, accompanied by Bacharach. Dietrich called the song "a lovely piece of material", and asked whether Leiber had ever seen one of her shows. Leiber admitted that he hadn't.

Then, in what Leiber called "the most consummate response" ever, Dietrich explained that she couldn't perform the song as "That song is about who I am, and not what I do."


Luckily for us, Lee did :


Gavin writes that Lee was a great admirer of Dietrich's performance style and costumes; and, impressed by Dietrich's flattering lighting, insisted on the same. Lee, taken by the René Bouché sketch always used to promote Dietrich's concerts, commissioned similar artwork of herself:


The admiration was mutual: to Dietrich, Peggy Lee awakened "no memories of other voices, but awaken[s] all senses to a unique feast":


(Thank you Robbie for bringing this information to our attention!)

6 comments:

  1. all is as it's supposed to be.

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  2. 'When The World Was Young' was given to Marlene by Piaf, whose song it was (Si tu partais), many years after Piaf gave Peggy Lee 'Si tu partais' (If You Go). Marlene was also interested in this, but so far as I know never sang it. (David Bret) My book with all the suppressed parts of our conversations put back in will be published after Maria Riva dies.

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    1. Thanks David, for the interesting notes on their repertoire. I'm also not aware of Marlene having performed "Si tu partais": it would have been interesting to compare her interpretation to Piaf's, had she done so.

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  3. In the book Tell the Truth Until They Bleed by Josh Alan Friedman, Leiber is quoted as saying that "Is That All There Is?" "really came from a song Marlene Dietrich did in an early movie. I used it as a dummy melody for the line 'Is that all there is, is that all there is?'" What song could Leiber have had in mind? I have hummed the melody of those lines, but no Dietrich movie song is coming to mind.

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    1. Joseph, I have no idea either. A Peggy Lee site says the song's writers also considered Lotte Lenya and Claire Waldoff for the song, but Dietrich was a bigger name. (Waldoff had been dead for about a decade).

      http://www.peggyleediscography.com/p/LeeResearchThereIs.php

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  4. Interesting piece, and thank you for including Peggy's rendition of When the World Was Young from the Garland TV series. It is a mini-masterpiece.

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