In 1927, Irving Berlin wrote Puttin’ on the Ritz. In the 90 years since then, this song about style has never fallen out of fashion.
In 2009, I first posted about the fact that Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz has had a dazzling run, not just in American popular culture, but in world popular culture. That is, unlike many older songs that one can find hidden in corners on YouTube, Puttin’ on the Ritz has enjoyed a life extending far beyond amateur musicals and eclectic collectors of old songs. It lives on at the heart of popular culture.
Irving Berlin came to America with his parents and his seven brothers and sisters in 1893, when he was only five. The family settled in New York’s Lower East Side, which at that time was the most densely populated spot in the world.
Life was terribly hard for the family in the New World. Berlin’s father, a cantor (a career that hints at Berlin’s musicality), ended up working for meager pay as a kosher butcher. By the time he was 8, Berlin was on the streets helping out his family by hawking newspapers, although he still attended school sporadically.
When Berlin was 13, his father died. Berlin quit school and, in addition to continuing to sell papers for pennies, became a singing waiter wherever he could find work. Berlin was bathed in the rhythm and vernacular of America’s most dynamic community. Given his innate musical gifts, it should come as no surprise that, within a few years, he had moved on to songwriting.
Berlin managed to eke out a living writing a variety of rather primitive “ethnic” or “dialect” songs. These popular songs relied on stereotypical rhythms and accents from America’s immigrant and black communities. There were Yiddish songs, Black songs, Russian songs, German songs, and Irish songs, to name just a few. All would be offensive today but, in the first decade of the 20th century, they were an important way to integrate various ethnic groups into the vast American melting pot.
In 1911, Berlin had his first major hit, with a Black ethnic song: Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Berlin, with his unique ability to target what Americans wanted to hear, essentially took a march and ragged it up. Here’s the Billy Murray recording that made Irving Berlin a songwriting star. By the way, as you listen, you can easily hear the self-consciously Black dialect Murray affects:
By the 1930s, Alice Faye, with help from Don Ameche and Tyrone Power had erased entirely the song’s ethnic sensibilities. It was now an all-American song, with the lyrics existing as the only remaining hint of its faux black origins:
But I’m getting sidetracked. This is a post about Puttin’ on the Ritz.
Once Berlin was on the Tin Pan Alley map, there was no stopping him. He was, without, question one of America’s premier composers, a title he held until his death in 1989 at 101. The 1920s were especially good years for him, with Berlin churning out one hit after another — and noticeably growing as a sophisticated composer. It was in 1927, during this composing flurry (with Berlin always writing both music and lyrics) that Berlin wrote the song that, along with his White Christmas, turned into an eternal hit.
Puttin’ on the Ritz began as a jazzy Berlin commentary about the sharp-dressed men one saw in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The song showed up in Hollywood in 1930, and ever since has been performed on a regular basis throughout the Western world. In 2014, I published an updated Puttin’ on the Ritz post and now, just shy of four years later, it’s time for another update, walking you through 90 years of Irving Berlin’s timeless song.
The American public first saw Puttin’ on the Ritz in 1930, when Harry Richman sang it with arch “high class” inflections while plump chorines bounced and trotted woodenly behind him:
Fred Astaire, at the peak of his Broadway fame, 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 role as a two-bit vaudeville player, turned in a wonderfully camp and charming version of the same song. Indeed, this is probably my favorite version of the song:
Sadly, Gable’s fans didn’t like seeing their heart throb making fun of himself, so Puttin’ on the Ritz was Gable’s last foray into musicals. That’s a shame too, considering that he was wonderfully light on his feet.
By 1946, Fred Astaire had returned to Puttin’ on the Ritz, this time on film, rather than just recording a song:
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! — tackled the song (apologies for the vile video quality):
Also in the 1970s, there was a delightful version of Puttin’ on the Ritz in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (again, I’m sorry about the bad video quality):
Now that Young Frankenstein has been updated to a Broadway musical, a whole new generation of young people periodically and community theater habitues gets exposed to Puttin’ on the Ritz:
The 1980s saw Taco’s somewhat drab, and very creepy, un-PC version (complete with black-face performers). It stands out because it was recorded in Holland by a Indonesian man and because, if I recall correctly, it was a surprise hit in both Europe and America. Irving Berlin’s song had traveled far from its New York origins.
In the late 1980s or early 1990s, The Mighty Diamonds brought a reggae touch to Puttin’ on the Ritz:
Puttin’ on the Ritz made an appearance in 1991, as the theme music for Nintendo’s Super Hunchback. It’s dreadful, but thankfully lasts only a few seconds:
Rufus Wainwright, a millennial darling, did a version sometime after 2000. He definitely gets an “A” for effort and marks for good taste. If only he could carry a tune…. As with the Nintendo version, I recommend no more than 10 seconds of this one. I include it just to show how eternal Irving Berlin is, and how deeply Puttin’ on the Ritz is embedded in American popular culture:
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:
2012 brought us the version that I consider the “best flash mob ever.” It’s not just that it’s a beautifully produced flash mob. It’s that it takes place in Russia, the country that Irving Berlin had left 119 years earlier. It’s even better when one considers that the song came out in 1927, at a peak capitalism moment in America, and that it celebrates conspicuous consumption — and there it is, placed prominently in a street production in a country that was, for more than seventy years, the heart of world anti-capitalism. I just love this version (and I especially love the young woman who, at 1:39, instead of singing out “super duper,” sings out “super pooper”:
You’d think we would have hit peak Puttin’ on the Ritz in 2012, but we didn’t. In 2013, the endlessly cool Herb Alpert put his own take on Puttin’ on the Ritz, 2013, complete with very nice hip-hop dancing:
2013 was a good year for Puttin’ on the Ritz, since Robbie Williams (British, not American) recorded it too, with the original 1929 lyrics:
And was it really just a wedding gift for an excited bride or was the whole thing a bit of pro-Putin — get it? Putin? Puttin’? — propaganda?
And then, just last night, we had the latest entry in Puttin’ on the Ritz’s preeminent place in popular music. Lindsay Arnold and Jordan Fisher used it for their final freestyle number on Dancing With The Stars, one of ABC’s top-rated shows. Last night, 10.3 million people watched this:
How does one account for the enduring, world-wide popularity of this 90-year-old song? I think my son put it best. After watching the Moscow flash mob video a few years ago, he turned to me and said, “You know, Mom, that’s a really catchy tune.”