Cole Porter died nearly half a century ago – in 1964 at age 73 – yet his songs remain as ubiquitous today as they were then.
Which helps explain why one of Chicago's top cabaret singers, Joan Curto, this week is launching an evening-length celebration of Porter's work that she hopes to perform for years to come.
"It's kind of amazing to me that it's been 50 years, but you go into any jazz club, listen to movie soundtracks, people are still playing and recording his music," says Curto, who's at Davenport's through Sunday presenting the world premiere engagement of "Joan Curto Sings Cole Porter – From Major to Minor."
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"Cole Porter is probably the one composer of the Great American Songbook who's still current," adds Curto. "The world has changed, but people can still relate to the lyrics."
Indeed, Porter's words are not only timely but poetic, able to disarm listeners even when read without the music at all. His lyrics for "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Begin the Beguine," "Night and Day, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" and many more stand as a high point in American songwriting to this day.
Yes, Irving Berlin – a hero to Porter who similarly penned both words and music – expressed profound thoughts in a few well-chosen words. Stephen Sondheim, who followed in Porter's wake, built on Porter's ultra-sophisticated brand of wordplay. But no one has matched the combination of erudition and elegant accessibility that define Porter's lyrics, penned during the mid-20th century's golden age of American songwriting.
And then there was the music: melodically insinuating, harmonically advanced pieces that offered both the complexity of classical music (which Porter studied) and the easy, breezy delivery of musical theater and film (for which Porter composed most of his works).
There's another reason Porter's songs stand out, as well: His cultural background, which was quite unlike that of most of America's great tunesmiths. Born and raised in wealth in Peru, Ind., -- far from the ethnic melting pot of the Broadway world that he eventually would conquer – Porter at first found little success writing songs for the musical theater. It took years until he realized what he needed to do.
"I'll write Jewish tunes," Porter once told Richard Rodgers, according to Rodgers' memoirs.
"I laughed at what I took to be a joke," Rodgers wrote. "But not only was Cole dead serious, he did exactly that. Just hum the melody that goes with 'Only you beneath the moon or under the sun' from 'Night and Day,' or any of 'Begin the Beguine,' or 'Love for Sale,' or 'My Heart Belongs to Daddy,' or 'I Love Paris.' These minor-key melodies are unmistakably eastern Mediterranean. It is surely one of the ironies of the musical theater that despite the abundance of Jewish composers, the one who has written the most enduring 'Jewish' music should be an Episcopalian millionaire who was born on a farm in Peru, Indiana."
Nevertheless, Curto, who has spent the past year immersing herself in Porter's music and studying his life, finds Jewish influence palpable in much of Porter's work.
"If you listen to the minor (key) ones, a lot of them mirror some of the songs written in Jewish traditional music," says Curto.
Along these lines, the great American lyricist Sammy Cahn once told me a revealing story about the first time he met Porter, in the 1950s.
"It was at a fancy party," Cahn recalled, "and the host said to me: 'Cole Porter wants to meet you.'
"But instead of going up to Cole, I stood there transfixed. Finally, he came up to me and said: 'Sammy Cahn, I've always envied you.'
"And I said: 'You've envied me? What could you have possibly envied me?'
"And Cole said: 'The fact that you were born on the Lower East Side. If I had been born on the Lower East Side, I would have been a true genius.'"
In fact, Porter's genius is beyond question, regardless of geography or lineage, and the enduring freshness of his music proves it. His songbook runs so deep that Curto has created two shows, hoping that once "Major to Minor" takes flight she can unveil a follow-up, which deals with Porter's travels around the world.
In both settings, though, Curto feels that Porter's songs – particularly his valentines – carry uniquely dark undercurrents.