Discussing Cole Porter's work and the book "Cole" and interviewing its author Robert Kimball
BROADCAST: 1970 | DURATION: 00:29:46
Cole Porter biographer Robert Kimball talks with Studs about his book "Cole" and his subject's life and work as they listen to classic performances of some of his most beloved songs. They marvel at how Porter perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the times in his lyrics, his lyrical influences, his unique method of outside-in composing lyrics and music simultaneously, Bobby Short's masterful interpretations, controversies over some of his works, and how well his material holds up. The original broadcast includes performances of Cole Porter's own rendition of "You're the Top" from "Anything Goes." Ethel Merman's version follows along with her recording of "I Get a Kick out of You." Bobby Short interprets "Rap, Tap on Wood" and "Let's Fly Away" followed by Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings of "Love For Sale" and "Miss Otis Regrets." Billie Holiday sings an early version of "Let's Do It" followed by Will Holt performing "I Love Paris." The program concludes with a rare private recording of Cole Porter demoing two songs for the musical "Jubilee"--"A Picture of Me Without You" and "The Kling-Kling Bird on the Divi-Divi Tree."
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Studs Terkel Just a few verses [music playing] of a a classic, a show tune classic and yet an American classic too because America and musical comedies are one. Cole Porter singing his own work and his book, a book about him a very beautiful one, Cole by my guest Robert Kimball with a preface by Brendan Gill. I'm thinking, Bob Kimball as we hear Cole Porter singing the recognition of him as perhaps if ever there were definitive writer of the American scene would be this guy wouldn't it?
Robert Kimball Well his range was so wide he he as we heard in this song he could encompass the most, the most sublime and also the most up to date of fads of the day as well the timeless things, the purple light, the summer night in Spain and then he could talk about Pepcid and Mickey Mouse so
Studs Terkel Well your book is about, has the lyrics of almost all of his songs, the musicals and photographs of him and writings. But more than that it's a picture of a certain society a certain time we think of 34. This is "Anything Goes."
Robert Kimball Yes
Studs Terkel Yeah Anyth- 34. Now we think of the Depression. First of all Porter himself, he's associated often in in real life, his physical life with with the quote unquote "creme de la creme of society."
Robert Kimball Very rich man he was born wealthy, he lived this expatriate sort of highfalutin existence throughout his life he never knew what it was to struggle financially. Yet he had a constant struggle to make it. Creatively he was very late in arriving in his chosen profession. He was almost 40 years old before he established himself. And then of course he had the terrible pain of that accident and 35 operations. So he had his own private hell to bear.
Robert Kimball Constant.
Studs Terkel He was well off, very well off living in all the fancy places in Europe. Now at the same time this is 1934. Of all the song writers and here here's a case of both the so- music writer, composer, and the lyricist both.
Robert Kimball He
Robert Kimball Well?
Robert Kimball There are a lot of things I coul- we could speculate on. One certainly this song was a song that that gave people a lot of hope when they were feeling really low. They could hear this song and they could say you know for, you know, for the top you know it it was buoyant it was cheerful it was optimistic.
Robert Kimball And then I think too one of the things he didn't suffer from many many of his songwriting contemporaries had this beautiful faith in the American dream the material prosperity the the sort of almost utopian belief that money was going to buy happiness. And most of the songwriters of the twenties expressed this faith. But Cole never believed that he knew that it didn't. He knew that there was pain and agony with money. And so in the thirties when people realized that that the dream was was was had turned into a kind of a nightmare for so many Americans in a way he was never caught up in the dream to begin with.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Robert Kimball Its irony. Never never bitter bitterness he was never he never really let go to a total despair. And there's always this fusion and blending of opposites he would suggest one thing and then he would suggest something very different.
Robert Kimball Well, they they knew that there was a party that FDR gave for his sons on New Year's Eve in late 34 right before January of 35. And the guests clamored for "You're the Top" and they, bands were supposed to play it again and again and again and again and it was the song of the hour. And at a time when when when FDR was exhorting America to you know to have faith in itself. It was a song that had incredible faith in humanity and in love.
Studs Terkel Yeah,
Robert Kimball Well you know Ethel Merman was in the show the star of "Anything Goes" with Victor Moore and William Gaxton and and Cole Porter's I guess favorite show performer interpreter and she sang the song in the show.
Studs Terkel Is this as someone pointed out in the acclaim your book has received. Robert Kimball the book is Cole. You know every most rave reviews but one of the says, "How come? Have we progressed or not?" And that's subject to great deal of discussion but there were certain kinds of singers. Not that her voice her voice was not Claudia Muzio.
Robert Kimball Nooo.
Robert Kimball Oh, she, she was a marvelously, a marvelous diction and a superb phrasing. People think of her this great strong bellowing sound we hear her now when she recorded back in the thirties. There is a subtlety and wonderful nuance of to to her interpretations might be interesting.
Robert Kimball Yeah.
Robert Kimball Yes he did. He not only had a thorough classical training in Greek and Latin. When he was growing up and he studied the romantic poets Browning and Tennyson but his musical training was was equally sophisticated. He studied in Paris with Vincent d'Indy in the Schola Cantorum. Darius Milhaud.
Robert Kimball Yes when things were very tough for him. People think he had it easy, that he's you know because of his wealth he went right out of Yale College right to success. He had a long long time of struggle and at one point he he decided to give up popular songwriting and to try serious music and he did a ballet in 1923, called Within the Quota, which is a sort of a parody on the American dream the American success story the immigrant comes over and is transformed into a cinema star.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Robert Kimball And the music is poking fun at this. And Porter being the I think the only American theater composer to be part of the literary lost generation. He lived in Europe as an expatriate during the twenties. So he had a particular perspective on what was happening to America during the decade.
Studs Terkel So we have, we have someone who didn't have any material need a need, nonetheless in his his a creative need to to fulfill it. But how coming back to his way with words. And since he was both.
Studs Terkel Both.
Robert Kimball The unique way of of doing both, he didn't write the music first or the lyrics first he wrote them together and he didn't start at the beginning and he worked from the beginning and the end of a song back toward the middle and toward, in both directions so he built a kind of an arch a beautiful structure.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel One of the aspects of Porter that hits me in reading your book talking to Robert Kimball his book is Cole Holt Winston, Holt Rinehart Winston the publishers in the very [unintelligible] cause it's really a study of a time when of an artist is that even though he lived in what would seem to be a limited social circle. Again [they?] the what we call the jet set today of the beautiful people with quotes about them. Some not that beautiful.
Robert Kimball Yeah.
Robert Kimball He was a very curious man and in his travels, he would constantly look for something interesting and unique about about a place. Of course one of the one of his very very great songs from Anything Goes. And I I think in some ways one of the most famous songs he ever wrote he had to he had to change the lyric.
Robert Kimball If you look at the original lyric the famous line of course is, "Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do." It was five rhymes. Well that only came about because originally he had a line, "I wouldn't care for those nights in the air at the fair Mrs. Lindbergh went through." He wrote the song in 1931 before the kidnapping and after the kidnapping he changed it.
Robert Kimball This is a, the song is a wonderful song and in fact it was probably one of the greatest opening numbers in any musical comedy. The show opened then within 5 minutes Ethel Merman came out and she sang, "I get a kick out of you."
Robert Kimball And in a sense but it's his you know incredible subtlety she's this open almost as the trumpet sound but very muted and restrained there she was almost a perfect contrast and the contrast of her singing style with his very subtle intricate songs creates a marvelous creative experience.
Robert Kimball Absolutely, and this is a, you know it was a time of of the nightclubs and became the speakeasies became fancy nightclubs like El Morocco and The Stork and you had these great nightclub performers like Mabel Mercer. So it started
Studs Terkel Yeah, that's another aspect. We'll hear Bobby Short in a moment who was a marvelous Porter interpreter who knows about any Porter song written. But Mercer and Short, there are some some artist performers have cults around them and these cults are around Porter type songs, they're Porter type songs such as Alec Wilder himself would write and others.
Robert Kimball Well Bobby talks about people coming to hear him and asking for Porter almost as if they're ordering champagne and caviar. They feel that if they hear a Porter song they're getting what, the best in a supper club kind of song.
Robert Kimball He did he did he fin- after he wrote he was writing primarily shows at that time. And and then he after his great success with Anything Goes and Jubilee. He got a chance to go to the coast and he wrote his first film score. In 1936 a film called Born To Dance and I believe that Bobby Short has [on?] his new album Bobby Short loves Cole Porter.
Robert Kimball We this is an obscure song and the kind of song that a Bobby Short keeps alive. The the the little-known gems of these great artists that get buried and the Bobby Shorts keep them alive and I think the cult is more than just the a personality cult it's a feeling that many of us have about things we love dearly and hate to see get lost. And Bobby is wonderful at keeping these this material alive.
Studs Terkel Before we hear Bobby Short's "Rap Tap on Wood", Porter and Hollywood. This would, cause this involves a man standards and he was very furious with himself because Louis B. Mayer. So we have this marvelous story he says, "Listen let's not just have sing for Nelson Eddy fans but for the general public." And he had him change a certain lyric that
Robert Kimball So he. There's a song called "Rosalie" and kept writing and writing and writing and he had written 6 versions and he finally thought he had the mar- marvelous one and Louis B. Mayer said, "No no no no no, write something very simple." So he's as he relates he went back and wrote a song and hate which became the song that everyone knows and and he was furious about it. That was Irving Berlin who said, "You know listen kid, you know you know never hate a song that sells a million copies you know."
Studs Terkel But it it wasn't a question of of I see, even though Porter scored with it and sold millions he himself the creative guy was not satisfied whereas Berlin would say, "If it sells that's it." That was
Robert Kimball I don't think so. I think he he he preferred, preferred some of the songs that didn't receive the attention. I think that "Rap Tap on Wood" was an Ele- old Eleanor Powell song from Born to Dance. I think Bob Bobby does a marvelous job.
Robert Kimball Almost all his songs were written were written for productions for a specific show or film and rarely. And we'll talk about a couple of them later I think but they're almost never did he write a specific song that was not connected to a production. And he as we said earlier he's a marvelous way. If you look at a particular lyric, it says it sort of says just exactly what's happening in a particular time it's social history in its own way. And I I the song that I like that that that that Bobby does is a song called "Let's Fly Away" which are his which Cole's good friend Noël Coward used to parody himself as he did Let's, "Let's Do It". And one of the things that's so wonderful about "Let's Fly Away" aside from the idea of flying in 1930, getting away from from the cold weather and then what was happening in the city was the way it you knew it the references are such perfectly apt descriptions of what New York was like in 1930.
Studs Terkel It is marvelous lines, he she this is a boy girls thing, he, "I'm tired of the telephone always ringing she, "I'm tired of hearing Rudy Vallée singing. I'm tired of the Paramount's gaudy gilding. I'm tired of looking up at the Chrysler Building."
Studs Terkel But more is something else listen to Bobby Short and to Ethel Merman. Something else here. His lyrics call for a certain kind of interpretation not concert ties but almost conversational.
Robert Kimball Yes.
Robert Kimball Your mind must be engaged as well as your feelings and you must listen to to the sense and the intelligence of the man is present his his intelligence is present in everything he writes except the occasional song where he feels he's forced to to do something to order. But I think that that "Let's Fly Away" as if, what I'm saying it be nice to fly away some time.
Studs Terkel Bobby Short. I'm thinking we'll listen to Bobby Short before we take a slight break with Robert Kimball who has put together this marvelous book of Cole Porter lyrics, photos, rec- records, correspondence, with a preface very moving preface by Brendan Gill. Holt, Wins-, Rinehart Winston the publishers, Cole recreates about 4 decades there of his life. About that wasn't it. Roughly. Almost half a century. And his college years to a lot of stuff. We return I think the moment cause here again in listening to Bobby Short again the talking again that it's as though there were a lighthearted Brecht. He is to Porter what Lotta Lenya might be to Brecht in a way.
Studs Terkel We return to Robert Kimball in a moment and the book Cole. [pause in recording] Resuming the the the conversation and as well as hearing the music too of Porter himself and of various interpreters of his different songs. Now "Let's Fly Away" the song we heard Bobby Short sing with The New Yorkers.
Robert Kimball This was a book musical and book about about gangsters in New York City in that. It had an enormous cast. I mean in those days you could you could practically have 10 or 12 big stars in a show and it wouldn't be a strain. Clayton, Jackson, and Durante, Fred Waring's Orchestra, Hope Williams, Francis Williams, Charles King, Mary Cahill, and Pennington late Ann Pennington was in this.
Robert Kimball Yes.
Studs Terkel But also Porter whether he wanted to or not since he wrote about society and times he lightheartedly though he did. By the nature of some of his lyrics and songs became involved with the obstacles. In this case there's a song "Love for Sale".
Robert Kimball Well one of the very greatest songs he ever wrote and a song that he I think felt may have been if not his favorite one of his favorites an exquisite song, a song which was banned as a vocal from the air until very recently because of the the suggestiveness.
Robert Kimball A street walker [was?] a very. But it's a very poetic and exquisite song and here a great work of of art is is dep- people are deprived of the experience of of savoring this fully. Sure there were recordings of the song but so many people never heard them.
Studs Terkel It's anything like Percy Hammond when The New Yorkers was performed "Love for Sale" was sung by a white singer was a white girl. He said this this song may be banned. He's worried about censorship and there was another critic Charles Darnton who was a sort of comestockian figure.
Robert Kimball Exactly.
Robert Kimball Oh yes, the this the Cole was very sensitive to this as were the people who produced the shows. And when a critic would say something like this the song would either go out or they'd have to do something to change the way it was presented.
Studs Terkel Libby Holman sa- but I haven't got that we have Ella Fitzgerald but which leads to a story which leads to what happened really. They changed it didn't they. I said white girl earlier. They changed to quote unquote "a colored girl" and made it at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
Studs Terkel We hear Ella Fi- it's her Porter album but I think from page 1 0 4 of Bob Kimball's book is a note here was changed from the white girl to the Cotton Club the singer to a quote unquote a "colored girl" seen exterior the Cotton Club that was the very popular black club, Negro club, colored club near the pedestrians walking into Cott-. It was on the stage newsboys selling papers. Morning papers about gang killings, 6 months bride, Admiral Byrd, morning papers, well-known clubman put in pen, Clara Bow seen with several men and [unintelligible] first and socks a mother again. Morning papers and then 2 colored boys doing dancing specially. Colored girl sings "Love for Sale"
Studs Terkel Ella Fitzgerald. That's "Love for Sale" one of the controversial songs of 1930 of Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald sings, talking to Robert Kimball his biographer. You thought of of Porter, yo- Porter writing for books. Writing for something larger his songs being the the core of it the flesh and blood of it you know at the same time every now and then he'd he'd write something that was disconnected,
Robert Kimball He did, particularly in the early years when he was getting started he would write a lot of songs that were just know for friends that sometimes were published but there were few of them "Laziest Gal in Town" which Marlene Dietrich made a permanent part of her repertory and famous song, "Miss Otis Regrets."
Studs Terkel "Miss Otis Regrets." This is one that's often you hear at parties or the bar 2 o'clock in the morning some or a lounge somewhere and than a guy is the future Miss Otis. It's very dramatic its supposed to be. You'd think it's a song that deals with drama and tragedy. A woman kills a guy and she's lynched for it but you're saying the origin is something entirely different.
Robert Kimball Often if you you think about it and you listened to it the it's. This is very very great deal of of tragic solemnity about it here's someone saying Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today madam. And all the formalities are being observed while this horrible incident of a lynching has occurred. Well the the origin of the song was quite different. I think Monty Woolley and Cole Porter were listening to the radio and Monte was they were listening to these these popular tunes of the of the day and cowboy songs and and suddenly Monty you know says, "Cole I bet you can't do a song like that." And he egged him on as he often did and finally Cole said, "Well, I'll do it I'll try it for." So Monte said, "I bet you can't write a hillbilly song that begins with these lines: Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today madam." But Cole wrote this song as a kind of a parody on this Frankie and Johnny type song. The the country-western style and he did it com- so straight that everyone has has taken it as a very serious song when its origins were entirely parody and the very first recording of it [night?] was done by a gal who took it exactly in the spirit that Porter originally intended it was a joke and I think she sang it something like this, "Oh Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today madam. Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today." Well that's the last time I ever heard it like that. And people like Josh White recorded it and Ethel Waters and Maxine Sullivan.
Robert Kimball And it does have today when invariably when it's heard people go, "Ooh, ahh." This tragic moment is going to be brought forward. And in a sense it is that. But there is also this other level to it and it's the level that Porter's joke.
Robert Kimball Well I think I'd rather hear someone else do it but I give you a sense of how he had intended it originally. And no one else's other than this one gal who recorded very early ever recorded
Robert Kimball Right.
Studs Terkel We're just talking in a cursory fashion really going through the book of Bob Kimball, Cole. Cole Porter's lyrics his life lyrics life music all are already fused and so about how many starting at Yale 1914 15 to a musical for TV back at 19?
Robert Kimball Okay
Robert Kimball He
Robert Kimball Right.
Robert Kimball Marvelous.
Studs Terkel I think the variety of singers to, talking to Bob Kimball his book Cole, variety known singers, musicals singers, nightclubs singers, semi pop singers and Will Holt who so often is taken for granted has his own way of singing so gently seems to me is a marvelous Porter interpreter and from, since you mentioned Paris from CanCan which was one of the later this was
Studs Terkel My guest we open with the voice of Holt Winston. Holt Rinehart Winston the publishers and it's a beautiful book and we open with the voice of Cole Porter and close to the voice of the artist and this is from a tape you have.
Robert Kimball Yes, this is a got a couple of recordings. These were private recordings never recorded commercially. When he was doing Jubilee with Moss Hart he went into a studio and made recordings for the cast so they could hear how he'd like to have his songs done. And the- there are 2 of them that I think we might have time for. One is "A Picture of Me Without You" and then a song which shared the critical spotlight with "Begin the Beguine," a song called "The Kling-Kling Bird on the Divi-Divi Tree."
Studs Terkel The book is Cole. There's a preface in it, tribute by Brendan Gill. The author of the book that put it all together is Robert Kimball. Cole, Holt Rinehart Winston the publishers and it's quite available and as we get the voice of Porter. Thank you very much.