UKULELE MUSING 2020, 4 July 2020–The Earworm of All Earworms: “Puttin’ On the Ritz”

Note: A couple of things about the YouTube videos that I include in my postings.  First, I don’t want to spend the money to purchase access to YouTube without ads.  So, gentle readers, for a few of my postings, you may see an ad for a few seconds before the intended content clicks in.  Sorry.  A penny saved is a penny earned.  And, from time to time, a particular YouTube video might seem a bit too long.  Feel free to click it off when you want, hopefully after you have enjoyed the point I was trying to make by including it.  Sometimes less is really more! 

On to this week’s musing which is going to . . .

. . . leave you, my gentle readers, with the earworm of all earworms because I’m only going to focus on ONE song, that choice bit of so called “sticky music”—“Puttin’ On The Ritz.” 

This song was written by Irving Berlin in 1927 and published a couple of years later.  It was performed in the movie by the same name in 1930 . . .

. . . and is said to be the first song and dance routine in film to be performed by an interracial ensemble.  The title is a slang expression meaning “to dress very fashionably” and was inspired by the opulent London hotel, The Ritz.  

The original version of Berlin’s song included references to the then-popular fad of fashionably dressed black residents of Harlem parading up and down Lennox Avenue. 

Here is the original production–with Harlem lyrics–from the movie “Puttin’ On the Ritz.”  Tap or click on the next image to take a peek: 

Cinema and vaudeville heartthrob Harry Richman sang the song in the movie and his recording became the number-one selling record in America.  Alas, his career faded soon after.

Aside from the witty lyrics, the danceable melody is both complex and provocative. According to music critics of the time, the A-section of the song used a “delayed rhythmic resolution: a staggering, off-balance passage, emphasized by the unorthodox stresses in the lyric, suddenly resolved satisfyingly on a held note, followed by the forceful assertion of the title phrase.  The B-section is a contrasting march rhythm.” Whew!

The whole song is considered by many as one of the most complex and provocative rhythmic patterns ever seen and has been loved by hoofers ever since. As a surprising sample (to me, at least) of all this, the original Harlem homage lyrics were used again in the 1939 song movie “Idiot’s Delight . . .

. . . featuring a song and dance routine by none other than Clark Gable, of all people!    Click or tap on the next image for a surprisingly good performance.  Who knew? 

Later versions revised the lyrics to apply to affluent whites strutting up and down Manhattan’s famed fashion center, Park Avenue. 

Alas, the only uke I have in my collection appropriate for a Park Avenue strut is this “Tuxedo” model endorsed by the singer Al Jolson. Alas, alas, don’t look too closely at the logo showing Jolson in his oft-worn blackface makeup. I’m not going to throw this bit of musical history into the land fill, however!

Moving on, here’s a 1930s recording of our song with some delightful illustrations of the time. Click or tap on the next image for the show:

Needless to say, the quintessential song and dance performance of “Puttin’ On the Ritz” is, of course, the Fred Astaire version–with the revised Park Avenue lyrics– in the 1946 movie “Blue Skies.” 

Click or tap on the next image to take a look at this classic:  

And, we mustn’t  forget that great film parody of our song by Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in the movie “Young Frankenstein.”  Click or tap on the next image for this unforgettable bit of comedic film/music history:

And, of course, we can’t leave without a ukulele take on the tune.  Tap or click on the next image to hear some really good fingerpicking and strumming on this one:

To end our “ritzy earworm journey” with an international note, how about a Russian (of all places!) flash mob doing a take on this.  Small world!  Click or tap on the next image for this Moscow moment: 

Now, if you haven’t had enough of this singable, danceable tune, here is a chord melody arrangement for ukulele that I put together a couple of years ago. Go slow at first and then bring it up to “delayed rhythmic resolution” or whatever. 

It’s kind of hard to play the uke while twirling a cane so you might want to limit yourself to a top hat and, of course, spats! Don’t forget an appropriate facemask, however.

Now, there are probably well over a hundred covers and interpretations of “Puttin’ On the Ritz” out there in the internet world ranging from homages to parodies.  There are even several ukulele tutorials.   Needless to say, you can explore these at your leisure.  I’ve only attached a few of my favorites to this musing so, put on your “YouTube Ritz” facemask . . .

. . . and explore these yourself from the safety of your sequestration. Good luck with that earworm, however!

So, gentle readers (and strummers), stay sequestered, stay safe, and STAY TUNED!

But, protect yourself from those pesky earworms!

Author: NohoBanjo of Northampton and, now, Easthampton, Mass.

Hi friends, neighbors, and fellow strummers. These “musings” are based on my interest and study of Banjo and Ukulele history, lore, and music. My goal is to both educate and enlighten by sharing what I have learned within a broad musical and historical context—with honesty and, at times, a bit of humor. Needless to say, your thoughts and comments are, as always, welcome.

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