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Cole Porter (1891-1964)

The Cole Porter Songbook

Sarah Fox (soprano), James Burton (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2014
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Robin Hawkins
Release date: March 2015
Total duration: 60 minutes 32 seconds

Twenty Cole Porter classics enthusiastically performed by Sarah Fox and James Burton, a programme which has been delighting audiences around the UK for several years now.


'This generally excellent album makes a strong case for Cole Porter as perhaps the best of the Great American Songwriters … Sarah Fox is an accomplished opera singer who has always done this sort of stuff, so there's no condescension here. Instead, she totally commands Porter's idiom' (Daily Mail)» More
Cole Porter wrote a huge number of the songs that make up the ‘Great American Songbook’. His songs marry memorable tunes with clever, witty rhymes, and are all the more impressive given that Porter was one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to have written both lyrics and music for his songs. Just one example is the brilliant 'This verse I’ve started seems to me / The Tin Pantithesis of melody / So to spare you all the pain, I’ll skip the darn thing and sing the refrain' from It’s de-lovely (Track 9). Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, to a wealthy family. His mother provided her maiden name as his first and started Porter in musical training at an early age. He learned both the violin (which he did not care for) and the piano. He began composing songs as a child and dedicated his early efforts to his mother. Aged just ten, he composed his first operetta. Porter’s grandfather J O Cole sent him to Worcester Academy in 1905 and then Yale University beginning in 1909, having decided that his grandson ought to be a lawyer.

At Yale Porter sang in the Glee Club and wrote a number of student songs, including the football fight song Bingo, That’s The Lingo!, and this, as well as many others are still sung at Yale to this day. Porter wrote several musicals while at Yale and although upon graduating he enrolled at Harvard Law School, he soon switched to studying music. This was kept secret from Porter’s grandfather who disapproved of careers in the Arts. Porter then moved to New York City to pursue a musical career.

In 1915, aged just 24 Porter had his first Broadway success with a song, Esmeralda, appearing in the revue Hands Up. The quick success was immediately followed by several failures; in 1916 his first Broadway production was a flop, closing after two weeks. Contemporaries George Gershwin and Irving Berlin found success in their early years, but it was not to be for Porter. Dismayed, Porter went to Paris, selling songs and living off an allowance partly from his grandfather and partly from his mother.

Paris was a place Cole flourished socially and he managed to be in the best of all possible worlds. He lied to the American press about his military involvement and made up stories about working with the French Foreign Legion and the French army. This allowed him to live his days and nights as a wealthy American in Paris, a socialite with climbing status, and still be considered a ‘war hero’ back home, an ‘official’ story he encouraged throughout the rest of his life.

In 1918, Porter met Linda Lee Thomas, a wealthy divorcee. The two were not an obvious match; she was eight years his senior, and he was gay. Nevertheless, they married the following year. Linda was always one of Cole’s firmest supporters and being married increased his chance of success. Together they enjoyed living the high life and were married until Linda passed away 34 years later.

Porter continued to write during his time away from Broadway and when he returned in the late 1920s, he did so having already written many of the songs which would later become his biggest hits. His big break came with the musical Paris. The producer wanted the duo Rodgers and Hart to write the music for the show, but as they were unavailable Porter’s agent convinced him to hire Porter instead. Paris was hugely successful and following the French theme, his next show Fifty Million Frenchmen included several great numbers, including the popular You do something to me (Track 5) which demonstrates some of Porter’s most brilliant rhymes: 'Do do that voodoo that you do so well'. The show also features the very amusing, but lesser known Where would you get your coat? (Track 8) and The tale of the oyster (Track 14). The latter appears to be a parody of a Schubert song, perhaps 'The Trout'. The song’s lyrics tell the story of an oyster who, after being consumed by the rich Mrs Hoggenheimer and gliding 'to the middle of her gilded insides', reemerges and proclaims 'I’ve had a taste of society, and society has had a taste of me'. The song was cut after several critics complained about the animal imagery. A popular revue in 1929; Wake Up and Dream included the beautiful What is this thing called love? (Track 4). Porter claimed that the title gave him the haunting, poignant melodic phrase and that the rest of the song almost wrote itself in a matter of a few hours.

Porter’s lyrics are sophisticated and as well as often featuring both ingenious, humorous rhyming, they are frequently risqué. His song Love for Sale which was featured in the revue The New Yorkers was about a streetwalker, and was considered too explicit for radio at the time. Nevertheless it has gone on to become a standard, along with My heart belongs to Daddy (Track 6) in which the character singing is stranded at a Siberian railway station, wearing only a fur coat, and performs a striptease while singing the song. Indeed, Porter was very proud of the sexual sophistication in his show Nymph Errant, also from the 1930s, which is based on a rather controversial story concerning a young English lady intent upon losing her virginity. The song The physician (Track 11) is from this show. In this, Porter’s rhymes for various anatomical parts are not only very clever, but often very funny—as is the constant double-entendre:

He said my vertebrae were sehr schöne,
and called my coccyx plus que gentil,
He murmured 'Molto bella'
When I sat on his patella,
But he never said he loved me.

In 1932 Porter wrote The Gay Divorce, which featured what might be Porter’s best-known song, Night and day (Track 16), here given some new harmonic twists by James Burton who sings at the piano. In 1934 the show was made into a musical film starring Fred Astaire. Also in 1934, Porter wrote the outstanding score for Anything goes, including many of his best-known songs. Naturally, the title number Anything goes (Track 1) is well known, but the show features many others that exemplify Porter’s enormous skill as a songwriter, All through the night, a fantastic ‘list’ song, You’re the top, Blow, Gabriel, blow and I get a kick out of you (Track 7). On this album, this song is transformed into a charming jazz waltz, rather than the usual swinging, big band orchestrations.

Porter was now established as a huge success on Broadway and in Hollywood where he provided scores for many films including Born to dance, which featured I’ve got you under my skin (Track 13) and Rosalie which included In the still of the night (Track 2). Porter was asked to write Don’t fence me in (Track 17) in 1934 but the musical film was never produced. It didn’t become famous until the 1940s. It’s de-lovely (Track 9) from the musical Red Hot and Blue is from this period, as is the lesser known Thank you so much, Mrs Lowsborough-Goodby (Track 3), the tale of a hostess who gives weekends which are 'not a success'. Miss Otis regrets (Track 12) was for a show that was un-produced but the song became a great hit. Several performers claimed that he had written the song for them, and several more that they had given him the idea for the song. One critic wondered if it was in fact Goethe’s mother who was Porter’s inspiration. In answer to an invitation she replied 'I must ask to be excused as I have to die'. Porter had always loved living the high life, and during the 1930s he and Linda were enjoying wonderful opening nights, lavish parties and famous friends. Just as he arrived at the pinnacle of his success in 1937, Porter had a horse riding accident in which both his legs were crushed. Despite several operations on his legs, Porter was left in agony for the rest of his life, which led to severe depression.

Despite his terrible pain, throughout the 1940s Porter continued to write successful shows, several of which were big hits. The 1943 film Something to shout about included the touching song You’d be so nice to come home to (Track 15) to which was a big hit and was nominated for an Academy Award. Seven Lively Arts featured the now famous Ev’ry time we say goodbye (Track 20) which exemplifies Porter’s skill as a composer of deeply moving music with a masterful approach to harmony:

When you’re near, there’s such an air of spring about it,
I can hear a lark somewhere, begin to sing about it,
There’s no love song finer,
but how strange the change from major to minor,
Ev’ry time we say goodbye.

Porter enhances the poignancy of the lines with a chord change that goes from A flat major to A flat minor in tandem to the lyric “how strange the change from major to minor”. Despite this song, the show was a flop, and following this many thought that Porter’s best period was over.

In 1948 though, Porter made a great comeback. Kiss me, Kate which includes Brush up your Shakespeare (Track 19), features the fantastic lyric 'Just declaim a few lines from ‘Othella’ / And they think you’re a helluva fella', and the wonderfully constructed So in love (Track 10). This song’s melodic shape exemplifies a composer who has truly mastered his craft. The melody perfectly conveys the tragedy of the lyrics, as while the rising intervals convey hope and aspiration the melody falls at its end. Although Porter was in complete agony while writing these songs, Kiss me, Kate was Porter’s biggest and possibly best show. The production won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and Porter won Best Composer and Lyricist.

Very much back on top, Porter wrote the music for several big Hollywood movies during the late 1940s and 50s including scores for two Fred Astaire movies and songs for High Society, starring Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly. True love (Track 18) from this film was to be Porter’s last big hit. Eventually, the pain from his injuries, the loss of his mother in 1952 and wife in 1954 became too much for Porter. He stopped writing in 1958 and spent the remaining years of his life in relative seclusion. Cole Porter died of kidney failure on October 15, 1964, at the age of 73.

James Woodhall © 2015

I knew Cole Porter songs long before I knew who Cole Porter was. My parents met at London University in the swinging sixties and Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra were their number one loves. They still have their records with the shillings and pence markings in the corner! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of this music but I first really increased my knowledge of his vast repertoire when I went to University and had my own CD player and freedom to spend at HMV! Although the subsequent path I took was geared much more towards opera and the classical world, I have never stopped listening to these wonderful songs: they are timeless and speak to everybody, whatever their background or generation, and I love them as much as I love anybody else’s music. I hope you enjoy our interpretations of them and will be encouraged to have a go at singing them yourselves!
Sarah Fox

Sarah and I met when we were teenagers singing in choirs, and we have made music of one sort or another together regularly ever since. The Cole Porter Songbook idea came about when we needed to fill in a late night concert at fairly short notice. Sarah and I had been performing this sort of music together informally for years for friends and family, and this was a chance to see if it could stand up as a ‘proper’ concert. I’d known a lot of these songs since childhood, but during my more classical music career I had only periodically had opportunities to play and sing them. Sarah has sung serious classical music in some of the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls. But she has always performed lighter music too, not least appearing alongside Sir Thomas Allen in that unforgettable MGM musicals BBC Prom with John Wilson in 2009.

Over the last three years we have performed the Songbook in venues and festivals all over the UK and we’ve had a terrific response, not least when we invite the audience to join in singing some of the songs with us. We’ve both been pleasantly surprised just how quick audiences are to dust off their vocal chords and share our renditions of some of the most well known Porter songs. Given the (understandable) formality of most classical song recitals, the concert has acquired a looser feel and we hope to have captured the same atmosphere on the record. We both hope that you enjoy singing along with us.

We have collected what we think is a representative spread of Porter’s incredibly varied output. Inevitably we perform many of the most familiar standards, and I have enjoyed the challenge of creating our own versions of those well-worn musical paths. But we have also had the opportunity to include some lesser known numbers which we think stand up alongside the others, and shed yet more complimentary light on Porter’s outstanding talent for combining melody, text and wit.

We recorded the album as we approached the 50th anniversary of Porter’s death in October 2014, and this seemed a natural moment for us to celebrate both an incredible song writing talent in Porter, and also to celebrate a musical friendship and collaboration which has been a constant for Sarah and me for over twenty years.
James Burton

Sarah Fox & James Burton © 2015

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