Cole Porter

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs

Smart and sophisticated but with a naughty boy’s streak for mischief, Cole Porter was in that rare echelon of songwriters who supplied both words and music. Porter was born to wealth and he wasn’t one to hang out with other songwriters, preferring to do his work at home, on the Lido in Venice, or on a cruise. But other songwriters extolled his virtues. Lyricist Sammy Cahn commented, “When I met Cole Porter for the first time in my life, it was one of the great thrills for me because I think that he, alongside Irving Berlin, are the two single most gifted men of American words and music—because they wrote both. Cole said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to meet you Mr. Cahn.’ My jaws locked, which is not an easy thing for my jaws to do. And I couldn’t comprehend what he meant and I finally managed to say, ‘You wanted to meet me, why?’ He said, ‘Because I always envied you the fact that you were born on the Lower East Side. Had I been born on the Lower East Side I would have perhaps been a really true genius.’”

I had been singing only about a year-and-a-half or two years and I always tried to do as much Cole Porter material as I could because, as I said, I enjoyed his lyrics.

Take it from us, Porter was a true genius. He began his career at Yale University where he contributed a song that is still sung on campus, “Bingo, Eli Yale.” His first attempts on Broadway were not so successful but after a time in the French Foreign Legion, Porter came back to Broadway and enjoyed tremendous success.

Perhaps his friends can describe him best. Alan Jay Lerner recalled, “Well, I called up and said I’d like to see him. Two days alter, I received a phone call from his secretary, asking whether I would appear at five o’clock two days later. Of course, I did. It was like a command performance. I arrived at the ninth floor of the Harkness Pavilion exactly at five o’clock. His butler was waiting for me at the elevator landing. He took me to the conservatory at the end of the corridor where Cole sat in the corner with a cocktail shaker, some hors d’oeuvres, a little dish of fudge. All through that entire time hot hors d’oeuvres were served, because Cole had taken another room in the hospital and put a little stove in it to prepare them for his guests.”

Frank Sinatra recalled a meeting with the great songwriter. “Many, many years ago when I was a young man, I was working in a roadhouse in Englewood, New Jersey, just across the river from New York. One Sunday evening, when there were about thirty or forty people present in the club, I was singing with the six-piece orchestra. I was also the head waiter, answered telephones, and made out the radio programs…. A party of people arrived. I recognized Mr. Porter. Of course, I was absolutely astounded that he’d be in the same room. I had been singing only about a year-and-a-half or two years and I always tried to do as much Cole Porter material as I could because, as I said, I enjoyed his lyrics. Another reason: Mr. Porter, unlike Mr. Rodgers, let’s say, didn’t go out and get loaded because of an arrangement somebody else made of his music. Mr. Porter was a very liberal man in that sense. He really didn’t care how you arranged it as long as you did the song in its entirety. Even if you changed the tempo from a slow four to a twelve-eight, it made no difference to him. I very bravely said, ‘We have in our midst this evening, ladies and gentlemen, one of the great artists in our musical world in America, a man of great renown,’ and I went on and on and gave him the greatest buildup since Charles Lindbergh. Asked him to take a bow and he did, and he stared daggers at me. That’s when I found out he was a snob, by the way; that was the first time. He hated the hole idea of being introduced in a beaten-down nightclub. Then I began to sing ‘Let’s Do It’ and forgot all the words, I was so nervous.”

But Sinatra probably got it wrong. Porter just avoided the spotlight. As Porter himself said, “I’m not a snob. I just like the best of everything.” Ethel Merman, who starred in a series of hits for Porter, the most important being Anything Goes, explained, “Basically, he was shy rather than snobbish.” (KB)

Pick your story

Sometimes there are conflicting stories surrounding Porter songs. “Night and Day” was written while Cole was on vacation in Morocco, after hearing a muezzin calling the faithful to worship. Or maybe Porter wrote it at the Ritz Carlton and finished the lyrics on the beach at Newport. Porter told both stories so take your pick. Another double story concerns “De-Lovely.” One story goes that Porter, his wife, Linda, and Monty Wooley caught their first look at Rio de Janeiro. Porter said, ”It’s delightful!” Linda responded,  “It’s delicious!” and Wooley opined,  “It’s de-lovely!” Or perhaps Porter wrote the show while cruising to the South Seas with author Moss Hart, working on the show Jubilee. Either way, “It’s De-Lovely” was rejected for the film Born to Dance so Porter took it to Broadway, where it became a hit as sung by Ethel Merman and Bob Hope in the 1936 show Red, Hot and Blue! It's De-Lovely

Less serious than they thought

Kiss Me, Kate’s  “Wunderbar” was conceived as a spoof on nostalgic German drinking songs. In spite of the composer’s intentions and the ridiculous lyric, the song became a success. Henry Sullivan and Harry Ruskin’s “I May Be Wrong, But I Think You’re Wonderful” was another purposely over-the-top song that was taken seriously, as was “Sonny Boy” by De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson.Wunderbar

Banned on the radio

 “Love for Sale” was performed in the 1930 show The New Yorkers by Kathryn Crawford, who sang it under an awning of a smart club with a street sign identifying the location as Madison Avenue. The public and critics were aghast at the image of a prostitute on the Broadway stage—or maybe they were aghast at seeing a white woman playing a prostitute. For when the song was soon given to Elisabeth Welch under a street sign designating Harlem (with the name “The Cotton Club” painted on the awning), there were no further complaints. Nevertheless, the song was banned on the radio.Love For Sale

Fred Astaire on “Night and Day”

It had a long range, very low and kind of very high, and it was long, as they all said, and I was trying to figure out what kind of dance could be arranged for it. I asked him to play it again and again, and after four or five times I began to get with it… It was a known fact that it made the show. Gay Divorce had an awfully rough trip when it first opened on the road and later in New York. It was known after it caught on as “The Night and Day Show.”Night and Day

Wrote it for your voice

 Cole Porter was nonplussed when Astaire worried about singing the song because of the range. Porter replied, “Sure you can. I wrote it especially for your voice.”Night and Day

I just happened to like it

When Artie Shaw recorded the Jerry Gray arrangement at his first session for Victor, it got a tepid response. Shaw explained, “I just happened to like it so I insisted on recording it at this first session, in spite of the recording manager, who thought it a complete waste of time, and only let me make it after I had argued it would make a least a nice quiet contrast to the ‘Indian Love Call’ [on the B side]. That recording of that one little tune … was the real turning point in my life.”Begin the Beguine

It's not over?

Songwriter Cole Porter and librettist Moss Hart took an around-the-world cruise on the Franconia in order to write the musical Jubilee. While in the Dutch East Indies, Porter heard a native dance and was taken by its unique rhythm. He wrote “Begin the Beguine” and played it for Hart, who later admitted, “I had reservations about the length of the song. Indeed, I am somewhat ashamed to record that I thought it had ended when he was only halfway through playing it.”Begin the Beguine

On first hearing “Night and Day”

It had a long range, very low and kind of very high, and it was long, as they all said, and I was trying to figure out what kind of dance could be arranged for it. I asked him to play it again and again, and after four or five times I began to get with it.…It was a known fact that it made the show. Gay Divorce had an awfully rough trip when it first opened on the road and later in New York. It was known after it caught on as ”the Night and Day Show.”Fred Astaire

On the genesis of “Be a Clown”

Roger Edens, who was the associate producer of the show [The Pirate], and the producer, Arthur Freed, decided a dance number was needed. Somehow they sent me to Cole’s house and I had the temerity to go. He said, ’What kind of a number do you really need?’ I said, ’Well, a gay number, I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, what do you see?’ I said, ‘Something fast.’ And he said, ‘Well, how about a lot of lyrics?” And I said, ‘That’s good!’ The more lyrics, you know, the better for us dancers.’  Anyway, the next afternoon he came in with three choruses of this song,  ‘Be a Clown,’ and we used it as a reprise throughout the picture. Naturally, I think he’s a genius.”Gene Kelly

On “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”

It chokes me whenever I hear it, it moves me to tears. This song is one of the greatest songs you ever wrote. It is a dithyramb to love, a hymn to youth, a heavenly beautiful song. It is not less a gem than any immortal song of a Schubert or Schumann.”Dr Albert Sirmay, T.B. Harms’s house arranger

Alan Jay Lerner on Cole Porter

That thing that was so unique about Cole, for us who are in his craft, is that he seemed to spring from nowhere. You see, when the musical theatre started in this country about 1919 or ‘20, when Jerome Kern led the break from the European operetta and so on, you could follow a progression from Jerome Kern to Dick Rodgers to Gershwin, but Cole seemed to spring like Jupiter from Minerva’s head—all made. What he did was so special and so unaccountable and unexplainable that he really, of them all, in a strange way, is the most irreplaceable.Alan Jay Lerner

Frank Sinatra on Cole Porter

I particularly like Cole’s lyrics to sing because he made it fun to sing a song. He gave it a freshness. When I first would see one of his songs, the surprise of the couplet or the inner rhyme was always exciting to me. Consequently, when I worked in clubs—particularly in clubs—the material was fun to do because it was sophisticated enough for a drunk audience.Frank Sinatra

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Recordings
Anything Goes
Ethel Merman
Be a Clown
Gene Kelly
C’est Magnifique
Cole Sings Porter Recordings of Cole Porter
Down in the Depths (on the 90th Floor)
Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman and Alan Jay Lerner Discuss Cole Porter Songs
Ethel Merman and Alan Jay Lerner
Ethel Merman and Garson Kanin Introduce Roger Edens
Ethel Merman and Garson Kanin Introduce Roger Edens
Frank Sinatra Reads a Passage from “The Life of Cole Porter”
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra Recalls the Filming of “Can-Can”
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra Speaks of “Roadhouse Nights” with Mr. Porter
Frank Sinatra
Fred Astaire Discusses “The Gay Divorce” and “Night and Day”
Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Garson Kan, and Alan Jay Lerner
Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Garson Kanin, and Alan Jay Lerner Recall Porter's Years in Hollywood
Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Garson Kanin, and Alan Jay Lerner
Friendship
Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, and Company
Garson Kanin Introduces Ethel Merman
Garson Kanin
Garson Kanin Introduces Fred Astaire
Garson Kanin
Gene Kelly Discusses “The Pirate” and “Be a Clown”
Gene Kelly
I Get a Kick Out of You
Ethel Merman
I Love Paris
Frank Sinatra
I Love Paris
Cole porter
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Frank Sinatra
Jimmy Stewart Discusses “Born To Dance” and “Easy and Love”
Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart: Easy to Love
Jimmy Stewart
Let’s Be Buddies
Ethel Merman
Let’s Do It
Frank Sinatra
Make it Another Old-Fashioned, Please
Ethel Merman
Night and Day
Fred Astaire
Was Cole Porter a Snob?
Frank Sinatra
You’re Sensational
Frank Sinatra
You’re The Top
Ethel Merman
The 3 part PBS Series
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