Classic Cole Porter
Born Albert Porter on June 9, 1891 in the heartland of America, Cole Porter created his professional identity by combining the surnames of his mother (Kate Cole) and his father (Sam Porter). Cole studied violin and piano starting at age six; he continued his musical education through college. Cole joined the Yale Glee Club and sangwith it from 1909–1913, eventually becoming its director.
Cole's Yale years were adventurous: he produced a number of student musicals and he also forged several important relationships that remained with him throughout his life. Most Yale classmates came to know him for the fight songs he composed, many of them are Yale classics still.
The years following Cole's graduation saw him attempt to study law at Harvard. The man who paid all of Cole's bills, his grandfather J.O. Cole, disapproved of men choosing careers in the arts; Grandfather Cole tried hard to convince Cole to become a lawyer. Even when Cole was young, J.O. tried to instill a sense of rough individualism and business savvy that was lost on the pampered young Porter.
Although Cole started Harvard Law, his primary attention was always on music (including writing musicals for his Yale friends). Although his mother knew, Cole's grandfather didn't learn that Cole switched from the law school to the school of arts and sciences at Harvard in order to pursue music.
Eventually, Cole abandoned Harvard altogether and moved to the Yale club in New York to seriously began his music career. Porter's initial efforts on Broadway— including his first big show in 1916, See America First—were failures. The following year he moved to Paris where he joined the French Foreign Legion. He served three years, remaining in Paris after his 1919 discharge; he then married a society lady. The newlywed couple hosted glamorous parties in Paris, Venice and the Rivera.
Cole frequently performed his own music at these parties; indeed, the songs matched the chic esoteric mood of his social circle. Nevertheless, his music was slow to find acceptance on the stage. During the 1920s, his luck began to turn. In 1923 he composed a ballet score—performed both in Paris and New York by the Swedish Ballet—that was one of the century's first expressions of symphonic jazz. Nineteen-hundred-twenty-nine saw the production of Wake Up and Dream in London, along with Fifty Million Frenchmen in New York. Gay Divorce with Fred Astaire followed in 1932, with Anything Goes in 1934. Stage legend Ethel Merman starred in Panama Hattie during the 1940 season.
Despite the riding accident in 1937 that crippled one leg—eventually necessitating its amputation—Porter continued to write songs for Broadway with his trademark witty and often cynical words. Some of his most famous date from this period: Let’s Do It, Night and Day, I Get a Kick Out of You, Begin the Beguine, Just One of Those Things, You’re the Top, It’s Delovely and others. His song writing success culminated in 1948 with his masterpiece Kiss Me, Kate, based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
Musically, Porter was one of the most thoroughly trained popular songwriters of the 20th century. He was perhaps even better known as a lyricist; his texts were in the height of fashion—seldom sentimental, filled with double-entendres and witty rhymes, often referring to sex and drugs.
Although his songs were considered at first rather too shocking for the theater, today they retain much of their freshness and are classics, comprising a sizeable portion of the repertoire of every popular singer.
Porter broke ground in his composition with his use of innovative rhythmic elements and by extending his melodies, and hence the length of the individual songs. He made clever use of word painting (think of the haunting turn in Every Time We Say Goodbye when the lyrics speak of “…major to minor...”).
Porter also possessed an especially fine ear for the pronunciation, natural speech patterns and rhythms of the English language. One example is the hop-scotching syncopations in Anything Goes—the words skipping by our ears like pebbles across a pond. Comfortable in almost any form or style, Cole’s musical legacy is vast, diverse and impressive.
Porter died in 1964. In accordance with his wishes, he is buried between his wife Linda and his father. The popularity of his songs has long outlasted knowledge of the man himself. Many of his most famous songs were presented to the public only in the context of musicals or movies—works that also contained non-Porter songs. Still, until the 1950s Porter created the most theatrically elegant, sophisticated and musically complex songs of American 20th-century popular music.