Born in 1891, Cole Porter was 20 years old when Alexander’s Ragtime Band reshaped the face of music in 1911. Already a gifted musician and aspiring songwriter, it is unquestionably the pre-popular song era and classical influences prior to 1911 that make Porter’s songs unique.
Attending Yale University, Porter was a member of the original Whiffenpoofs. He penned over 300 songs during his stay in New Haven, including a couple of football fight songs that are still played at Yale.
Porter entered Harvard Law School in 1913, where legend has it that a law school dean sarcastically told him to stop wasting time with law, but to write music instead. Porter did transfer to the School of Music, but historians have never been able to verify the story about the dean.
In 1915 Porter found success on Broadway with a song called “Esmerelda” which appeared in the revue Hands Up. He soon went on to have his own revue, See America First, which was a dismal failure, followed by more failed revues.
He left for Europe at the beginning of World War I, failing to register for the draft. He claimed to join the French Foreign Legion, but was really a socialite and charter member of the Lost Generation. He did work for a military relief fund to help the war effort. Oddly enough, The French Foreign Legion says that Porter was among its ranks, and displays his portrait in the Legionnaires’ Museum.
In 1919, Porter married Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy, Kentucky-born divorcee eight years his senior. Although briefly separated, the couple was married for over 30 years. Despite this and a bevvy of Hollywood beauties often seen in his company, it is generally accepted that Porter was homosexual.
Through the early 1920s, Porter lived mostly on his inherited wealth, his wife’s wealth and some minor royalties. He continued to write songs as he cavorted around Europe, and played a few numbers for Richard Rogers during a chance meeting in Venice. Rogers urged Porter to return to Broadway; musical history was at hand.
Porter returned to Broadway with the musical Paris in 1928, which featured the smash hit “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love).” This number set the tone for Porter’s “list” style of popular song. The List was his trademark; he would string together comparisons and examples, celebrities, famous names and events from history, with all sorts of cultural references thrown in. Three more hits finished out the 1920s, “You Do Something To Me,” “You’ve Got That Thing,” and “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Each featured an unmistakable pop style that blended contemporary sounds with echoes of a classical, pre-pop composition.
Fred Astaire’s 1932 revue, Gay Divorce featured the hit “Night And Day.” This propelled Porter into the stratosphere of musical composers. It is one of the most significant pieces in the popular song era, spending 10 straight weeks at number one.
Porter rode the monster success of “Night and Day” right into his most important Broadway production, Anything Goes. This 1934 blockbuster includes “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” and “All Through The Night.” The title song “Anything Goes” is a well known example of the Porter List style, stringing along things from radios to gigolos to Plymouth Rock. The show included the less-remembered but ultimate Porter List song, “You’re The Top,” in which National Gallery is rhymed with Garbo’s salary, and the Louvre Museum somehow drills down to the latest cultural phenomenon in 1934, Mickey Mouse. The show featured Ethel Merman in the lead, whose no-nonsense voice and untouchable stage presence was the perfect instrument to belt out a convoluted list and twisting lyrics.
Two shows in 1935 and 1935, Jubilee and Red Hot and Blue, were terrific shows but didn’t match up to the brilliance of Anything Goes. How many shows can? Even the great Cole Porter had trouble living up to his own standard. These shows did produce a flurry of standards, including “Begin the Beguine,” “Just One of Those Things,” and “It’s De-Lovely.” Other Porter compositions from this period include “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and “Don’t Fence Me In,” which wasn’t released until 1946, when it became a smash hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters.
At the height of his success in 1937, an equestrian accident resulted in crushed legs and a series of operations that left him in pain for the remainder of his life. Porter’s iron will to write songs was not affected by the accident. In the years following, his shows were Leave It To Me (1938), DuBarry Was a Lady (1939), Panama Hattie (1940), Let’s Face It! (1941), Something For The Boys (1943) and Mexican Hayride (1944), all of which were critical and financial successes.
The magic seemed to fade in the mid 1940s, when Seven Lively Arts (1944) and Around The World (1946) both tanked. Although Porter saw a couple of numbers hit the pop charts, his interest was Broadway, not Billboard.
Kiss Me, Kate brought everything back in focus in 1948. Porter’s “comeback” blockbuster won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist. Songs that thrive to this day include “So In Love,” “Too Darn Hot,” and “Always True to You (In My Fashion).” Hit shows followed in 1952, Can-Can and 1955’s Silk Stockings, which was Porter’s final original Broadway show. His last new hit song was “True Love,” which debuted in the 1956 motion picture High Society.
Although it has been almost 50 years since his last original material, Cole Porter’s songs and shows are revived and updated more than ever. “I Get a Kick OUt of You” became a signature Sinatra song, and was more recently performed by artists such as The Living End, Dolly Parton and Lisa Ekdahl. “Anything Goes” hit the charts for Harpers Bizarre in 1968. “Begin the Beguine” was a minor hit during the disco era for Johnny Mathis, and was a #1 song in Europe for Julio Iglesias in 1981.
In 1982, “So In Love” hit the charts for Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit, off the soundtrack of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That was a zany, madcap farce of a movie that managed to poke fun at much of America, raise eyebrows, and make people laugh at the same time.
Cole Porter would’ve loved it.