“You’re The Top” — Cole Porter / Ella Fitzgerald

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Photo by Ashley Knedler on Unsplash

“You’re The Top” is pretty much the tale of every relationship I’ve ever had. I’m great at putting people on pedestals.

I’ll grant you that Cole Porter says it a good deal more extravagantly than I’ve ever done, but then he’s a much better wordsmith.

“You’re The Top” is a very clever song, though, from the golden age of songwriting. Cole Porter, along with Irving Berlin and the songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, are my very favourite songwriters of the 1920s and 30s…and among my very favourite songwriters of all time.

In addition to “You’re The Top”, Cole Porter wrote many other great songs, including “Anything Goes”, “Begin The Beguine”, “I Get A Kick Out Of You”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Who Wants To Be A Millionare?”.

Although Cole Porter mostly wrote more serious songs, in “You’re The Top” he demonstrates a considerable gift for writing more light-hearted lyrics too.

He might not quite match Lorenz Hart’s skill at writing very funny (and bitingly satirical) lyrics, but to be fair to Cole Porter, he wrote the music as well, whilst Lorenz Hart had Richard Rodgers to look after that element for him.

Looking back, Cole Porter captured a significant historical record of how Americans saw the world back in the 1920s and 30s. So much so that in 2006 “You’re The Top” was added to the Library of Congress as an artistic work of historical significance.

Cole Porter wrote “You’re The Top” for his Broadway musical “Anything Goes”, a hugely popular show back in the mid-1930s and still a regular revival in the West End and on Broadway getting on for 100 years later.

However, it’s not all played for laughs. The original opening verse is often left out of more modern recordings as it isn’t often seen as the best mood-setter for the jaunty tune and light-hearted lyrics which follow.

In addition to putting people on pedestals, my other big relationship failing is keeping things unexpressed because I always put my partner’s needs ahead of mine. For a song that’s meant to be amusing, “You’re The Top” contains a number of important lessons in how not to do relationships…

However, Cole Porter cleverly uses this slightly melancholy passage to magnify the light-heartedness in the verse that immediately follows…done well, as Cole Porter does here, the contrast between dark and light is a sure-fire technique songwriters use to magnify the emotions of any song.

Showing the staying power of great lyrics, most of this could be understood by audiences today exactly as Cole Porter wrote it nearly a century ago. The only exception might be the “Bendel bonnet” reference, Bendel’s being a very swanky Fifth Avenue store back in the 1930s — Harrods or Selfridges might be a rough equivalent today.

Cole Porter isn’t finished playing with the lyrical contrast between light and dark. What he does next is very impressive though…he winds up a series of jokes, almost, with a very self-critical section, but one that’s delivered without a pause, a change of tempo or a move to a minor key.

Because he keeps going without stopping, you hardly notice it’s there unless you’re really paying attention at a conscious level. It’s so neatly slipped in, the subliminal effect is very powerful…

But you’ll be glad to know “You’re The Top” stays mostly in gently amusing territory. It’s an uplifting, cheerful song, in the main, with only a little bit of shadow…and even less shadow when the first verse is omitted, as it often is nowadays.

I especially like the inventiveness of this verse…remember 100 years ago imported French cheese was impossibly exotic…

Cole Porter’s light-hearted lyrics really come into their own here.

This verse is my favourite section of “You’re The Top”. The way Cole Porter rhymes “tread” with “Fred” is the sort of trick Lorenz Hart was a master at.

And linking back “camembert” to “Astaire” is a rhyme not many people would have attempted… “Whistler’s mama” is brilliant too. This is a songwriter at the peak of his powers in action.

It’s common for songs like “You’re The Top”, which riff on contemporary themes, to get updated over the years to keep them relevant.

As you’ll hear in a moment, the original version of this verse was slightly different. However in the lyrics immortalised in vinyl by Ella Fitzgerald in the mid-1950s…the lyrics which remain the definitive version of the song to this day…there’s a little nod to fellow songwriter Irving Berlin slipped in, as quoted above.

We are especially lucky that “You’re The Top” is one of the few recordings there are of Cole Porter singing his own songs. As a historical piece, this is wonderful, although I should warn you that Cole Porter is a vastly better songwriter than he was a singer. The musical style is very much of the 1920s and 30s, so it’s a little different from the versions you’re more used to hearing.

Nonetheless, this is well worth a listen as one of the 20th century’s greatest songwriters performs one of his most popular and enduring compositions…

That’s the man himself at the piano…

However, “You’re The Top” is far too good a song to leave you with that performance of it…historically fascinating though it is.

In 1956, Ella Fitzgerald had just signed for the now-iconic Verve Records and her management were looking for the right project to make the most of one of the 20th century’s finest voices.

Keen to avoid their new star being pigeonholed as just the great jazz singer she’d been known as up to that point, Verve had the idea of getting Ella Fitzgerald to record an album entirely comprised of Cole Porter songs.

That became the first of the eventual eight albums in what’s often referred to as “Ella Fitzgerald’s series of recordings”.

“Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook”, to give the album its proper title, was a sublime melding together of one of the 20th century’s finest songwriters, one of its legendary voices and one of its greatest arrangers, in Buddy Bregman, who between then set the benchmark for how to do a Great American Songbook album.

It was a very new idea at the time, but has now become a fashionable thing for artists to do in the autumns of their careers.

Frankly very few of the more modern Songbook-style albums are even half as good as Ella Fitzgerald’s, however at least they keep the great songs of people like Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart alive.

So, on balance, I’d rather we kept that fashion going, but it has to be said there’s some very uninspiring musical performances in the more modern takes on the Songbook genre.

After Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald went on to record Songbook albums based on the compositions of Rodgers and Hart, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer…an unbeatable collection of some of the 20th century’s finest songwriters.

When you match songwriting talent like that with a vocal talent like Ella Fitzgerald’s, you know you’re on to a winner. Which is exactly what the Songbook series did for Verve Records.

Ella Fitzgerald didn’t just make her own reputation with the Songbook series, nor did she just establish the bona fides of a newly-minted record label. In many cases, her performances made the songs themselves into the classics we all know and love today.

As Ira Gershwin is quoted as saying “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them”. In a very real sense, Ella Fitzgerald made already great songs into classics, cementing their reputation for all time as she cemented her own.

Here she is demonstrating that in spades with what is widely seen as the definitive performance of the Cole Porter classic… “You’re The Top”…

https://open.spotify.com/track/4ep8Skt463rFhdh8MvxSSu

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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