Revisiting Cole Porter's 'Top' What does Cole Porter's song, You're the Top have to do with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the end of Prohibition?
NPR logo

Revisiting Cole Porter's 'Top'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17709281/17709247" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Revisiting Cole Porter's 'Top'

Revisiting Cole Porter's 'Top'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17709281/17709247" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, host:

To close our show tonight, the end of our series from the National Recording Registry.

(Soundbite of archived recording montage)

Mr. NEIL ARMSTRONG (Astronaut): It's one small step for man.

Unidentified Man #1: Give your name?

Unidentified Man #2: Well, I should.

Unidentified Man #1: Will then (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: I mean (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: Who.

Unidentified Man #1: The guy (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: Who.

Unidentified Man #1: In the first place, who?

Unidentified Man #2: Who is on (unintelligible).

Mr. WOODY GUTHRIE (Singer): (Singing) And this land is your land. This land is my land.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ask not what your country can do for you…

Unidentified Man #3: Presented by Palmolive, the beauty soap made with gentle olive oil.

Ms. ARETHRA FRANKLIN (Singer): (Singing) R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Singer): Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.

RAKIM (Singer): (Singing) I know you got soul. Brothers and sisters, hey, hey.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Each year, the Library of Congress chooses 25 recordings to preserve for all time. One of this year's entries is the subject of tonight tale, "You're the Top."

Cole Porter wrote the song for the musical "Anything Goes," of course. And he recorded himself just before the show's Broadway debut. And to tell us the story of this American standard, we have two Cole Porter experts.

Mr. MARK HOROWITZ (Senior Music Specialist, Music Division, Library of Congress): I'm Mark Horowitz. I'm a senior music specialist in the music division at the Library of Congress.

Mr. ROBERT KIMBALL (Artistic Advisor, Estate of Cole Porter): My name is Robert Kimball. And for forty-one-and-a-half years, I've been the artistic adviser to the Estate of Cole Porter and saw him delighted to be able to say a few words about his great performance of his own song "You're the Top," written in 1934.

(Soundbite of song, "You're the Top)

Mr. COLE PORTER (Singer): (Singing) At words poetic, I'm so pathetic. That I always have found it best, instead of getting 'em off my chest, to let 'em rest unexpressed. I hate parading my serenading as I'll probably miss a bar. But if this ditty is not so pretty at least it'll tell you how great you are. You're the top. You're the Coliseum. You're the top. You're the Louvre Museum. You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss. You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare's sonnet. You're Mickey Mouse. You're the Nile.

Mr. KIMBALL: This song actually was inspired during a cruise on the Rhine River during 1934 - the summer of '34. A man named Nicholas T. Gunsberg(ph), who was present with Porter on the cruise, said that Porter went around to the friends whom he met and asked them what were your top experience? What was the finest thing you ever saw or did in your life? And he started collecting anecdotes from people. And those are the anecdotes that he formed into the song. They provided him with his research material.

(Soundbite of song, "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're the Nile. You're the Tower of Pisa. You're the smile on the Mona Lisa. I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop. But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top.

Mr. KIMBALL: And this song - it seems to me more than any other song written in the '30s - is the great spirit-lifter of that period.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HOROWITZ: "Anything Goes" is sort of the quintessential musical of the 1930s. And it opened in 1934. Broadway had - as much of the country had been decimated by the crash in '29, and had gone through several years of, you know, huge unemployment and horrible things. And it was just now beginning to sort of come out from under that. There were two things in particular. FDR was inaugurated in March of '33. And that certainly was a turning point in the country in the sense of optimism and hope.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: That the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Mr. HOROWITZ: And then prohibition was ended in December of '33 - a little less than a year before the show opened. So I think those two things combined, all of a sudden, after years of, you know, real desperation, there were at least glimmers of hope and excitement and enthusiasm in the country. And I think "You're the Top" captured that with something that the people could derive enormous pleasure from and escapism, which is what they needed.

Mr. KIMBALL: This song was requested more often at the inaugural parties and for governor. And I know that at the New Year's party for Franklin Roosevelt at the White House in 1934, this was the song of the hour - the big song at that moment in American life.

(Soundbite of song, "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're the top. You're Mahatma Gandhi. You're the top. You're Napoleon Brandy. You're the purple light of a summer night in Spain. You're the National Gallery. You're Garbo's salary. You're cellophane.

Mr. HOROWITZ: Cole Porter wrote several songs that are list of things. What's difficult about with songs, you very quickly realize that you have to do things to keep the audience so it's not just a list of things, but that it has a build and the audience gets taken away with it and becomes enthusiastic to hear where is he going to go next with this.

(Soundbite of song, "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're the top. You're an arrow collar. You're the top. You're a Coolidge dollar. You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire. You're an O'Neill drama. You're Whistler's mama. You're camembert.

Mr. HOROWITZ: Apparently, it became very popular for people to make up their own versions of the lyrics after the show opened and the song became a hit. And people would send them into newspapers and they would be performed on the radio. Apparently, Porter got frustrated and sort of laid down the law that only official lyrics from the original show could be played on the radio. And then he was on a radio show and had written new lyrics to perform himself and they wouldn't let him perform his own new lyrics because it went against his own rules.

(Soundbite of song, "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're a rose. You're Inferno's Dante. You're the nose on the great Durante. I'm just in the way as the French would say, de trop. But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.

Mr. HOROWITZ: It's the first song that I'm aware of - popular song - where in addition to the melody of the tune itself, the accompaniment figures that sort of go between where the character sings is a really part of the song. It's very inventive that way. And those little jumps on the accompaniment. And there's a lot of air between the lyric phrases that's very unusual for the time. But it's just - it's a very tightly constructed song. And yet, it's a very buoyant song, which is sort of part of the magic of it or the mystery of it.

Mr. KIMBALL: Cole Porter's recording of "You're the Top" was one of a series of aid he made for the Victor Company. And these were the first commercial recordings that Porter made. And I believe they were the last. He was a fair pianist - not great. He was a fair singer - not great. But what he brought to the recording was the unmistakable quality that a creator brings to a recording of his own work. And I think, all things considered, it's the best recording of a song ever made.

(Soundbite of song "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're the top. You're a Waldorf salad. You're the top. You're a Berlin ballad. You're the baby grand of a lady and a gent. You're an old Dutch master. You're Mrs. Astor, You're Pepsodent. You're romance. You're the steppes of Russia. You're the pants on a Roxy usher. I'm a lazy lout that's just about to stop. But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.

HANSEN: "You're the Top," written and performed by Cole Porter in 1934, selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved forever.

Our series was produced by Ben Manila and Melia Mechanics(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And on this last weekend of the year, we leave you with these lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson.

(Reading) Ring out the old, ring in the new. Ring, happy bells, across the snow: The year is going, let him go; Ring out the false, ring in the true.

And that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Andrea Seabrook returns next week.

I'm Jacki Lyden. Have a very happy New Year.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.