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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Puttin' on the Ritz

By Irving Berlin

This one has gone through quite a transformation over the years. Written for the 1930 musical film of the same name, in which it was introduced by Harry Richman, it was originally about poor blacks in Harlem who "put on the Ritz", or pretended to be affluent--a reference to the Ritz Hotel. When Fred Astaire sang it six years later, Berlin had changed the lyrics to pertain to affluent whites. It was featured to great comedic effect in Mel Brooks' 1974 picture Young Frankenstein. And a decade after that, Dutch singer Taco scored a #4 hit on the charts with his synth-pop cover, making the 95-year-old Berlin the oldest songwriter to ever have a charted hit.


[Original version:]

Have you seen the well-to-do
Up on Lenox Avenue?

On that famous thoroughfare,
With their noses in the air?

High hats and colored collars,
White spats and fifteen dollars.

Spending every dime
For a wonderful time.

If you're blue and you don't know where to go to,
Why don't you go where Harlem sits?
Puttin' on the Ritz.

Spangled gowns upon a bevy of high browns
From down the levee, all misfits,
Puttin' on the Ritz.

That's where each and every lulubelle goes
Ev'ry Thursday evening with her swell beaus,
Rubbing elbows.

Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee,
And see them spend their last two bits.
Puttin' on the Ritz.

[Revised version:]
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 Arrow collars,
White spats and lots of dollars.

Spending every dime
For a wonderful time.

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.

Diff'rent types who wear a day coat, 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 um-ber-ellas in their mitts.
Puttin' on the Ritz.

Recorded By:

Ella Fitzgerald
Benny Goodman
Judy Garland
Fred Astaire


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I knew about the "illegal" original lyrics to Body and Soul, but I've never seen the original lyric to Puttin' on the Ritz.

Common decency aside [!], the original lyrics work better to me, and the rewrite seems forced when you compare the two.

I've never thought about it before, but I suspect that the resentments triggered by the Great Depression had more to do with the end of the "coon song" than any reduction in actual racism.

B-Sol said...

Could be true. Berlin's original intention with the song was to describe the then-common act of "slumming"--which at the time literally referred to rich whites traveling to poor black neighborhoods to take in the jazz shows and see the sights, almost like visitors to a zoo, if you'll forgive my crassness.

Anonymous said...

I think I may be onto something. Here's Berlin again, in 1937:

Slumming on Park Avenue

Put on your slumming clothes and get your car
Let's go sightseeing where the high-toned people are
Come on, there's lots of fun in store for you
See how the other half lives on Park Avenue

Let's go slumming, take me slumming
Let's go slumming on Park Avenue

Let us hide behind a pair of fancy glasses
And make faces when a member of the classes passes

Lets go smelling where they're dwelling
Sniffing ev'rything the way they do

Let us go to it, they do it
Why can't we do it too?
Let's go slumming, nose thumbing, on Park Avenue

B-Sol said...

I guess the idea there was to turn the concept of slumming on its ear, having the poorer classes come to Park Avenue to gaze at the rich folk. Whatever the case, Berlin seemed to have some kind of obsession with slumming!

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