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Porter's biographer William McBrien states unequivocally that Porter wrote "Miss Otis Regrets" for the the unproduced musical Ever More, which had Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, book by Guy Bolton and was based on the stage play "The Spell" by Lilli Hatvany. Other sources seem less certain that it was written for this would-be show. In any event, the song was eventually used in a show,
interpolatedinto a London production, Hi Diddle Diddle (not a Porter show), which opened in The West End in October, 1934, where it was sung by Douglas Byng playing a stuffy butler who dryly announces that Miss Otis will not lunch today. This is because, he even more dryly explains on the previous evening she shot her lover and was lynched. What distinguishes the song more than anything else is the wry tone which Porter employs to tell the story of a society lady's down and dirty demise in the most polite terms with a demure melody to go with it. The song had already been published in April of 1934, and Ethel Waters recorded it in New York on August 20, 1934 (Decca 140 A), both before Hi Diddle Diddle opened in London.
Several accounts of the inspiration for the song are in circulation. Robert Kimball in his Complete Lyrics tells the story about how it is a parody of a country and western song that Porter heard on the radio while at a party. Another account has Porter's friend Monty Woolley betting the songwriter that he could not create a lyric to fit the title "Miss Otis Regrets." Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases: British and American gives the title the status of having become a catch phrase by including it as an entry in his reference work. His research reveals that Porter wrote it "not for one of his musical comedies but for the private entertainment of his friends" and confirms the Woolley connection by noting that the actor was fond of dressing up as a butler and singing the song, often at parties with Porter at the piano. He adds that the song at some point was dedicated to Elsa Maxwell, and was indeed first presented publicly in London by Byng in an apparently Woolleyesque performance in Hi Diddle Diddle. (Partridge, p. 310).
McBrien, however, muddying the waters a bit more, says that several performers have claimed that Porter wrote "Miss Otis Regrets," specifically for them. Most notably was the African American chanteuse Bricktop (Ada Smith) whose nightclub in Paris was a popular hangout for the avant-garde claimed that "one evening in Paris Cole came to her club and said, 'Brick, I've written a song for you.' It was 'Miss Otis Regrets'." Maybe he did or maybe he just wanted a good table. Partridge suggests that the song was written not so much for but about Bricktop. The country and western angle is supported by McBrien reporting that a newspaper clipping found among Porter's papers said the song was inspired by "a bad cowboy lament" the songwriter heard at a party. Whatever the origin of its being, "Miss Otis Regrets" is now a standard with a life completely its own. (See McBrien, pp. 238-240 and Kimball, p. 193, hard cover Ed.
Before she sings "Miss Otis Regrets," Natalie Douglas elaborates on the Bricktop story referenced above --
her performance being part of her show dedicated to Cafe Society, a club in NYC that in the late Thirties integrated both performers on stage and the audiences for which they performed before anybody else did. This performance took place April 14, 2008 at Birdland, NYC, with Michael Croiter, drums; Patience Higgins, tenor saxophone; Debbie Kennedy, bass.
Richard Sudhalter envisions the creation of "Miss Otis Regrets" as an example of how the spigot of Porter's creative juices were often opened in social situations. In this case the song apparently came into being at a party hosted by the songwriter's Yale classmate, Leonard Hanna. The guests became aware of a sad cowboy song playing on the radio and Porter's awareness led him to the piano where he began to noodle out a tune. As Sudhalter describes it he accompanied himself by "yodeling a parody, broad and rather wicked" of the radio cowboy's lament. Porter then enlisted his friend and fellow guest Monty Woolley in the process and the two of them bounced lines off one another until something like a song emerged. Woolley, never strong on resisting the chance for a dramatic exhibition, donned a butler's jacket and borrowed a maid's serving tray. In the blink of an inebriated eye the first performance of "Miss Otis" took shape as the sad but somehow comic story of an upper class matron who must forgo her luncheon appointment because she has a date with the gallows -- after murdering her partner in a brief fling gone wrong. (Elliot, Kimball and Sudhalter, p. 37).
"Miss Otis" came to be dedicated to party-giver extraordinaire Elsa Maxwell after she made a regular things of having one or another of her talented guests sing it at her Manhattan siorées.
Thomas Hischak calls "Miss Otis Regrets" "a droll and ridiculous ditty" that "mocks the good manners of high society." It manages this through a "farcical lyric" sung in a "dispassionate tone and is all the more amusing because the music is so delicate and formal" (Hischak, p. 240).
Gerald Mast classifies Porter as songwriter who told stories not a writer for shows that told stories, "like Irving Berlin . . . a songwriter not a musical dramatist." "Miss Otis Regrets" was the Porter equivalent of a Browning poem such as "My Last Duchess" or "Adrea del Sarto" converted into an American song that like those poems is a dramatic monologue. Mast reminds us that the song was written to win a bet with his friend Monte Woolley who claimed he could not write a song with such a title as "Miss Otis Regrets." Porter's easy solution to the problem was to create a dramatic situation derived from the title line, a situation reminiscent of the Frankie and Johnny story of a man who has been murdered by his lover to whom he has been false. Here however, Porter adds a devilishly ironic twist by creating a woman character whose entire persona is, unlike Frankie's, embodied by restraint, which stands in sharp contrast to her passionate action:
The song is delivered by the butler of the title's Miss Otis, dignified, polite, terribly correct, unmoved by passion. He explains the recent difficulties of his employer as an apology to someone who has come to the Otis manse expecting lunch. The regrettable events of the evening before making it impossible for Miss Otis to keep her appointment. (Mast, pp. 193-4)
Like Frankie, Miss Otis upon feeling the brunt of her lover's treachery, "drew a gun from under her velvet gown and shot her false lover down." Nevertheless, "with her last gasp" before she is strung up by a lynch mob, she delivers her final line (the one that makes a stronger impression on us than her last action) in the language of her (and Porter's) upbringing:
According to Gerald Mast, Porter would never have been able to write Miss Otis Regrets" and win his bet with Woolley if he had not been able to picture his "dry, droll" friend as the character he would invent to present the song. Mast goes on to say, "Woolley's reading of the song in Night and Day remains its definitive version" (Mast, p. 194).
Perhaps Woolley's satirical take on the song is definitive in the sense of capturing what Porter had in mind at the moment he was creating it, but to listen to the other performances available on this page, suggests that the songwriter created a work of art that had possibilities beyond the songwriter's immediate intentions. Hearing Ethel Waters sing "Miss Otis Regrets" eliminates the possibility of the song as being "dry" or "droll." Waters, who made the recording that first put the song before the American public, gives us a traditional ballad at the center of which is a tragic story the full force of which is invested in her voice. She recognizes that Miss Otis was more than a superficial society lady, all manners and no heart. She was one who dreamed of love, a dream that once it was irretrievably lost led her to previously unimaginable feelings and actions. Josh White, Jr. brings a similar tone augmented by his Delta blues guitar that gives the story an American regional locus that is anything beside snooty, Boston drawing room. And without having to understand Dietrich's German, it is clear she keeps the song in the same vein, laden with sadness and loss.
Although it may be easier to hear Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Short as delivering a bit of bad news to an unsuspecting luncheon guest in a household where she or he is employed, there is no escaping the sadness in their conveyance of the tale. Once they proceed to the more shocking details of the story both of their voices subtly reveal their own sadness at what has happened. Of all the performers here these two may be the best actors, sticking to their assigned tasks while at the same time revealing their inner feelings. As Richard Sudhalter says of Ella's performance, it may the the same aloofness that critics have often called her out for that gives her "Miss Otis" its poignancy: "Her [Fitzgerald's] approach is simple, even innocent -- she tells the story and accepts it on its terms. Even the rather girlish quality of her voice seems to lend truth to the fable of love, betrayal, and revenge" (Porter in the 1930s, p. 39 -- Click here to hear Ella's version.).Pattie Austin also portrays the distinction between a character's demeanor and outer feelings, but more broadly. Her heart leaps more obviously to her sleeve as she drags us out of a stuffy foyer to the pulpit of a church where she is the preacher bearing her soul over the demise of a member of her flock. Miss Otis' inability to "lunch today" is for Austin, and must, at some hidden level have been for Porter, a preacherly rhetorical device, a metaphor for the fact that Miss Otis' emotional life as well as her physical one has been violently destroyed.
Natalie Douglas prefaces her performance with an iffy account of how the song was conceived, but after admitting its iffiness announces what matters to her is that Porter took a high-brow pharase he had heard and turned it into a low-brow song, which locates her with most of the performers here who all take us to the intersection of love and murder in order to witness humanity at its best and worst inextricably interwoven.
Only Bette Midler abandons the tone of deeply felt loss. Her rendition seems to ignore what all the other performers have found in the song as she makes Porter's words and music more of a vehicle for her own zaniness than anything else -- and in doing so may have more in common with Porter's mood as he wrote the song and Woolley's original performance of it.
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The Cafe Songbook
Record/Video Cabinet: Selected Recordings of
"Miss Otis Regrets"
(All Record/Video Cabinet entries
include a music-video
of this page's featured song.
The year given is for when the studio
track was originally laid down
or when the live performance was given.)
(*indicates accompanying music-video)
Notes: According to Richard Sudhalter, "Miss Otis Regrets" was the only Cole Porter song Ethel Waters ever recorded. Sudhalter notes that Waters was taken to task by some jazz aficionados for affecting a sophisticated white persona in her Decca recording, but insists that she could be as much a savvy theater singer as a lady of the blues doing what her material required more than pandering. For Sudhalter her performance of "Miss Otis" "straddles the fence between the worlds of jazz and blues on one side, and the rather more formal conventions of musical theater on the other" (Porter in the 1930s, p. 39). (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: The original performance of the song was on stage in the 1934 London show Hi Diddle Diddle. The song was not, by all accounts, written for this show but
interpolatedinto it shortly after "Miss Otis Regrets" was composed. The little intro. and afterward are not part of the song or the recording, only of the video. Otherwise it is the same track as on the album referenced above.
Notes: This fine 26-song compilation (from iTunes] of material was recorded by folklorist Moses Asch in the 1940s, at a time when Josh White was beginning to reach an urban, educated audience with his mixture of blues, folk, and pop styles. What comes across particularly strong in this set is his versatility and all-around appeal; he handles topical songs about discrimination and war, spirituals, covers of blues by Leroy Carr and Victoria Spivey, folk ballads, and theatrical pieces, even extending to a cover of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets (from iTunes review)." (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: Despite her Fifth Avenue looks, Frances Faye exploded the stereotype of the standards singer — the type of vocalist apt to reverently croon a Cole Porter song as though she were a rector bowing her head while reciting from the Book of Common Prayer. Granted, No Reservations is indeed packed with Cafe Society standards, but Faye was a garrulous singer, and rarely so entertainingly indelicate as she is here. She opens on a high note, "Drunk with Love" — "Rotten liquor, mostly gin, in all the clubs that I stagger in, and 'round and 'round because I've found, he loves me drunk . . . with love." And she rarely received arrangements as sympathetic as what Dave Cavanaugh brings here, whether it's the reinvention of the hoary "Summertime" as swing-meets-R&B with Latin percussion and tearing sax or a warhorse like "Miss Otis Regrets" getting a rewrite as a loose '50s swinger (fromiTunes review). (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: The first twelve tracks of this album were recorded live at The Sands hotel in Las Vegas, January 14, 1960, the last two tracks at Capitol Studios, LA, September 2, 1959. The orchestra is conducted by Antonio Morelli and for "Miss Otis Regrets" only, the arrangement is by Nelson Riddle.
Notes: "After springing for three double-LP songbook albums in three years devoted to Cole Porter, Noël Coward, and George Gershwin, Atlantic Records tracked Bobby Short to his lair for a fourth two-disc collection in December 1973, setting up recording equipment in the tiny confines of the Cafe Carlyle where Short had maintained a permanent residency since 1968. There, over two nights, the tapes picked up a typical selection of standards by Porter, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, and other interwar songwriting masters, plus some more recent material, played by Short's piano trio, which also featured Beverly Peer on bass and Richard Sheridan on drums" (from iTunes review). Video: See Bobby Short on the Cafe Songbook Main Stage (not the same track as on this album, though both are live performances). (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)
Notes: Not only does this performance of "Miss Otis Regrets" differ from her 1962 recording of the song on which she takes the song at a slower pace and is accompanied by a guitar, this album differs a bit from Rosemary Clooney's previous Concord albums. "For the first time, tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton is not in the supporting cast and Clooney is joined by a big band. She celebrates the legacy of the 'girl singers' of the swing era in style although some of the selections (such as Dave Frishberg's "Sweet Kentucky Ham," "Let There Be Love" and "Wave") were certainly not around during the big-band era. With such soloists as trumpeter Warren Luening, trombonist Chauncey Welsch, flutist Gary Foster and tenors Bob Cooper and Pete Christlieb having short spots, Clooney performs a fine program (from iTunes review).
Notes: "Patti Austin is well qualified to record an album in the style of Ella Fitzgerald, having spent her career shadowing the paths taken by Fitzgerald and her contemporaries. Although she has worked in R&B-oriented adult pop much of the time, she is clearly in the tradition of Fitzgerald, and in 1988, she even recorded an album of standards that she tellingly titled The Real Me. For Ella easily could be the sequel to that collection. Austin traveled to Köln, Germany, to record a program of songs associated with Fitzgerald with the WDR Big Band conducted by Patrick Williams" (from iTunes review). The album version is a studio recording. See Cafe Songbook Main Stage above for 2007 live performance. (Please complete or pause one
video before starting another.)