Cole Porter was the purest of the pop composers. He never had the zest of Gershwin, the melting melodies of Kern, the everyday energy of Richard Rodgers or Irving Berlin. The lofty “You Are Love” was beyond his ear, the calescent “Fascinating Rhythm” beyond his beat. Yet of his many successes only “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” seems, here and there, less a Cole Porter number than a Vincent Youmans number. You can fumble Rodgers for Berlin, Kern for Rodgers, Youmans for Gershwin, if the nightcap’s good or the party’s a groove, but Porter, generally, whatever the setting, is immediately himself, irresistibly intact.
The long legato line of “In the Still of the Night,” the upper-class minstrelsy of “Let’s Not Talk About Love” or “They Couldn’t Compare to You,” the bolero sweep of “Night and Day” or “Begin the Beguine,” the wry catalogues and back alley sounds and tosspot rhymes (“Philharmonics” with “high colonics”)—in Porter the verbal phrase almost always matches the musical phrase, a perfect casualness and a perfect pitch coupled with the utmost lilt and concentration and swank.
True, he never really progressed. “Let’s Do It” and “Miss Otis Regrets,” as good as anything he’s done, perhaps even the best of everything he’s done, were around long before Du Barry Was a Lady or Leave It to Me. True, except when in the minor mode, whether sardonically or romantically, whether as in “Friendship” or “Love for Sale,” he appears, now and again, a little airy, the pop of the champagne rather too Anacreontic in the wings. He lacked, not often, but often enough, the insouciant swagger, the yeasty theatricality of the other lyricist-composer with whom he’s so frequently compared. Think of Noel Coward’s “Choir Boys’ Song” and think of Cole Porter’s “The Blue Boy’s Blues.” Coward has, it seems to me, the advantage of the English music hall tradition, its eccentricity and edge. The colloquial and the formal, the slangy and the recherché—Porter could be as cockeyed as he wished, but on Union Square or Broadway one had better always be cockeyed in a rough and ready way, or one would, in Porter’s day at least, run the risk of being thought a dip.
He loved the new and he loved the old. He loved the rippling ragtime (Fats Waller, usually), the thumping bass, the alternating clarinet and sax, and he also loved Haydn and Mozart and the Savoy Operas. He left his mark on more than one era. “Two Sleepy People,” “You Go to My Head,” “Whatever Lola Wants,” “What Now My Love?”—aren’t these the sort of songs one assumes Cole Porter to have written, or one fancies he would have written had he ever gotten around to it?
Of course he was a boon to performers. Catch Dietrich in Stage Fright on TV. Marvel at how aptly two spectacularly idiosyncratic styles play against each other. The fantastic Marlene, with…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.