The Timeless Cool of Cole Porter, Muse to Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

To hear Tony Bennett’s son and longtime manager Danny Bennett tell it, a friendship ensued between his standard-bearing father and the mod-pop chanteuse Lady Gaga after their first duets album, 2014’s platinum-plated “Cheek to Cheek.” The pals always came back to Tony’s “Cole Porter Medley,” from 1975, as the gold standard of American song and the model for a next collaboration. “Gaga liked that idea, and thought they should reinvent that,” notes Danny Bennett. “They didn’t wind up doing just that, but a creative conversation was started.”

That duo’s dialogue about Porter as the master of American song comes to its fruition in their newly released collaborative album, “Love for Sale,” a collection of nothing but Porter covers. The lion’s share of the attention is going to the fact that the record is destined to be the last of Bennett’s long career, as he winds his professional duties down several years into an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. But not to be lost amid the send-off is how the project celebrates the eternal cool of the man many consider the best songwriter of his or any century, and why dipping into a single writer’s catalog is all the splash a great like Bennett needed to go out on.

On Bennett’s 1975 album “Life is Beautiful,” the stately crooner, deep in the throes of nuanced jazz phrasing and swirling arrangements, sauntered through the epic, nearly 12 -minute “Cole Porter Medley” in a whirlwind of shadow and intensity. With the theatricality of a finely tuned actor and the bruised emotionalism of a spurned lover, the medley’s roller coaster ride of erudite fervor and reserved — yet passionate — sentiment exists in every one of Bennett’s vocal turns, moving from the pensive “What Is This Thing Called Love” to the flashy “Get Out of Town” with energy, tenderness and elegance at every beat.

That’s what Bennett did, making it sound so easy and sad, in 1975. And it’s what he does again in “Love for Sale,” with the credibly jazzy Lady Gaga also bringing an innate sense of why Cole Porter remains the standard-bearer of American song.

As a lyricist and as a composer, Porter’s voice is that of cosmopolitan sophistication and deeply etched emotion, and of the early mixture of jazz, blues, ragtime, art song and show-tune sensibilities. The clever comportment of Porter’s witty, urbane and hip words surely stems from his upbringing as a gifted child in the middle of America — Indiana, to be specific — who, even coming from a well-to-do family, still was an aspirant  to the ecumenical dignity and daring of metropolises such as Manhattan and London.

The chapters and verse of Porter’s Great American Songbook are giddy, snarky and boozy in all the right places: “Begin the Beguine,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” “I Happen to Like New York,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” “It’s De-Lovely” and, of course, the brassy “I Get a Kick Out of You.” So many of these silly, searing songs reveal Porter’s piquant connectivity — or wistful proximity — first to the post-Gilded Age of the Great White Way. It was a Broadway he empowered with “Anything Goes” (1934), “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1939) and “Panama Hattie” (1940), before moving through the Golden Era of Hollywood with movie musicals such as “Rosalie” (1937), “The Pirate” (1947) and “High Society” (1955).

Each of these songs encourages and provokes its participants to dance, drink and act decadently, but with a certain amount of “class” to go with the ribaldry. Just ask Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers as they twirl, croon and sip champagne cocktails to Porter tunes throughout 1934’s “The Gay Divorcee.” And when a Porter-based song character isn’t allowed to carouse or act with wonton disregard of convention, they sing a song such as “Don’t Fence Me In.” With that, Cole Porter is the voice of freedom, letting loose and letting it fly.

Living life as a gay man, however — closeted by a conventional marriage to his best female friend, with his public emotions and desires set upon the shelf — made for an additional layer of sorrowful subtext. It doesn’t take reading a biography to intuit an innate sense of loneliness in his words and music. What is more rueful than the deep yearning and lost connection conveyed in Porter songs such as “Night and Day” (“In the roaring traffic’s boom, in the silence of my lonely room, I think of you”), “So in Love” (“Even without you, my arms fold about you”) and “I Concentrate on You” (“When fortune cries ‘Nay! Nay!’ to me, and people declare ‘You’re through!,’ whenever the blues become my only song”)?

The mix of love and life, freewheeling or unrequited, has been is cool catnip to music’s finest and most diverse interpreters.

To hear Ray Charles and Betty Carter duet on a blowsy version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” in 1961 is no more or less stirring than hearing Simply Red’s Mick Hucknell do the same song as a sad, soulful soliloquy in 1987.  It’s been hep to ride the range of “Don’t Fence Me In” whether the cowboys were Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in 1944 or David Byrne in 1990 — the latter on the most recent and finest of all Porter tributes, “Red Hot + Blue,” the first of several compilation albums put together by the Red Hot Organization to raise money for HIV/AIDS-related charities.

“Red Hot + Blue” opened up its own can of worms when it came to how and who did Cole better or more aptly. On that modern classic of an album, U2’s “Night and Day” doubled down on its haunting refrain, with Bono feeling out an even most isolated version of Sinatra’s soul-searching sermon. Yet hearing the Chairman of the Board do it himself with his own intimate brand of liquor-laced ennui is doubly dynamic. Speaking of Sinatra, his take on “Well, Did You Evah!” with Celeste Holm during the “High Society” film musical is as hilarious as it is complexly critical of the upper classes. Having two punk-rock icons like Deborah Harry and Iggy Pop take it on made it feel more subversive. Then there was “Red Hot + Blue’s” raucous “Miss Otis Regrets,” performed by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, a fresh take on a tune that had been acted out, slowly, as a chamber soul moment in 1970 by Labelle (with the recently late Sarah Dash). You could also stake your preference for Ethel Waters’ mannered art-song version of “You’re Driving Me Crazy” in 1934, vs. the husky R&B of Van Morrison and organ jazz lord Joey DeFrancesco covering the same song in 2018.

Those who chose to imaginatively invest their heart and soul into paying tribute to Cole Porter’s finest songs in great volume often see gorgeous dividends. Ella Fitzgerald’s keenly orchestrated 1956 “Sings the Cole Porter Song Book,” the first album ever to be released by the Verve label, set the standard for what vocal jazz could be.

A self-confessed worshipper at the altar of Ella and Cole, Tony Bennett has long known the power of Porter’s simmering elegance, to say nothing of Fitzgerald’s stately and improvisational aplomb. That’s the street where his own “Cole Porter Medley” of 1975 lives, an intersection worth revisiting where the Lady and the Crooner were concerned on “Love for Sale.”

The creative conversation of “Love for Sale” — whether on the big-band cool of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” Gaga’s boldly Broadway-ish “Let’s Do It,” or Tony’s solo, potently inventive “Just One of Those Things” — is the very definition of what makes Cole Porter relevant and right. While it’s no secret that Mr. Bennett is 95 years old and at odds with the scourge of Alzheimer’s, you wouldn’t know it from the sound and spirit of “Love for Sale.” That’s what the emotion, acuity and energy of Porter can do. Whether as a swan song in the sundown of Tony Bennett’s career, or as an elegant stop along the way, the words and music of Cole Porter are perfection, night and day.


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