I’m glad to see Lady Gaga back, promoting her new movie “A Star Is Born”, which is getting some pretty positive notices from the critics…can’t wait to see it at the cinema in a couple of weeks’ time.
The name “Lady Gaga” gets an instant reaction from a lot of people…and not always a positive one. She’s often seen as something of a shameless self-publicist…as if there aren’t plenty of those already in the entertainment industry…and people sometimes question her creative choices.
I might not have liked everything she’s done, but I’d never question Lady Gaga’s inherent talent. Like the very best artists, she tries some pretty whacky things, not all of which actually work out.
Even when things don’t go the way she hoped, Lady Gaga keeps on going, trying new things. I always admire someone who can do that.
A few years ago, one of the very unexpected things she tried was singing duets of Great American Songbook standards with the last surviving member of the golden age of swing, the incomparable Tony Bennett.
This wasn’t Tony Bennett’s first foray into working with more modern artists. In 2006 he released his “Duets” album partnering artists such as Elton John, Paul McCartney and James Taylor.
That went down pretty well with the record-buying public so a few years later “Duets II” came along, including such gems as “Don’t Get Around Much Any More” with Michael Buble, “Blue Velvet” with k. d. lang and “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” with Willie Nelson.
“Duets II” very wisely chose Tony Bennett’s performance of “The Lady Is A Tramp” with Lady Gaga as the first track of this particular collection.
I can see why. It’s one of the most joyful performances I’ve ever heard of this Rodgers and Hart classic.
Unlike some “duets” albums, where each artist lays down their own vocals, sometimes on different continents, giving some hapless recording engineer the job of stitching the two vocals together in the studio, Tony Bennett’s duets were recorded live.
You can tell — it makes a huge difference to the quality of the album (and all credit to producers Phil Ramone and Dae Bennett for making that happen).
On “The Lady Is A Tramp” there are moments of apparently spontaneous extemporising between Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga that would have been impossible to time if the two singers weren’t standing side-by-side while they were laying the track down.
To the surprise of many, Lady Gaga really puts the swing into “The Lady Is A Tramp”…and even tries her hand at a bit of scat singing for good measure.
Tony Bennett does a great job of course, but Lady Gaga adds that undefinable little bit extra that makes a good performance into a great one. Who knew she could sing that well? Who knew she could swing that well?
I have a sneaking suspicion that it might have taken Tony Bennett a little bit by surprise too, but it was clearly a pleasant enough surprise that he went on to record an entire album with Lady Gaga…the Grammy-winning “Cheek To Cheek”.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s version of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is worth the price of that album all by itself.
But back to “Duets II” for a moment…the other reason I enjoy Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s version of “The Lady Is A Tramp” is that it’s one of my all-time favourite songs.
Richard Rodgers’ musical score never fails to dazzle, and Lorenz Hart’s trademark clever, biting and artfully-hewn lyrics show us all, 80 years or so after they were written, just what exceptional lyric-writing looks like.
“The Lady Is A Tramp” is a classic because it’s one of the best songs ever written by two masters of the songwriting craft. It’s no wonder people queue up to record it, but it’s rare to find it done quite as well as Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s version on “Duets II”.
Lorenz Hart’s lyrics are full of little asides and in-jokes, woven together with a satirical send-up of the behaviour of New York’s “high society” of the 1920s and 30s.
The version of this song that most of us know today is a shorter, and somewhat cleaned-up version of the considerably more caustic original composition for the Broadway musical “Babes in Arms”. But it’s a great song, whichever version you prefer.
One of Lorenz Hart’s lyrical tricks was to poke fun at people by appearing to endorse their behaviour on the surface, and laugh along with them, while actually holding a light up to show just how shallow and self-absorbed “high society” really is.
Ultimately, the joke’s on them, not on the poor soul whose clumsy, bourgeois manners they think they’re mocking. Lorenz Hart is my all-time favourite lyricist because he pulls off this delightful lyrical trick so masterfully.
Like nearly everyone I’ve ever come across who is a self-declared member of the elite, though, those guiltiest of behaving discourteously to ordinary, decent people are also surprisingly tone-deaf about their own shockingly-poor behaviour.
I’m sure that when New York’s high society heard Lorenz Hart’s lyrics back in the 1930s, they thought “The Lady Is A Tramp” was a celebration of the way they conducted themselves, not a critique of it.
She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She likes the theatre but never comes late
She never bothers with people she’d hate
That’s why the lady is a tramp
Doesn’t like crap games with Barons and Earls
Won’t go to Harlem in ermines and pearls
Won’t dish the dirt with the rest of the girls
That’s why the lady is a tramp
Of course, the best-known version of “The Lady Is A Tramp” is Sinatra’s. He made the song his own.
Ella Fitzgerald recorded a brilliant version too…and she also gets extra bonus points for performing a longer, and slightly closer to the original, version of the song
But Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s version is right up there for me, alongside those giants of 20th century music.
In a homage to the creators, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga even work in a line about Rodgers and Hart in their version, which is a nice touch. Nobody…often not even the singers whose careers depend on their work…remembers the songwriters often enough. It’s good to see the balance being redressed from time to time.
Here’s Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga’s inspired version of one of the swinging-est songs ever written…Rodgers and Hart’s “The Lady Is A Tramp”…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/6ZsKRsnPsdZvXfqqE6bTPy
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.