Celebrating the Cole Porter songbook

Continuing our dual celebration of Black Music Month and LGBTQ+ Pride Month from last Sunday, I thought it would be interesting to explore the works of one of America’s greatest songwriters in The Great American Songbook Hall of Fame: Cole Porter, who happened to be gay. Many black musicians, singers, and instrumentalists savored, favored, and performed his work during his heyday and are still paying homage to him today.

The Great American Songbook is not a literal book, but “the canon of the most important and influential American popular songs and jazz standards from the early 20th century that have stood the test of time in their life and legacy. Often referred to as ‘American Standards,’ the songs published during the Golden Age of this genre include those popular and enduring tunes from the 1920s to the 1960s that were created for Broadway theatre, musical theatre, and Hollywood musical film,” according to The Great American Songbook Foundation.

Porter was born on June 9, 1891, so let’s celebrate his birthday today and enjoy the musical gifts he gave us.

”Black Music Sunday” is a weekly series highlighting all things Black music, with over 200 stories covering performers, genres, history, and more, each featuring its own vibrant soundtrack. I hope you’ll find some familiar tunes and perhaps an introduction to something new.

Jim Lopresti wroteJAZZ: The Queer Touch” for the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida blog:

It is hard to categorize Cole Porter’s music. That is because it is so original. Jazz artists basically fell in love with everything he wrote, given his witty, innuendo-packed lyrics and his extraordinary gift for writing melody. Unlike his contemporaries, he never worked in teams like Rodgers and Hammerstein or George and Ira Gershwin. He did it all, and many would argue that no one did it better. No sooner would one of his Broadway musical revues open or his new Hollywood film hit the silver screen than performers and band arrangers would be swinging the tunes making them jazz standards overnight. Just consider such classic songs as “Begin the Beguine,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Easy to Love,” “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin “… and that’s not scratching the surface of his unparalleled personal hit-parade.

Porter was openly gay. His sexuality was not an issue in the elite circles that swirled about him. His parties were the talk of the town in Paris; the lyrics of his most famous songs were born in those settings. Gay, straight, married, single, black, white, everyone who was a Paris “influencer” was there. “You’re the Top” had some interesting party lyrics that, as you might imagine, never quite made it to the publishers or Broadway. Speaking of Broadway, talk to soprano Lisa Vroman [Christine in Phantom of the Opera] about George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and she’ll keep coming back to the night in Paris when the two legendary songwriters played together at the piano until 3 a.m.

Porter married American socialite Linda Lee Thomas in 1918. It was not a sham marriage; he was truly devoted to his wife. Clearly, their marriage also was no torrid love affair. But they figured out how to make it work. Linda knew from the beginning that he was gay. In fact, she never disparaged his gay dalliances. On the contrary, like just about everyone else, she loved him for who he was, a gay genius.

Here’s a complete list of Porter’s songs. How many do you recognize?


One of the major Hollywood films showcasing Cole Porter’s music and jazz was “High Society.” Music writer John Swenson wrote High Society and the Myth of the Jazz Festivalfor 64 Parishes:

One of Louis Armstrong’s most memorable performances comes right at the beginning of the 1956 film High Society. The musical comedy with a Cole Porter score, adapted from the 1940 classic The Philadelphia Story, featured a cast of heavy hitters including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Grace Kelly, but Armstrong absolutely stole the show.

The film opens with Armstrong and his band partying on a bus on their way to play what turns out to be a music festival based on the Newport Jazz Festival. The atmosphere is joyous, celebratory, and Armstrong is dressed to the nines in a Panama hat and tailored suit as he sings in between puffs of a blunt-looking cigarette stuffed into an elegant holder. His band, the All-Stars, joins in the merriment, with drummer Barrett Deems playing a calypso beat on bongos and the others playing acoustic instruments and singing the chorus, as Armstrong acts as omniscient narrator for the tale that is about to begin:

Just dig that scenery floating by / We’re now approaching Newport, Rhode I / We’ve been, for years, In Variety / But, Cholly Knickerbocker, now we’re going to be /

In high, high so-

High so-ci-

High so-ci-ety

Armstrong takes long puffs on his cigarette, letting the smoke waft in the air Cheshire Cat-style, as he continues the story:

I wanna play for my former pal / He runs the local jazz festival / His name is Dexter and he’s good news / But sumpin’ kind of tells me that he’s nursing the blues . . . // He’s got the blues ’cause his wife, alas / Thought writing songs was beneath his class / But writing songs he’d not stop, of course / And so she flew to Vegas for a quickie divorce. // To make him sadder, his former wife / Begins tomorrow a brand-new life / She started lately a new affair / And now the silly chick is gonna marry a square.

The film’s biggest hit was Bing Crosby teaming up with Armstrong for a swingin’ rendition of “Now You Has Jazz.”

Crosby introduces the other musicians in this ensemble number by name: trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Edmond Hall, pianist Billy Kyle, double bassist Arvell Shaw, and drummer Barrett Deems.

Jazz trumpeter, singer, and actor Louis Armstrong rehearses on the set of the movie “High Society” with composer Cole Porter in 1956 in Los Angeles, California.

Armstrong reprised his movie rendition on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1961:

Of all the jazz vocalists recording Porter’s music, the most influential was Ella Fitzgerald. Her album “Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook,” reviewed by Keita Tarlinton at Gaslight Records, is on my all-time greats and must-have lists.

Ella reportedly remarked that this album was a turning point in her career. She had been playing the small jazz club circuit, devoting her voice to bee bop. Her strengths in the technique of scat were well recognized within the jazz community, yet her dedication to this style of music was inhibiting her from reaching a wider audience and a voice like Ella’s was deserving of universal recognition.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook was released in 1956. The success of the album cued a tour and Ella began playing at clubs throughout the US – previously wherein the only black people were cleaners, not the stars of the headline act. The year prior, Ella was restricted to playing smaller venues due to rules imposed by many club owners which prevented African-American people from entering such establishments. One such place was ‘Mocambo’; Hollywood’s premier nightclub. Marilyn Monroe had been frequenting the club at the time and discovered that her favorite singer, Ella Fitzgerald, was prohibited from performing there. Subsequently, Marilyn approached the nightclub’s manager, and in a bid to lift the ban, guaranteed to sit front row for seven nights in a row on the condition that Ella would be performing. Monroe fulfilled her promise and Ella was never forced to play lesser clubs again.

Here are two of her live performances of Porter’s songs:

She’s joined here by Nat King Cole:

Fitzgerald wasn’t the only female vocalist who delved deep into the Porter songbook. Billie Holiday, aka Lady Day, recorded many Porter tunes. Here are two of my favorites:

Victor Cooper’s “Story of Standards” show on KUVO-FM has this background on “Love for Sale”:

Cole Porter wrote “Love For Sale” for the musical “The New Yorkers” in 1930, the same year that the neo-Puritan Hays Code debuted. Based on a book by Herbert Fields, cartoonist for “The New Yorker”, the musical satirized New York “types” from society matrons to con men and prostitutes. “Love For Sale” was introduced by Kathryn Crawford as May, a young prostitute with no apparent illusions about her job. Reaction to showing a white prostitute was strong enough that she was replaced by Elisabeth Welch, also changing the site from Reuben’s to Harlem’s Cotton Club. Critics found little middle ground in their reviews of this song, with some very appreciative of its frank realism and others seeing it as being in the most appalling bad taste.  “Love For Sale” was banned from radio play, where in 1931 Libby Holman’s recording of it went to #5 and Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians (who made their debut in the original musical) took it to #14.

Carmen McRae is too often overlooked when discussing female vocalist jazz greats. Her cover of “Miss Otis Regrets,” Porter’s sarcastic tune about the lynching of a white society woman, is a classic.

Instrumentalists loved Porter’s tunes as well. The great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson was one of them.

Here is a review from musicphilesblog:

Cole Porter was obviously a genius of songwriting. It’s amazing how a guy who mainly wrote musicals could influence Jazz so much. Certainly the same didn’t happen with today’s musicals, or how many Andrew Lloyd Webber jazz standard are you aware off (probably better this way)

I know many jazz aficionados get bored by standards. I don’t. I just love when you recognize a tune, and then see what the musicians do with it. Call me simple-minded. I’ve Got You Under My Skin, In The Still Of The Night, Love For Sale, Just One Of Those Things, I Love Paris, It’s De-Lovely, etc. etc. One more beautiful than the other. If you’re into avantgarde jazz, look elsewhere. This is as mainstream as it gets. But who cares? It is immensely enjoyable.

Bebop king Charles “Yardbird” Parker was another jazz musician who dove into Porter tunes. This was Bird’s last studio album, recorded in March and December of 1954, before he passed in March 1955.

I’ll close today with Porter’s “I Love You”:

Melodically and harmonically “I Love You” has continued to interest jazz instrumentalists such as French horn player Tom Varner, bassists Red Mitchell and David Friesen, saxophonists Anthony Braxton and John Coltrane, pianist George Cables, drummer Art Blakey, and vibist Milt Jackson. Pianist Marian McPartland performed it on her 85th birthday celebration album in 2005.

I chose Coltrane’s rendition:

I hope you’ll join me in the comments section below for more, and post your Cole Porter favorites in celebration of his birthday.

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