ALBUM: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book
ARTIST: Ella Fitzgerald
RYM RANK: #699
RYM RATING: 3.94/5 (average of 886 ratings)
In 1964, during the early dawn of the sexual revolution, Susan Sontag penned her now seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” which sought to popularize what was until then a term shared almost exclusively in the gay community. Per Sontag’s article, camp is a style and sensibility steeped in exaggerations, effeminacy, poor taste, and cornball. There is no proper way to pin down the term accurately but to be campy is to put one a straight face of such artifice that it is actually quite queer. Indeed, with the concept having possibly originated from the French expression ‘se camper’ (which means to gesture or express oneself proudly and outrageously), Sontag’s essay points to pulp novels, theater, and other seemingly heteronormative outlets as contemporary venues of camp.
Though never having openly associated himself with camp culture, songwriter Cole Porter is one of camp’s most prolific yet most unsung heroes. Himself a closeted gay man, Porter spent his formative young adulthood in the underground burlesque scene of Paris before finding tremendous success back in America during the post-Ziegfeld golden days of Broadway (arguably one of the prime arenas of camp art). Among the hundreds of songs penned by Porter you have classics like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “All of Me”, and “Night and Day”; all worthy staples of the unofficial Great American songbook. Treading the line between accessibly wholesome and flagrantly flamboyant, Porter’s songwriting is a fine example of gay sensibility gone mainstream.
It’s with this vague understanding of the questionably self-aware normalness of Porter’s craft that I best enjoyed Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book¸ a boisterous two-hour collection of some of Porter’s most prized numbers as sung by the legendary Ella Fitzgerald. Released in the middle of the Eisenhower years, the album plays like a Douglas Sirk melodrama: lush, kitsch and – true to camp – normal on the surface but with a pervading darkness and twisted brilliance beneath its friendly glean.
The Broadway musical is not a genre with which I’m terrible familiar and so while I may be able to appreciate a library of such respected standards, I certainly lack the ability to fairly grade and assess it. Regardless, there are clear reasons as to why this is both the first double-album on the list as well as the first album to be fronted by a woman. For me, it’s the latter milestone that sparks my curiosity the most because, as previously observed, this is largely a list made by male users for male users so while you will have your Portishead and (some of) your PJ Harvey, the focus is on music that is not only prominently fronted by boys and men but that is catered to boys and men.
So why is it that a sixty-some-odd-old recording by Ella Fitzgerald is included? I suppose that, for one thing, Fitzgerald is one of the most widely recognized voices in standard jazz and this album is her at the top of her game. Nearing her forties at the time, she sings with a smooth mezzo that shines with a warm, uplifting attitude that could relax even the most anxious listeners. Another probable reason for the record’s inclusion on this list is the virtuosity of the Cole Porter’s source music. Having a strong background in both classical and ragtime, Porter belonged to a special group of great songwriters who would adopt George Gershwin’s groundbreaking fusion of symphonics and jazz and who would produce some of the most memorable jazz standards of all time.
Fitzgerald and Porter are a match made in easy-listening heaven and she croons on all two discs with natural ease, making the runtime of the record flow past you in a soothing haze. It’s difficult for an untrained ear like me fully grasp the more objective qualities of Fitzgerald’s interpretations but it doesn’t take a connoisseur to admire the astounding lushness of Buddy Bergman’s symphonic arrangements, which usher in glorious strings that compliment yet never overwhelm Fitzgerald’s lead vocals. From this auditory quality alone, the appeal that a record like Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book had in its day is obvious. High-fidelity vinyl was a fairly new luxury for postwar families and there is no better demonstration for it than in hearing decades-old classics performed with incredible clarity and precision (and let me tell you, even through a mere YouTube stream, the production of the album still rings with indelible polish).
Nonetheless, as is the nature of camp, the sweet and asexual gloss of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book does not entirely obscure some of the seedy essence of Porter’s songwriting. The bulk of Porter’s material was written at a time when theater and film alike could indulge in the nastiest of subject matter, just as long as the content wasn’t explicitly profane. There are examples of Porter’s mild lewdness scattered throughout so if only to prove that I actually bothered to sit through this album (on more than one occasion), I’ll give a track-by-track assessment:
1) The album’s opening track “All Through the Night” is basically a gentlemanly romantic tribute to one’s fuck buddy. Fitzgerald sings gladly of the ecstasy of her partner’s nighttime passions while speaking in dismay of his daytime absence, and although the meaning is communicated through a woman’s voice, Porter’s lyrics stay true to the loneliness of pre-Stonewall cruising where short-term lust is in far more abundance than long-term love.
2) The subtle filth continues with the following track, “Anything Goes”, where Fitzgerald laments about the promiscuous content of contemporary entertainment. Ironic message, considering that listeners where just treated to a prior sex lullaby and considering that this song’s own lyrics are imbued with references to “gigolos” and “four letter words”. Confusing morality aside, this is still a fun romp fit for an above-average Busby Berkeley feature. And to my discovery, it would seem like cult favorite lo-fi group Tall Dwarfs covered part of the F-minor scale progression of “Anything Goes” for their track “Canopener”. On top of that, “Anything Goes” also has a line of lyrics where Fitzgerald sang “Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock/Plymouth Rock would land on them”; these lyrics predate Malcolm X’s famous 1964 proclamation to his fellow Black Americans that “We [Black people] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us”. Of course, Porter’s lyrics didn’t connote black nationalism but instead referred to a simple seventeenth century shipwreck. Nothing is original.
3) The heat gets turned down for the ballad “Miss Otis Regrets”. One of the most covered of Porter’s work, it’s also one of the most horridly dark, recounting a heartbroken woman who murders her abusive husband before being savagely lynched by an angry mob. The unpretentious nature of the composition, consisting solely of a romantic piano and Fitzgerald’s solemn voice, makes this a notably eerie and tragic number.
4) And then the heat turns back up – way up! – for “Too Darn Hot”, a sassy flash of swing that is the most blatantly erotic take on the record. Fitzgerald beckons for her lover to “refill her cup” and to “pitch the woo” with her but complains that temperature is just too darn hot (which is confusing since heat is proven to increase sexual desire but whatever floats your boat, Mr. Porter). It’s catchy, kinky fun and very little beyond that but it’s made notable in part due to a unexpected reference to the controversial sexologist Alfred Kinsey. Jesus, how on Earth did a track like this get released in the Leave It to Beaver era? Meh, moving on…
5) “In the Still of the Night” is brief but a modest stand-out nonetheless. Here’s a soothing samba rhythm where all the elements complement each other, from the endearing vocals to the fun jive to the romantic vocals. It’s a great song. Nothing more to say.
6) Although it’s one of Porter’s best loved songs (largely due to Frank Sinatra’s popular interpretation), “I Get a Kick out of You” is one of the less exciting songs of the first disc of this album. The lounge vibe of the arrangements doesn’t give the cutesy fun nature of the songwriting any justice; even Fitzgerald sounds like she’s in autopilot. Honestly, not even a passage about cocaine use can really enliven a track that simply doesn’t fit with the easy-listening demeanor of this record.
7) But things get much better with “Do I Love You”, a contender for the best track of this record’s first half. It’s possibly the most traditional love song on the album, reminiscent of the sort of music that Fred Astaire would sing to his female co-lead during the romantic climax of a Depression-era musical. It’s an admirably earnest and tender showtune.
8) The speed picks up with “I’m Always True to You in My Fashion” which is much more modern in how tempo and melody meanders. There’s even a spontaneous, somewhat off-putting cameo of Offenbach’s often parodied “Infernal Galop”, which is perhaps a cheeky nod to Porter’s 1953 musical Can-Can. The song offers a decent amount considering its runtime.
9) “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love)” is one of the most heavily played Porter standards out there and it’s obvious why. Firstly, it’s a gentle memorable melody that can be easily covered. Secondly, depending on your mood, it can be either be a wonderful argument in favour of romance or one in favour of sex. Given the light burlesque cadence of Bergman’s composition as well as Fitzgerald’s emphasis on the words “do it”, it’s rather clear what these devils had on the mind. Otherwise, not much else to say. You’ve heard this song and this is as apt a cover as any other.
10) And here’s another Porter favorite: “Just One of Those Things” is not one of my personal favorite Cole Porter tracks but it seems to be everyone’s else’s; the number of big names who have played this diddy is utterly astounding and while I don’t have the life to compare Fitzgerald to each and every single one of those artists, I’m nearly certain that this energic take is as good as any. It was interesting to hear her voice waver (perhaps unintentionally) around the climax of the track, providing some emotional nuance that suggests a higher vocal range than one would expect considering how her consistent her delivery has been throughout the album.
11) “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” is one of those Porter standards that always seems to be played as morbidly slow as possible (with john Coltrane’s being the most exaggeratingly lumbering). Slowness is fine, in theory, but it’s very welcome for Fitzgerald and Bregman to turn up the pace a little with this interpretation, turning what is usually a sleepy sweetheart’s melody into an uplifting interlude with a childlike sweetness fitting of Lady and the Tramp’s soundtrack.
12) I have a strong recollection of my grandmother playing “All of You” on occasion at her grand piano and it was always played without a beat and without any strong sense of drive. That’s my biased preference and while this version is fine, the andante-to-moderato motion hardly lets the beautiful of Porter’s songwriter truly shine through the resulting product is a forgettable detour that ends all too abruptly. This song should be an adagio, at the fastest.
13) “Begin the Beguine” is…wait, what a beguine? Well, Wikipedia is telling me that it was a Caribbean-based dance that was popularized around the 1930s, largely due to the prominence of this song. Cool, though that’s peculiar considering that this song is just straight-up swing. It’s strong swing, regardless, and the way Fitzgerald hits that higher octave near the ending is enough to make one’s health jolt.
14) “Get Out of Town” is your grandpa’s break-up song; a calm letter left by the fire telling a once loved-on to simply fuck off. It’s a soft approach with soft results; a welcome calm after a series of other swingy numbers.
15) Written for his musical Can-Can, “I Am In Love” appears to be one of the less celebrated of Porter’s songs but it’s easily one of the strongest tracks of the first disc. Bregman’s string-composition is exotic and rousing, reminiscent of a main theme for a Sean Connery-billed Bond picture (and recorded several years before the first theatrical Bond film). It’s stellar.
16) And then the first half ends with “From This Moment”, a big band stomper with triumphant verses belted by an equally triumphant Fitzgerald. Her vocals are at her brightest and sharpest, hardly taking a breath while keeping up with the band’s preppy tempo. It’s an interesting way to get listeners amped to the following disc.
17) The second disc commences with “I Love Paris”, a humbling tribute to the city where Porter had his musical (and possibly sexual) awakening. The track is one of the most notably theatrical or cinematic takes on the record, beginning with a yuletide-esque intro before begetting mainly instrumental movements what give Bregman a much-deserved moment to shine. As opposed to many other Porter standards, “I Love Paris” – having been initially penned for the musical Can-Can – seems rather lonely without visual accompaniment. Nonetheless, this is a pleasant way to start this album’s second half.
18) “You Do Something To Me” is a notably older number of Porter’s, dating back to his 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchmen. Despite its age, it’s archetypical Porter, filled with innuendo and adequately cheesy arrangements. Fitzgerald and Bregman’s skill thankfully elevates it beyond the songwriting’s derivative qualities.
19) What saucy sounding horns! The was the first thought to pop into my head upon hearing “Ridin’ High”, a cocky and rambunctious tune that shows a much more caustic side of Porter and Fitzgerald alike. Ella’s vocals venture into her higher octave with surprising ease and help make this the most buoyant track of this disc thus far.
20) “Easy To Love” is a very handsome piano-driven lounger; one that reminds me of the slower pieces that one would find on Miles Davis’ earlier hard bop releases. The improvisatory nature of the piano playing is a good reminder of just how much Porter’s music lends itself to the jazz genre, with each timeless standard of his giving countless artists comfortable rubrics upon which to demonstrate their own styles and imaginations. Fitzgerald’s voice is notably belle on this way, having her sing at a lower octave and volume to produce some very heartwarming results.
21) And wow, we are back to brass-heavy business with “It’s All Right To Me”. You know, its with this disc that you get the strongest idea of just how choppy this collection of songs is. There is a most sense of slow-to-fast-to-slow sequencing but it’s done with such bombast that songs like this one are borderline invasive. Still, “It’s All Right To Me” is a fun enough banger on its own, with some eyebrow-raising lyrics about promiscuity (“They’re not his lips/But they’re such tempting lips”).
22) “Why Can’t You Behave” is a trip back to Porter’s more string-heavy romanticism and it’s honestly quite boring. It’s as competently performed as any other track but something about the cut-and-dried chorus and Fitzgerald’s tamed delivery that make this more lawn-inducing than smile-inducing. Bregman’s arrangements are quite stellar here, however, particularly during the break of the second half which adds a much-needed sense of bittersweet nuance to this overlong snoozer.
23) “What Is This Thing Called Love” is a significant improvement over the previous slog, providing some cheery horns and peculiarly youthful vocals that enrich what is already one of Porter’s most identifiable and respected pieces. While unforgivably short, this track is a neat curiosity whose swing-vibes and danceable moderato beat is a seeming nod to the sort of material that Sinatra was chugging out during that decade.
24) And here we have it, ladies and gentlemen: the absoluter gayest song on this album. “You’re The Top” is…well, the title alone is a strong enough indication of the sort of seme-adoration flaunted in this song. In literal terms, however, the lyrics are merely an innocent series of euphemisms to the Colosseum, the G.O.P., and other supposedly “big” things. With its catchy melody and its overt camp, it’s no surprise that this is one of the most adored (and widely parodied) works of Porter’s catalogue.
25) The mood gets classier for “Love For Sale” but significantly less interesting, a song with the sincerity and focus of a filler scene from a Bob Hope musical. Porter’s music works its way up and down the scales but can’t seem to find an interesting hook to latch onto let alone any fun directions to steer itself into. The atmosphere is an attempt at that oscillation between sweet and sultry that characterizes much of the album’s music but instead of sounding intuitive, the attitude here instead sounds confused and unengaging. “Love For Sale” is possibly the dullest anthem to prostitution that I’ve ever heard.
26) “It’s De-Lovely” is the song whose name would eventually be the inspiration for the 2005 musical biopic De-Lovely which recounts the awkward, barely genuine marriage between Porter and Linda Lee Thomas. As one of the poppiest Porter favorites, it’s hard for Fitzgerald and Bregman to make this one anything but wonderfully amusing. It’s one of the better demonstrations of Porter’s signature wordplay, with a preppy chorus where Fitzgerald gleefully cheers “”It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious, it’s de-lovely”. Obviously not one of the highest brow songs of Porter’s oeuvre but it’s certainly one of the most lovable.
27) The feeling gets toned to the key of Benny Goodman for “Night And Day”, a noir-esque love letter set to the backdrop of a seedy urban landscape. Bregman’s arrangements in particular manage to strike an efficient balance between light and dark, showcasing the descending harmonic sequence of the song with surprisingly dramatic and exciting results.
28) I’ll cut the pretense: “Ace In The Hole” is good and little beyond that. There’s nothing terribly noteworthy about this interpretation or even of the source material but I offer no criticisms and can comfortably say that this is as deserving of its inclusion as any other song.
29) The mannerism turns surprisingly exotic for “So In Love” with strings that evoke an essence that’s peculiarly similar to what a score to a Cecille B. Demille’s Biblical epic would elicit. This interpretation is, I suppose, as strong as any other and the samba beat makes the song all the more mysterious and alluring.
30) “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is one of those standards that even a showtune novice like myself was more than familiar with before being confronted with this version. The approach here is safe though it’s surprising to hear Fitzgerald choose a lower octave for the signature hook, giving the message an interestingly sinister mannerism (which is appropriate, considering that this is a song about obsessive love).
31) “I Concentrate On You” is just a more boring iteration of the themes communicated in the previous song, though with some sweeping work by Bregman and his band. That’s all there really is.
32) And then the album comes to a close with “Don’t Fence Me In” and it’s one of Fitzgerald’s best moments on this whole album. Here she performs sung dialogue with the sort of clarity and precise rhythm that can easily be botched (re: Gerald Butler in Phantom of the Opera, possibly the worst mainstream example of musical storytelling in the last 25 years). The songwriting is also Porter at his most playful, offering a Wilde-esque vocabulary (with the assistance of cowriter Robert Fletcher) and an idiosyncratic key signature that keeps listeners on their toes.
And now I’m done with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book and my impression is a combination of exhaustion and gratefulness; exhausted by how I endured two hours of showtunes that I’d otherwise have never forced myself through but grateful of the introduction to a brilliant vocalist and an equally brilliant songwriter. While the album has a visage of sameness to my untrained ears and while the pacing is more suitable for a compilation than a full-fledged studio release, the Cole Porter Song Book is nonetheless a thorough but approachable beginner’s guide to one of America’s best loved songwriters; true proof that successful camp can bring normies and weirdos alike to mutually appreciate art that is simultaneously pristine and perverse.