Cole Porter at the piano.
Cole Porter at the piano. Sasha/Getty Images
Irving Berlin once wrote a letter to Cole Porter in which he inverted his own song lyrics. Berlin told his friend, `Anything I can do, you can do better.' Cole Porter, born in Indiana, schooled at Yale and Harvard, became one of America's most beloved composers and writers of popular song. Unlike many other Tin Pan Alley songwriters, the classically trained Porter wrote both the music and the lyrics.
The story goes that when Cole Porter first played the music for "Night and Day" for his friend Monty Wooly, Wooly sniffed, `I don't know what this is you are trying to do, but whatever it is, throw it away. It's terrible.' Porter didn't. How lucky.
Cole Porter gave various accounts of how he came to write "Night and Day." He once said the music was influenced by an Islamic call to worship he'd heard while traveling in Morocco. Porter also said he began the tune on a Saturday night at New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, and wrote the lyrics the next day while lying on a beach in Newport, Rhode Island. He wrote it specifically for Fred Astaire. "Night and Day" is the song with which a besotted Astaire finally captures the stubborn heart of Claire Luce on Broadway and Ginger Rogers in the Hollywood version, "The Gay Divorcee." He sings, they dance, oh, did they ever, and she melts. In the film, the producers replaced all of the original Cole Porter tunes except for "Night and Day." It begins with one of the most unusual verses in popular song, pulsing, monotonous, insistent.
Over the first eight bars of the song, just one relentless note, repeated 35 times. To great effect, says singer and pianist Steve Ross.
"There is a slight maddening quality to these repeated notes I think that sets you up for the obsession that is in the song. I never really thought about that. I think that's true."
After that first note comes a tiny shift, just a half tone up, and another hitch up before the melody tiptoes back down the chromatic scale.
"And that's how it is: dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun; him, him, him, him, him, him, him. I can't stand it. I'm going crazy here. It makes you feel really alive to sing that song," says Singer Susannah McCorkle. "Cole Porter was the sexiest songwriter. And his songs are infused with this sexual passion and longing that no other great songwriter captured, which is one reason he's very close to my heart. It's like having a new love affair all over again to sing a Cole Porter song."
"And it's the bedrock, as it were, when you say Cole Porter, you think of 'Night and Day,'" says Steve Ross, who first heard "Night and Day" when he was about six years old, lying under the piano as his mother played. "I never tire of singing it. And I loved that it resonates immediately to people. I love the ah factor when you start doing it. After you build up the verse and there's a little bit of tension in the verse, and people, when I'm just doing it, say, `What is that? Do I know that verse? Do I know'—(Singing) `Night and day,' people go, `Ah.'"
"There is something very bittersweet about the first big chord of that piece. (Singing) `Night and day,' it's a major seventh, which is half major the first three tones of the—it's a tetra chord, meaning there are four notes in that. And the lower three are a major chord, the top three are a minor chord. When you put them together, there's always a bittersweet feeling to that. Which was so brilliant of him to capture the equivocacy, if that's the right word, of that longing and yearning. You know, `I know I shouldn't do this, but I do it anyway.' Reason is warring with passion, and that's why that major seventh chord is so perfect. It gets into you."
Cole Porter was 41 years old when he wrote "Night and Day." He'd been living in splendor in Europe for more than a decade with his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, who was considered one of the world's great beauties, and who was, as Porter might say, not just rich, but rich rich. Life with the Porters meant summers bronzing on the Lido or the Riviera, costume balls and the grand Venetian palaces they rented, private trains and around the world cruises. It was the highest society, and Cole Porter's songs glittering with references to Whitneys and Rockefellers, champagne and oysters, reflected his world. By the time he wrote "Night and Day," Porter had overcome a series of Broadway flops and had hit his stride. This song would become an international sensation. Soon after "Gay Divorce" opened, Porter received a letter at his home in Paris from his friend and supporter Irving Berlin.
"'Dear Cole, I am mad about 'Night and Day,'" Berlin writes. "And I think it is your high spot. You probably know it is being played all over. And all the orchestra leaders think it is the best tune of the year, and I agree with them. Really, Cole, it is great. And I could not resist the temptation of writing you about it. As ever, Irving.'"
Within three months of the show's opening, more than 30 artists had recorded the song, and it swept the globe. Robert Kimball, artistic adviser to the Cole Porter estate, says wherever Cole Porter's travels took him in years to come, he'd hear "Night and Day."
"Porter would tell stories about turning up in exotic places, in sultans' places, and finding here is the song on the sultan's gramophone machine. I think that was the sultan of Zanzibar."
"Night and Day" is to this day the top earner in the Cole Porter catalog. Well over 100 versions have been recorded. And it's just that saturation that leads Bobby Short, the singer and pianist, to confess that "Night and Day" is not his favorite Cole Porter song.
"Because it is so popular. I mean—and I think Mr. Porter, were he alive, would have another choice as well."
But Short finds intriguing musical references in "Night and Day."
"I think that Porter was influenced by Beethoven. When you think about "Moonlight Sonata," very often musicians have interpolated bits of "Moonlight Sonata" in playing 'Night and Day.' And on and on and on, you know. And also, I think he was swayed by the rhythm that Maurice Ravel utilized in his famous "Bolero," when he goes into the release and says, `Night and day, under the hide of me,' there's a `Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun.' That's very, very, very Ravel to me."
"Night and Day" is a song of longing, of aching, heavy want; a love that's under the skin, love as infection. Cole Porter knew about such things. He had what was, by most accounts, a close and loving marriage with Linda, an alliance that lasted 35 years until her death in 1954. But Porter also had numerous homosexual affairs—passionate, deep romances. Bobby Short says Porter is better than any other lyricist in exploring the wonderings and wanderings of love.
"I think that Cole Porter was perhaps in love a lot, or infatuated at least a lot. And most people who live their lives, whether they're a heterosexual or homosexual, find themselves infatuated a great deal. Their eyes do rove, and Porter's eyes were always roving, I think, and he wrote songs, and I think all that experience made him understand the full meaning of sexual attraction, which we all indulge in."
Ring Lardner, writing in The New Yorker, called this couplet `a final convincing sock in the ear—an ear already flopping from the sheer magnificence of the lines that have preceded.' And Lardner went on to have some fun with it, coming up with a few of his own variations.
`Night and day, under the fleece of me, there's an, oh, such a flaming furneth burneth the grease of me.'
`Night and day, under my dermis, dear, there's a spot just as hot as coffee kept in a Thermos, dear.'
`Night and day, under my tegument, there's a voice telling me I'm he, the good little egg you meant.'
In 1937, five years after he wrote "Night and Day," Cole Porter was thrown from a horse, which fell on him and crushed both of his legs. For the rest of his life, he'd be in constant, often crippling pain. He endured more than 30 operations, but through his suffering, Porter maintained his prodigious output. That ended when one of his legs was finally amputated in 1958, says Porter scholar Robert Kimball.
"When that occurred, he lost the desire to write and never wrote another song; never wrote again. Lost the desire. Lost the will. It just crushed him."
Cole Porter would die six years later in 1964. His longtime friend Kitty Carlisle Hart says he was the consummate host right up to the end.
"Oh, he was just a darling. In fact, when he was really very, very ill and dying, I used to go see him in the hospital. And he would always prepare—his valet would prepare a little cocktail party with hors d'oeuvres and wine for the guest, and we'd have our tea party. He'd bring his wheelchair up, and the valet would put a chair for me, we'd face the window, talk to each other, and have a nibble, and he would be entertaining in the hospital when he was dying."
It's easy to picture him, small and impish with huge dark eyes, charming his guests with his literary wit.
"Cole Porter once asked in a lyric," Mr. Block remembers, "`Will it be Bach I shall hear, or just a Cole Porter song,' as if that should be a disappointment."