1891 — 1964
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Cole Porter was an American composer and lyricist who was one of the foremost figures on Broadway during its Golden Age in the first half of the 20th century. He possessed a remarkable gift for coming up with simple, catchy melodies with memorable lyrics, and his works occupy a central place in the Great American Songbook.
Born in Indiana into an affluent family, Porter was encouraged to take up both the violin and piano at the age of six by his mother, who was herself an amateur pianist. He soon began taking lessons at the Marion Conservatory, letting his violin playing fall by the wayside as he focused on practicing piano for two hours a day. It was around this time, when he was 11 years old, that he wrote his first songs on piano, with quaint titles such asThe Cuckoo Tells the Mother Where the Bird Is. These were published with the help of his mother.
Many of Porter’s songs are known less in their original Broadway context than for the many covers and arrangements that have been performed and recorded over the years. Many of Porter’s songs have become a favorite of jazz musicians and singers in particular. Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Oscar Peterson are among dozens of famous jazz artists who have all released albums or even collections featuring exclusively Cole Porter songs. Some of Porter’s more famous songs, such as “Night and Day” have been recorded literally hundreds of times, in addition to appearing in numerous films, and have earned a treasured place in the Great American Songbook.
Although Porter was hardly making the patriotic contribution that he claimed in his letters home, he was still active in composing songs and shows that were finally beginning to garner attention. His first moderate success wasParis (1928), written along with E. Ray Goetz, the brother-in-law ofIrving Berlin, which featured one of his first hit songs, “(Let’s Do It) Let’s Fall in Love.” The following year he set out by himself to write what would become a breakthrough hit withFifty Million Frenchmen (1929). Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics for the show, in a process that would become the norm for the rest of his career. He was undoubtedly inspired in this by the advice of his former teacher Dr. Abercrombie, who said “words and music must be so inseparably wedded to each other that they are like one.”
The 1930s was a productive period for Porter in which he wrote many hundreds of songs (adding to a corpus that would number around 800 by his death). Many of his shows, while widely successful in their time, are known more for their individual hits today. For example,Gay Divorce (1932) contained the infamous “Night and Day,” andAnything Goes (1934) featured hits such as “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “You’re the Top.” Other famous songs from this period include “Begin the Beguine” (1935), “Easy to Love” (1936) and “I’ve Got You under My Skin” (1936), with the latter two written for film.
In 1937, at the height of career, Porter was left devastated by a horse-riding accident that fractured both his legs and eventually led to one being amputated. As a man who placed particular value on his physical appearance, this was the blow that greatly slowed his creative output. Although he continued to write shows into the mid-1950s, only two of them,Kiss Me, Kate (1948) andCan-Can (1953) received great notoriety. Shortly after the successful release ofCan-Can, Porter’s wife passed away and Porter retired in New York as a recluse.
At his best, Porter was one of the most brilliant show composers of his generation, mostly known for his witty lyrics. In particular he has been lauded for his subtle songs which, while achieving great popularity, maintain a certain aloofness by refusing to stoop to using tropes of the industry. Porter’s lyrics pushed the cultural envelope by dealing explicitly with previously taboo topics such as sex and drugs in an entertaining way, with frequent use of internal rhymes and doubles entendres. His body of works represents one of the most remarkable crossovers between popular and art music of the 20th century.
Header image courtesy of All About Jazz Other images courtesy of Film Reference and Songbook
Unfortunately Porter’s first Broadway musical, the patriotic comedy See America First(1916), was a dismal failure, earning negative press such as being called a “high-class college show played partly by professionals” by the New York American and shuttering its doors after only a few runs. Possibly because of this failure, which he claimed led him to withdraw from New York social circles, Porter soon moved to the heart of war-torn Europe, Paris, in 1917. Although he sent back word that he had joined the French army and was active in the fight, this was actually not the case. Rather, Porter had managed to successfully infiltrate the upper echelon of Parisian socialites and frequently threw debaucherous parties, funded largely by his grandfather’s continued financial support. While in Paris Porter met and married Linda Thomas, a wealthy American divorcee, in what was mainly a marriage of convenience and friendship, as his bisexual nature was by this time widely known.
Following a few years at the Worcester Academy, where he studied with Dr. Abercrombie, Porter enrolled at Yale University in what would be a truly formative experience for the young man. Although he became known for writing many fight songs that are still in use today, his true legacy is in the six full-scale musical productions he wrote there, in addition to around 300 songs. After Yale, Porter continued to compose and study music at Harvard University, where he was attending ostensibly to study law, at the behest and with the financial support of his grandfather. However, he soon abandoned his studies altogether and moved to New York to try his hand at Broadway.