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You’re The Top

June 2024
1min read

Cole Porter in the 1930s

Smithsonian Collection of Recordings; 84 songs on 4 CDs or cassettes; 800-927-7377.

Indiana Historical Society; 69 songs.

To mark the hundredth birthday of Cole Porter, two historical institutions have put out lavish collections of classic performances of his songs, in handsome LP-size boxes with copiously illustrated books containing essays on Porter and mini-essays on each song and performer.

Unsurprisingly there’s a fair amount of overlap in the wonderful material the two sets offer—neither could have imaginably left out Ethel Merman singing “I Get a Kick out of You” or Mary Martin doing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” or Fred Astaire’s “Night and Day”—and both sets are no less than compendiums of America’s most sophisticated popular music. But there are big differences too.

The Indiana set not only focuses on “Porter’s greatest, most productive decade,” of which “he became one of its indispensable voices,” it also presents the songs of that decade in the order in which they were written, show by show, from 1930’s The New Yorkers (“1 Happen to Like New York” and “Love for Sale,” among others) to 1939’s Du Barry Was a Lady (“Friendship,” “Do 1 Love You?”), and in so doing, strings together renditions from across the decades. The Smithsonian takes an opposite tack, presenting its seven dozen songs almost exactly in the order they were recorded, from “Let’s Misbehave,” played in classic jaunty 1920s style by Irving Aaronson and His Commanders in 1928, to “After You, Who?” by Dorothy Loudon, modern intimate-cabaret style, 1986.

The Indiana approach undoubtedly has some historical merit, but the Smithsonian’s is more enjoyable. Hearing, on the Indiana, Ethel Merman’s piercing “I Get a Kick out of You” (1934) followed by Barbara Lea’s almost whispered modern stereo “All Through the Night” (1989) followed by Merman’s “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” (1947) is almost disorienting, a succession of clashes of mood, era, and sound. The Smithsonian set, as the editor writes, “allows the listener to hear the evolution in stylistic approaches to Porter songs and provides greater consistency in recording quality from one song to the next.” So the Smithsonian’s first disk contains a lot of Broadway, movie soundtrack, and crooner records from the thirties; the subsequent disks traverse the big-band era and the hits of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, then the work of fifties voices such as Nat Cole and Peggy Lee and Vie Damone and Ella Fitzgerald, and finally the likes of Barbra Streisand and Kaye Ballard and Bobby Short.

Each set contains gems the other missed, but the Smithsonian has more of them—to name a few, an upbeat yet truly steamy “Love for Sale” by Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, 1930; Alberta Hunter’s ravishing “Miss Otis Regrets,” 1934; and Marlene Dietrich’s arch “The Laziest Gal in Town,” from her solo cabaret act, 1964.

Finally, there is an inescapable difference in sound quality. The songs from old 78s on the Indiana set sound like old 78s—scratchy and thin. The Smithsonian has beautifully cleaned up all its selections, removed hiss and other noises, and left them full and fresh. The Indiana collection is far from de trop, but the Smithsonian’s is … the top.

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