Cole Porter

Born on an Indiana farm, Cole Porter (1892–1964) would become the epitome of the urbane, witty, melody-rich Manhattan songwriter, penning both the music and lyrics for such evergreens as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Love for Sale,” “Begin the Beguine,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and “So in Love.” His songs could limn the essence of romantic melancholy, as with “Night and Day,” or be drolly provocative, as with “Let’s Do It.” Though Porter was born on a Midwestern farm, it was a large, successful one. He pursued violin and piano at a young age and even started composing as a boy; he was afforded a premium education beyond that, including at Yale, where he wrote enduring college rally songs. Porter began composing for Broadway by 1915, but after an early production failed, he wrote songs mainly to entertain his high-society friends in Paris, Venice and New York. Porter didn’t compose for Broadway again until the late 1920s, though the success of Paris (which included “Let’s Misbehave”) led to a string of hit shows that lasted through the next decade. In 1937, Porter was badly injured in a horseback-riding accident, permanently damaging his health and changing his lifestyle completely. Though in pain and reclusive from then on, he had a comeback smash with Kiss Me, Kate in 1948 and was widely celebrated before his death in 1964. Among his peers, Richard Rodgers was an admirer, saying: “Few people realize how architecturally excellent his music is. There’s a foundation, a structure and an embellishment. Then you add the emotion he’s put in, and the result is Cole Porter.”

Such Broadway stars as Ethel Merman and Fred Astaire enjoyed hits in Porter-penned musicals. Beyond the Great White Way, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were renowned interpreters of Cole Porter, widely popularizing his songs by devoting whole albums to them. Rosemary Clooney and Anita O’Day also dedicated whole LPs to Porter songs, as did such jazz instrumentalists as pianist Oscar Peterson and violinist Stéphane Grappelli. Yet every generation has had its own favorites in these timeless songs, with their rare combination of wit and emotion. In 1990, the album Red, Hot & Blue kicked off a long-running series of thematic compilations to raise money for AIDS research by featuring contemporary singers covering Porter tunes, including U2 (“Night and Day”), Annie Lennox (“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”), Tom Waits (“It’s All Right with Me”) and Deborah Harry & Iggy Pop (“Well, Did You Evah!”). Bryan Ferry included several Porter songs on his Jazz Age-themed album As Time Goes By in 1999, and Tony Bennett — a longtime Porter interpreter — teamed with Lady Gaga in 2014 to venture “Anything Goes.” That was one of a handful of tunes Porter sang in his own reedy, very Jazz Age voice on record, accompanying himself at the piano. It was also among the many future standards that Porter wrote on the 1907 Steinway grand in his apartment on the 33rd floor of Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria, where the instrument remains on display on the mezzanine. —Bradley Bambarger

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