Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” — a joyous walk through almost a century of music at home and abroad

My recent post about the best flash mob ever reminded me of a post I did in 2009 about Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” a song that lives on and on, around the world. Today seems like a good day to expand upon that post.

Irving Berlin composed “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in 1929. Although he wrote it about blacks in Harlem who dressed up for a night on the town, the American public first saw it in 1930, when Harry Richman sang it with arch “high class” inflections while plump chorines bounced and trotted woodenly behind him:

Fred Astaire also recorded the song in 1930, and his staccato presentation put a lasting imprint on people’s perceptions of the song:

In 1937, Clark Gable, as part of his delightful turn as a two-bit vaudeville player, turned in a wonderfully camp and charming version of the same song. Indeed, this is my favorite version of the song:

By 1946, Fred Astaire once again was “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” this time on film, as opposed to just a sound recording:

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the divine Ella Fitzgerald brought her particular brand of music to the song:

In the mid-1970s, Michael Jackson — Michael Jackson! — along with his brothers tackled the song (it starts at about the 1:20 marks):

Also in the 1970s, there was a delightful version of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Sadly, I can’t track down any video of that segment.

The 1980s saw Taco’s somewhat boring, and very creepy, un-PC version (complete with black-face performers). As I recall, it was a surprise hit.

In addition, in 1988, The Mighty Diamonds did a reggae version:

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” made an appearance in the 1990s, as the theme music for Nintendo’s Super Hunchback:

Rufus Wainwright, a millennial heart-throb did a version sometime after 2000. If only he could carry a tune…. I recommend no more than 10 seconds of this one. I include it just to show how eternal Irving Berlin is:

More recently, Club des Belugas, a cutting edge NuJazz group in Germany, fired up Puttin’ on the Ritz a few years ago with a remix of Fred Astaire’s 1946 version:

The endlessly cool Herb Alpert did a version last year:

2013 was a good year for “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” since Robbie Williams recorded it too, with the original 1929 lyrics:

And then, of course, there’s the “best flash mob ever” version, from Moscow, in 2012, with love:

How does one account for the enduring, world-wide popularity of this 85-year-old song? I think my teenage son put it best. After watching the flash mob, he turned to me and said, “You know, Mom, that’s a really catchy tune.”

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  • jj

    And then of course there’s “Putin On the Ritz,” the story of a megalomaniac Russian billionaire Czar pretender, and his scheme to make the world love and fear him by scheduling Olympic Winter Games in a place with palm trees, and then decreeing that it shall snow there!

  • Charles Martel

    I kind of liked the “Young Frankenstein” version where Peter Boyle tap danced his way through the song in tuxedo-clad splendor. His high notes were kind of pitchy, but how many monsters assembled from various body parts do you know who would even be willing to put on a show?

  • JamesG

    These kind of ” happy” songs were produced by tin-pan-alley- songwriters, the Brill Building folks, by  not singer-writers who dominate today with their solipsistic lyrics. I can’t imagine any of them writing “Ritz” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” 
    BTW I’m looking forward to the day Vlad is seriously ill and the inevitable New York Post headline “Putin on the Fritz.”

    • Bookworm

      Now I’ll be waiting for that headline too!!

  • Gringo

    That is definitely the best pun I have heard this year. Or should I say worst?  :)

  • Gringo

    Thanks for the  Irving Berlin collection. As I was scrolling down I was saying to myself, ” Book should have added Ella’s version.” Lo and behold, there it was!
    It is encouraging to find out that his songs are getting performed – and appreciated-today.
    It is also interesting to see that his songs are being performed today in Russia, as Irving Berlin was born in the Russian Empire, in what is today Belarus.  Playing his songs in Russia  is very fitting, as  Irving Berlin incorporated the music of his birthplace into his 100% American music- and not just in Russian Lullaby.
 1927 Franklyn Baur – Russian Lullaby  Ella Fitzgerald – Russian lullaby