“SO THOUGH I’M NOT A GREAT ROMANCER”: REFLECTIONS ON COLE PORTER AS A SENTIMENTAL BALLADEER.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com
The above quote is from a later version of “Anything Goes”, Porter’s 1934 hit from the show of the same name. By the 1950s, when he’d revised the song to include the “romancer” line, the songwriter famous as the pop-poetic enshriner of all that was stingingly up-to-date in sexual innuendo, double entendre, and the risqué--a world-weary hedonist who’d done everything, seen everything, but was never bored by the prospect of a dry martini, had mellowed out like a well-aged brandy. With “True Love” riding the top of the charts, and the wild men of rock & roll stalking the stage, the one-time cosmopolitan king of jade and licentiousness could afford to embrace the old-fashioned path to marriage with a new line for his old number: “I know that you’re bound to answer when I propose — Anything Goes!”
But back in his 1930s heyday, with the western world deep in the Great Depression, “Anything Goes”, as fired out by Ethel Merman to well-heeled Broadway sophisticates, was a starker proposition: instead of lines concerning prospects of marriage there was the shocking spectacle of the smart set ”intruding” (like voyeurs?) on “nudist parties”, indulging in love affairs with “young bears”, and—even worse—enjoying the sight of Mr. Porter in his birthday suit: having dragged in Mae West our writer must go on to rhyme her with “me undressed”.
The masses responded favorably to Porter’s jaundiced view of a crazy world of misrule, complete with dictators screaming from far across the ocean yet as close to Joe Public as his little radio loudspeaker. Joe and Jane couldn’t afford the price of a Broadway theatre ticket but, because for free, on those radios, they could enjoy a dance band fox-trotting out “Anything Goes’” and even that lascivious cry of the street girl (or boy),“Love For Sale”--but only as an instrumental.
Looking back from our era of gangsta rap and hip-hop, of the triumph of lumpen street culture, it is amazing that the common man of the 1930s should have had any empathy for the likes of Cole Porter, an aristocrat in gold garters with millions of dollars inherited from his grandfather, plus a wife so sophisticated she had no idea how to open a door. Here was an exquisite creature of hooded eyes, fitted suavely into a beautifully tailored suit with a constant carnation in his buttonhole, more European playboy, even flaneur, than American. His Paris digs of the 1920s were replete with zebra-skin rugs, Chinese scrolls and Chippendale furniture. He might not linger long—the old ennui was ever lurking—and so you’d have to catch up with him, perhaps, on the Venice Lido.
This is where Richard Rodgers first encountered Cole Porter, in 1926, thanks to their mutual friend Noel Coward. Now, both Coward and Rodgers were not only younger than Porter, but had been hard-working professional songwriters for several years, whereas this delicate flower of a fellow was hitless and none the worse for it. Come to dinner at my palazzo, Porter insisted as he lolled in his cabana with a champagne cocktail at the ready. Oh, and do bring your friend Mr. Hart.
At dinner, with Mrs. Porter and Noel, Rodgers was impressed by his host’s knowledge of Broadway and his peppering of the pros with questions concerning the current scene over there. Clearly this indolent and affluent social butterfly hadn’t been home for years.
After dinner, in the music room, came the big surprise. Porter was persuaded to perform “a few of my little things” and Rodgers noted that here was not merely a “talented dilettante”, but a “generally gifted composer and lyricist”. So why was he wasting time being a sybarite in the sun? Why wasn’t he part of the gang on Broadway? Oh, I write for the amusement of my friends. Ideally I’d like to contribute to Broadway while continuing to reside in Europe. And then he nonchalantly confided to Rodgers that he’d devised a sure-fire formula for hit making: “I’ll write Jewish tunes”. Rodgers knew this meant melodies in a minor key, and he chuckled.
What Porter didn’t properly confess was that he’d already written several unsuccessful shows and even a ballet. True he’d had a minor hit back in 1919, a sentimental ballad stuffed with too many floral references, “An Old Fashioned Garden”. But such a foursquare effort couldn’t compare with the glittering, brittle and sardonic songs of Rodgers & Hart. Like the title of his sole song success Cole Porter, in the midst of the Jazz Age, believed himself to be old-fashioned.
Yet, a few years later, with the world about to crash, he was the last word in modernistic smart set lyrics: “Go to one of those night club places/ And you’ll find me stretching my braces/ Pushing ladies with lifted faces ‘round the floor”, but when the gigolo gets home he’s faced with the fact that he’s “just a pet that men forget—and only tailors remember” (“I’m a Gigolo”).
And then came the first big “list” number, “You’re The Top”, in which was displayed a wide-worldly knowledge (“You’re a dance in Bali” is rhymed with a “hot tamale”), a familiarity with Italian art and British literature (“You’re a Botticelli/You’re Keats/ You’re Shelley”), all sprinkled demotically with the mundanity of All-American life--the list includes Pepsodent, Cellophane, and even Phenolax.
Larry Hart, who had long ago rhymed “Heine” with “China”, knew he was having a run for his money from this new song jeweler, this miniaturist who was never seen to actually slave at his trade, a globetrotter who never batted an eye or showed a bead of sweat. As for the boys of Tin Pan Alley, song factory piano thumpers and tireless users of “moon” and “June”, they were flabbergasted. The guy was actually describing lovemaking, passion, sex--in an artful way, of course, with plenty of references to the act, the dirty deed, as “It” or a “Thing”—and making money. Far loftier than a stag party singsong, or a bawdy parody session in a saloon back in the teen years……………
During the old days, the crucial crucible old days—those three decades from the 1890s till the end of the Great War—when the Alleymen were hammering, honing and polishing the sounds and shapes of popular music, be they waltz, two-step, one-step or fox-trot (but all built as vehicles for dancing because, never forget, the dance is the heartbeat of all pop)—during that glorious, perspiring period, Cole Porter was snug at college, a privileged distance from the clang of Tin Pan Alley.
Yet he was working in his own way as hard as any Alleyman. Soaked in the heady but dangerous brew of Gilbert & Sullivan, the Yale boy who’d earlier amused his prep school chums with smutty songs and parodies, was by 1916 ready to show off his skills: in “I’ve A Shooting Box In Scotland”, his first real “list” song, the names come dropping hard: Hiroshigi and the Rigi, Alfred Noyes and Della Robbia singing boys, a Siamese pagoda and a cottage in Fashoda, wherever that is. Why, it was even heard on Broadway for a few nights in a flop show, “See America First”. The press gave the clever Yalie the bum’s rush and the next thing you know he’s disappeared himself to the Great War, specifically the French Foreign Legion, which, of course, is where any gentleman goes when he’s put his foot in it.
In fact, he had a good war, spent mostly in Paris parading the boulevards in various uniforms, one day a captain of the Zouaves and next day a smashing kid cadet. But he did muck in with the American Ambulance Service boys where he taught Captain Eddie Rickenbacker’s squadron a quaint cute song he’d heard recently at a Greenwich Village party, “If I Had My Way, I’d Live Among The Gypsies”. Everyone thought it a riot what with its references to stopping at farm’s to stretch one’s arms and smell the new mown hay.
This awkward but charming song had been performed at the party by its author, Irving Berlin, the reigning king of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway. How Porter got admitted is a mystery but even then he had some pretty useful connections. At any rate, he and Berlin soon became friends and the Alley master, an early admirer of Porter’s work--constantly admonishing him for floating in gondolas when he ought to be pounding pianos and concrete in New York with the rest of the workers--got him the job as songsmith on “Paris”, the revue that launched Porter as a scribe of saucy sex songs: “Let’s Do It” became a smash hit, and soon everybody and his sidekick were coming up with outrageous couplings. Porter had set the style for dubious taste in the 4th refrain where, after mentioning the amorous activities of moths in rugs, asks, “What the use of moth balls?”
Suddenly the oh-so-clever and daring songs of the new (but almost middle-aged) kid on the block were in great demand. A flock of revues followed, yielding up plaints steaming with erogenous restlessness such as “What Is This Thing Called Love”, “You’ve Got That Thing”, and “You Do Something To Me”. Not only was the general public titillated but the critics, at long last, were so tickled they heaped praise on Porter as a man who was bringing a whiff of erudition—references to Helen of Troy and high art dealer Joseph Duvet--into a showplace reeking of cheap cigars, racing forms, and Mammy songs. A light-footed boulevardier who could slip out bright and snappy material but, it should be added, who was a little too fond of celebrating the “sweets of sin”, and also animal imagery of a dubious nature: the harping on about how, underneath the white tie and tails, there throbs merely a mammal.
This criticism, of course, was no rein on the Porter creativity: from the tale of an oyster enjoying high life in the tummy of the “rich Mrs. Hoggenheimer”, he went on to “finnan haddie” as an enticement offered by the lady to horny males in “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”, with lashings of other creatures in between.
Yet he eventually came to agree with his critics—that you could have too much innuendo and nudge-nudge suggestiveness, that we are more than crude unreflective beasts. The 1930s were to be the dazzling decade for Porter but right in the middle of his success he confessed that he was tiring of being the brittle wit and was anxious to write songs with more common appeal. He wanted to be a balladeer, a creator of heart songs in the grand old tradition of Stephen Foster. A tradition that had been kept warm by scores of Tin Pan Alley songsmiths and, in particular by his pal Irving Berlin. For it was Berlin who, in the middle of a run of ragtime and comedy songs, had struck gold both emotionally and financially in 1912 with a heartfelt ballad inspired by the sudden death of his new bride: “When I Lost You”. In the 1920s, when jazz was all the rage, Berlin score with a succession of sentimental waltzes: “All Alone”, “Always”, “Remember”, proving that it was possible in the pop song market to combine your inner feelings with a product that has universal appeal. In other words: Be Yourself.
An unlikely pair—the boarding school-educated WASP from inherited wealth and the Russian-Jewish immigrant who’d fought his way up from blood-and-guts saloons—and yet musically they had much in common. They both loved to dally in minor keys and then, as if running from spooks in a haunted house, dash back into the sunshine of the major. They both wrote singable melodies that were supported by sometimes surprising harmonies. They both despised Swing and all jazzers who mucked about with their carefully crafted jewels. And like most decent songwriters, they grabbed their music from out of the air, or from deep in the heart, and subsequently had a struggle pinning the elusive butterfly to the music manuscript. Berlin had a battery of musical amanuenses; Porter, using his left-handedness as an excuse for not being his own arranger, had Dr Albert Sirmay take down his songs. These musical secretaries made the published piano arrangements, never altering the sacrosanct melody; sometimes adding a chord for color or texture (but always with the composer’s consent).
However, there are big musical differences between Berlin and Porter, and these become most apparent in their ballads. While Berlin could be refreshing harmonically (as in the minor/major “Blue Skies”) and tricksy in rhythm (as in “Puttin’ On The Ritz), he usually stayed on the straight and narrow, reassuring us that all was well in hearth and home—thus reflecting his own domestic bliss. But Porter, who had a sham marriage and a love life lived down among street rough trade--while always remaining cool and composed on the surface--took us in song, in the early hit days of the late 1920s, for a walk on the wild side.
“What Is this Thing Called Love”, one of Porter’s jungly exotics, starts brutally on a blue note, slides surprisingly into a minor mode (What Richard Rodgers rightly classified as “Eastern Mediterranean, rather than Jewish), and then runs home, shutting the door in the comfy major. Off we go again, riding on another blue note, taking us down step by step in a Spanish mode. All very foreign and far from the Alley. In “You Do Something To Me” there are the same Spanish steps taken in the middle part—or “relief”—supporting the line “Do do that voodoo that you do so well”. Porter, an inveterate traveller, picked up Arabic scales, Samoan beguines, and Parisian nightclub chansons, even as he had the devil of a good time.He was, in fact, an early exponent of World Music.
In the 1930s, as we noted, his friendship with the more settled and traditional Berlin coupled with his dissatisfaction with a reputation as a purveyor of elegant sauciness, led him into writing love ballads with beautiful undulating melodies, cunningly undermined by disturbing chords. For example, “Easy To Love”, which is strewn with minor harmonies, thus upsetting the homey assurance of the lyrics (“So swell to keep ev’ry home fire burning for”).
For our purposes we must skip over the forlorn and expecting-to-be-rejected lover/worshipper of “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, and the obsessive, addicted lover of “Night And Day”--and, oh, so many other panting, breathless pleadings by a writer whose blood is always rushing, whose libido is never sated, for he’s always on the chase, seeking a love that equals sex, with the inevitable ending of the affair as “Just One of Those Things”.
Confections clothed in gossamer, throbbingly created but fortunately castrated, by order of the authorities, in performance on stage and screen. Only on record, in the thrillingly mannered piano/vocal interpretations by the composer’s friend, the black West Indian vocalist Leslie “Hutch” Hutchinson, was the passion allowed to pound. And after the thrill of the chase comes the same “old ennui”. Porter was plagued by bouts of boredom all his life.
We are following the romantic who, having celebrated night as the time for clandestine assignations in song after song, finally self-corrects with the magnificent “Rosalie”(1937) which, despite a night-and-stars reference, tumbles its sunny tune in sparkling chromaticism. A promise of eventual marriage is even suggested. Thousands of chorus girls anchored the song nicely in the movie and Irving Berlin was well pleased with his ward. Porter, however, expressed shame at having come up with such an accessible melody and such toasty chords—the only unsettling (and original) passages are in the verse where he leads us up to the refrain via a startling chord sequence unrelated to the key he’s going to land us in. Berlin shut Porter up by telling him never to knock a million seller.
Eventually, and thankfully, we find our songster, as war clouds burst in Europe, ready and willing for the sanctuary of an ordered home life and a small circle of friends. An artist writing ostensibly for the theatre and cinema but also being himself, showing his true feelings, even if slightly veiled. And so we arrive, in 1940, at “Let’s Be Buddies”, a fine example of community sing-along in the grand tradition of vaudeville and British music hall. It was successfully recorded over there, when bombs were falling on London, by Flanagan & Allen, famous for their tramp anthem, “Underneath The Arches”. The writer once obsessed with gigolos and whores (“If you want to buy my wares/ Follow me and climb the stairs”) was now exhorting, “What say, let’s be pals” in order to “ keep up each other’s morales”.
The preeminent example of the domesticated Porter is “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” (1942). After a verse brimming with the trademark debonair word wooing (“I doff my hast as a worshipper at your shrine” because ”You’re rarer than asparagus out of season”) the once footloose lover states in the refrain, “You’d be so nice by the fire” as a breeze sings a lullaby. A lullaby from the man who had been everywhere, done everything, and now is tired from too many night of tropical splendor where the beguine never ends. But note that this comforting home song is subtly torpedoed by minor chords. As usual, of course, we are laid carefully to rest in peace at the end in the good old major mode.
The Rockin’ Fifties provided a rough ride for many of the old-timers practiced in the art of the well-made, self-contained song. Berlin, in particular, was knocked silly by the Big Beat and ordered a campaign against Elvis Presley. But Porter blithely sailed on, achieving some of his greatest successes: “It’s All Right With Me”—a return to dangerous love--and “I Love Paris”–a riot of minor—and, putting everything upright again, the radiant hymn to healthy outdoor love “C’est Magnifique” (All from “Can Can”). For “Silk Stockings” he turned out “The Ritz Roll and Rock”, after a careful listening to the hits of Bill Haley and Elvis Presley.
But his heart was in the old-fashioned ballad and in “High Society” (1956) he presented his final statement on the subject that has obsessed popular music for all time. He’d already done has duty in “Now You Has Jazz”, another subject about which he knew little and had to approach Louis Armstrong, one of the stars in the movie, for pointers. Now he could relax and deliver his legacy: “True Love”.
This lovely waltz, as artfully simple and as effective as Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” or Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You”, and as carefully written as all Porter’s work (meaning that every note and chord is worried into just the right place), sounds a little German in the best sense of the word. I mean that in places the melody reminds me of “Silent Night” and then there are the dips into a diminished chord, like a draught of good pilsner. The bridge strays easily into another key—“For you and I have a guardian angel on high with nothing to do….” And then, via a refreshing chord, we are back in the home key and the promise that a Higher Power has given the couple, “True Love”. Lest I present the song as a bit on the holy side I should add that in the verse Crosby describes his “feeling far above par”, a sly reference to the crooner’s attachment to golf.
Performed in the movie by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, in an ocean sailboat scene, the song was nominated for an Oscar while the recording shot to number 3 in the 1956 Billboard chart beaten only by the likes of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Fats Domino. The old Yalie, paradigm of high fashion and glitter, was unexpectedly in the fast company of rockers. More importantly, his publisher, Max Dreyfus, whose writers included Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill and Richard Rodgers, wrote him: “In all my sixty-odd years of music publishing nothing has given me more personal pleasure and gratification than the extraordinary success of your ‘True Love’. It is truly a simple, beautiful, tasteful composition worthy of a Franz Schubert”.
From “Love for sale” to “Love forever true” was a long road artistically. What a shame that Cole Porter never reached that temple in real life. His comment might well be the one embroidered in French on his pillow: “Don’t Explain; Don’t Complain”.
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com