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,”Since 1975, the American song is the gold standard and the model for the 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,”This collection contains only 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 elegant crooner was deep in the throes nuanced jazz phrases and swirling arrangements as he swam through the epic, almost 12 minute performance. “Cole Porter Medley”In a whirlwind 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”Flashy is the new normal “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,”Lady Gaga’s jazzy vocals are complemented by a keen understanding of why Cole Porter remains the American standard-bearer.
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. He was proud to have created this Broadway. “Anything Goes”(1934) “Du Barry Was a Lady”(1939) “Panama Hattie”(1940), prior to moving through the Golden Era Hollywood’s movie musicals like “Rosalie”(1937). “The Pirate”(1947) “High Society”(1955).
Each song encourages and stimulates its participants to drink, dance and act decadently with a little bit of levity. “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.”Cole Porter is the voice for freedom, letting go 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. Porter songs like “The Deep Yearning” are more regrettable than the loss of connection and longing that they express.(*)(“Night and Day”),(*) (“In the roaring traffic’s boom, in the silence of my lonely room, I think of you”) and “So in Love” (“Even without you, my arms fold about you”(?“I Concentrate on You”The mix of love and life, freewheeling or unrequited, has been is cool catnip to music’s finest and most diverse interpreters.“When fortune cries ‘Nay! Nay!’ to me, and people declare ‘You’re through!,’ whenever the blues become my only song”Listen to Ray Charles and Betty Carter perform a duet on a blowsy rendition of
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
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, “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”This is the first compilation album that the Red Hot Organization put together to raise money for HIV/AIDS-related charities.“Don’t Fence Me In”When it came to Cole’s best and most apt performance, the U2 team opened up a whole new world of possibilities. On that modern classic of an album, U2’s “Red Hot + Blue,” doubled down on its haunting refrain, with Bono feeling out an even most isolated version of Sinatra’s soul-searching sermon. But it is twice as dynamic to hear the Chairman do it himself, with his own brand of liquor-laced ennui. His take on Sinatra is a great example of this.
“Red Hot + Blue”Celeste Holm during The “Night and Day”Film musicals are as funny as they are complexly critical about the upper classes. It felt more subversive to have two iconic punk-rock artists like Deborah Harry or Iggy Pop taking it on. There was the second. “Well, Did You Evah!” raucous “High Society”Kirsty McColl and the Pogues performed the song. This is a new take on a tune that was first performed slowly in 1970 by Labelle (with Sarah Dash). You could also stake your preference for Ethel Waters’ mannered art-song version of “Red Hot + Blue’s” in 1934, vs. the husky R&B of Van Morrison and organ jazz lord Joey DeFrancesco covering the same song in 2018.“Miss Otis Regrets,”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 “You’re Driving Me Crazy”The Verve label’s first ever album, the First Album, set the bar for vocal jazz.
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 “Sings the Cole Porter Song Book,”An intersection worth revisiting, where the Lady and Crooner were concerned about 1975 lives
The creative conversation of “Cole Porter Medley” — whether on the big-band cool of “Love for Sale.”
Gaga’s boldly Broadway-ish “Love for Sale” or Tony’s solo, potently inventive “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” — 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 “Let’s Do It,” 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.“Just One of Those Things”