Sep 162022

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Puttin On The Ritz

If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to
Why don’t you go where Harlem flits?
Puttin’ on the Ritz

Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levy, all misfits
Putting’ on the Ritz

That’s where each and every lulubelle goes
Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbin’ elbows

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

When Irving Berlin wrote those lyrics in 1927, he was writing about the fad of the day, where poor black people would get dressed to the nines and parade up and down Harlem’s Lenox Avenue (which today is also known as Malcolm X Boulevard). Berlin used the word “lulubelle,” which was a slang term for a black maid, and Thursday was traditionally the maid’s day off. It was a gentle satire with a remarkably intricate rhythm, and while it didn’t coin the phrase “putting on the Ritz,” it certainly did popularize it.

Berlin published the song in December of 1929; the following March, it was the title track to a movie, performed by one Harry Richman. Wikipedia says that “this was the first song in film to be sung by an interracial ensemble.” It should be noted that the black performers didn’t share the stage with the white ones, making it all the easier for movie houses in the Jim Crow South to scissor out the “offending” material. This wasn’t the last time the song would mirror an uneasy relationship between races.

“Puttin’ on the Ritz” resonated throughout the 1930s. Fred Astaire recorded a version of it in 1930, and Clark Gable hoofed his way through it in the 1939 movie Idiot’s Delight. But by the time Astaire performed it in 1946’s Blue Skies, Berlin had made a second pass at the lyrics. Now the well-to-do were going up and down Park Avenue instead of Lenox, and it was white people getting the light ribbing for looking down their noses at people who may or may not have been above their station in life. Incidentally, if you play that Blue Skies clip, don’t blink during the first two seconds or you’ll miss a character in blackface.

More covers followed, from the likes of Judy Garland and Mel Tormé. But as the years went by, the song became more and more emblematic of a faded memory, a relic of another era when people cared enough to wear day coats and high hats.

That’s what made its inclusion in Young Frankenstein such a surprise and delight. Seeing the monster as “a cultured, sophisticated man about town” is one thing; hearing him belt out “PUTTEEN ONNA REEEEEEEETZ!” is another entirely. The scene was Wilder’s idea; later he said that he had to fight Mel Brooks to get it done. Brooks should have known better than to say it wasn’t funny; in his autobiography, he writes, “At eight years old, I could reduce my best friend… to uncontrollable hysterics by singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in the persona of Boris Karloff.”

So by 1982, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was part of the collective fabric of American popular song, and it was no longer such a distant memory. That’s when Taco Ockerse comes in.

Born in Indonesia on July 21, 1955 (which, I regret to say, was not a Tuesday), Taco spent his youth moving from continent to continent before settling in West Germany (as it was called then), where he worked as an actor and choreographer. He made a name for himself in the supper-club ciruit by taking old American standards and bringing them up to date. In the early ’80s, that meant giving them a synth-pop sound with decided Krautrock tendencies.

In 1981 Taco landed a contract for Polygram. His first album was After Eight, which was half originals and half Tin Pan Alley-era songs made new. One of them was “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” released as the first single. It took a while to catch on – over a year in the U.S. – but once it did, thanks in part to MTV’s putting its flashy video in heavy rotation, it was inescapable. Taco pulled off the remarkable feat of taking a song that was more than half a century old and turning it into a hit. In doing so, he made Irving Berlin, age 95, the oldest living songwriter to have a song in the top ten.

The first video for “Puttin’ on the Ritz” showed Taco in white tie and tails, threading his way through Great Depression-esque beggars. It also featured shots of performers in blackface. It may well be that the non-American Taco had no understanding of how loaded that imagery was; in any case, it was interesting to see the song’s uncomfortable history still resonated. A censored version soon took its place, and the world kept turning. This version was taken from a New Year’s Eve gala; it features Taco, looking like a cousin of Tim Curry, doing a fine lip-sync and an even better foot-sync, as he matches the recorded dance solo tap for tap.

The demand for updated standards was not a big one, and while Taco’s career continued, his number of American hits would stay at one and done. But that one hit has been an evergreen for him. In May he posted a thank-you video on YouTube for getting his video up to six million views. Four months later, it stands at 7.7 million views and counting, always counting. And as anyone who’s seen the meme of the Russian premier on a cracker knows, “Put(t)in’ on the Ritz” has currency that’s as strong as ever, sharing with Irving Berlin the gift of being relevant shortly before its one hundredth birthday.

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