When I need cheering up, humming a few bars of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On the Ritz” to myself always does it.
It brings back memories of childhood Saturday afternoons with my grandfather. He was a big fan of Hollywood musicals and the “song and dance men” he’d seen in Glasgow’s music halls as a younger man.
In the heyday of music halls, he’d seen all the big stars. Unusually for a Glaswegian, he wasn’t a drinker, but loved his Friday nights out after work had finished for the week at one of Glasgow’s theatres when a big star was up from London or over from America.
On winter Saturday afternoons while the rain came down outside…Glasgow is a great place but the weather is terrible…my grandad and I watched all the old black-and-white movies that aired on BBC2 while the other two TV channels (there were only two others back then) force-fed the country a diet of sport that neither my grandad nor I were interested in.
I probably saw every movie that Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse and Donald O’Connor made before I became a teenager.
Even now, I could watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers all day. They both possess that ephemeral combination of elegance, refinement and technical expertise that you see only in the very greatest dancers.
Fred Astaire had a remarkably successful recording career too, for someone whose skills in the vocal department, to be fair, lagged some way behind his skills on the dance floor.
But he did have some great material to work with, so you hardly notice.
Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” is a great example of this.
There are two versions of “Puttin’ On The Ritz”. Irving Berlin wrote the original version in the late 1920s which was included in a 1930 film of the same name.
There is a reason this 1930 film probably isn’t one you’ve seen, or even heard of. In fairness to Irving Berlin, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, those were different times and attitudes to race relations were very different.
The original “Puttin’ On The Ritz” song was written to gently satirise Harlem residents who liked to dress up in their finery before going out for a stroll along Lenox Avenue — then, as now, the major road in that part of New York City.
That’s why the original lyrics for “Puttin’ On The Ritz” started…
Have you seen the well-to-do, up on Lenox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare, with their noses in the air
Sadly I can’t quote much more than that without causing the sort of offence I try very hard not to cause. However if you’d like to learn more about the evolution of one of Irving Berlin’s most famous songs, tracking down Harry Richman’s original recording online isn’t terribly difficult.
But the original song, and film, did earn the wonderful expression “Puttin’ On The Ritz”, meaning to get all glammed up for a night on the town, its place in popular culture.
I suspect the very swanky Ritz Hotel wasn’t consulted on having their name borrowed for a song about an aspiration for the finer things in life. But when Harry Richman’s 1930 recording of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” went to Number One in the US charts, I don’t imagine they were terribly upset about all the free publicity either.
Even fancy places need to get the word out…
By 1946, the world had moved on, although it had at the time…and still has…some way to go before the colour of someone’s skin stopped defining their possibilities in life.
So when “Puttin’ On The Ritz” was selected to feature in the 1946 film “Blue Skies”, Irving Berlin re-wrote the original lyrics to satirise affluent white people instead…
Have you seen the well-to-do, up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare, with their noses in the air
High hats and arrowed collars, white spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime, for a wonderful time
Irving Berlin’s songs live on to this day as some of the greatest songs in the Great American Songbook. And, unusually for the time, Irving Berlin wrote both lyrics and music.
Of all his great songs, which include classics like “White Christmas”, “Cheek To Cheek” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Puttin’ On The Ritz” is possibly my favourite.
The music is infectious and Irving Berlin’s lyrics for “Puttin’ On The Ritz” almost rival the satirical insight of Lorenz Hart, my all-time favourite lyricist, and even deploys the complex “rhymes within rhymes” technique of which Lorenz Hart was such a master.
But second only to Lorenz Hart, there aren’t many other lyrics as good as this…
If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where fashion sits, puttin’ on the Ritz
Different types who wear a daycoat, pants with stripes
And cutaway coat, perfect fits, puttin’ on the Ritz
Dressed up like a million dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper)
Come let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks
Or umbrellas in their mitts, puttin’ on the Ritz
I wish I had enough technical musical knowledge to explain the complexities of the music which underpins “Puttin’ On The Ritz”, but I’m afraid you’ll have to find that elsewhere.
All I can say is that there is nothing conventional or same ol’, same ol’ about this Irving Berlin composition. There’s not the slightest chance you’ll mistake this song for any other. It’s one of the very few songs which really do deserve to be called “iconic”.
The musical complexity does make a lot more sense when you know the song was originally written for a big stage number with dozens of dancers riding a complex, ever-shifting rhythm much as an expert surfer might ride a big wave hurtling towards the shoreline.
The combination of music and lyrics makes “Puttin’ On The Ritz” my very favourite Irving Berlin song, and one of my favourite songs of all-time (at least in its 1946 version).
The satire, the observational comedy, the sharp, ever-changing rhythm, the way the song builds to exactly the sort of climax you’d expect to find for a big show tune on Broadway or in the West End makes it a song that’s hard to beat.
That’s also why “Puttin’ On The Ritz” never fails to cheer me up when I’m feeling down. In a couple of minutes I get Irving Berlin at the peak of his songwriting skills, Fred Astaire at his best on the dance floor and memories of those Saturday afternoons with my grandad, back when the world seemed a much safer place.
If you need cheering up at the moment, you could do a lot worse than treat yourself with a couple of minutes in the company of “Puttin’ On The Ritz”…
(PS: keep scrolling for an extra special treat after the video…)
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2jHa7Aubqjj58xXMNTkGqM
Having spoken a lot about Fred Astaire above, it’s worth mentioning that, wonderful dancer though he was, without dance partners of at least the same calibre, we probably wouldn’t remember him nearly as much as we do today.
Let’s not forget, as the old quip goes, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.
Here’s one of their most famous dance routines…by happy coincidence, to another Irving Berlin song — this time “Cheek To Cheek”…
There’s wonderful mastery from, both Fred and Ginger right through this clip, but in many ways my favourite piece is right at the end when they unwind from the main feature to lean casually against the wall. Just look at the controlled elegance with which they make the transition as the music fades away.
Those few seconds always bring a lump to my throat, it’s so exquisite…