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I will be adding a series of posts about popular (or obscure) songs composed and performed in the age of popular song (by which I mean since the days of Stephen Foster and gospel hymns from the latter half of the Nineteenth Century). Today's song is a classic, even if it no longer boasts much purchase with contemporary artists. I'm sure I heard the song first on one of the many television variety shows that dotted the network broadcast slates in the late 50s and early 60s. I remember, for instance, watching the three specials Fred Astaire hosted with a lithe, young dancer named Barrie Chase, and in the third of those specials, he performed "Miss Otis Regrets", although the performance seems when I watch it today more like sketch comedy than the tragedy that is the essence of the actual tune. It was probably Fred who first let me know that the composer was Cole Porter, whom I still believe today to be the greatest writer of lyrics in the history of popular song.

The song didn't much resonate with me until in high school I bought the debut album of a fiery, young, blind Puerto Rican named Jose Feliciano, who hit it big in 1968 with a remarkable cover of "Light My Fire", the massive hit single for The Doors the year before. Feliciano also created an uproar and scandal with his interpretation of the national anthem during the 1968 World Series. Many thought his version was a sacrilege if not actually treasonous! On his second album, Feliciano covered a number of classic melodies, including the Porter standard. His interpretation is a plaintive ballad, a wistful delivery of rueful news.

Here are the lyrics:

Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today

Madam, Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today

She's sorry to be delayed

But last evening down in Lovers Lane she strayed

Madam, Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today

When She woke up and found that her dream of love was gone

Madam, She ran to the man who had led her so far astray

And from under her velvet gown

She drew a gun and shot her lover down

Madam, Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today

When the Mob came and got her and dragged her from the jail

Madam, they strung her upon the willow across the way

And the moment before she died

She lifted up her lovely head and cried

Madam, Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today

Like so many songs, "Miss Otis Regrets" evolved over many parties attended by the great musical and theatre artists of the 20s and 30s, the kind where fascinating ideas percolated among the talented and slightly inebriated attendees while someone sat at a piano and provided accompaniment. Oh, to be in attendance at one of those soirees! Hearing a popular tune on the radio, Cole Porter was inspired to create a parody of the melody, and the beginnings of the song took hold. The melodramatic lyrics involved a society woman, illicit love, abandonment by Miss Otis's callous lover, the lover shot dead by Miss Otis, and her eventual death by hanging. Of course, before she meets her fate, she "regrets" that she won't be able to keep her lunch date. Wow! What a story! From party to party, the song went through what today would be called "workshopping". It morphed a little bit each time it was performed until Porter thought it ready for recording. The backstory is that Cole Porter had Ada "Bricktop" Smith, a red-headed African American jazz singer, in mind when he was working through the song. A popular star, "Bricktop" was rumored to have taught the Prince of Wales how to dance the Charleston! She owned cabarets in Paris and was toast of the town.

Another African-American performer, who was also the secret lover of the legendary architect Philip Johnson, and a contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, Jimmie Daniels, may have had the honor of the first recording of the song, which Porter added to a musical show he was creating in late 1934 called Hi Diddle Diddle. Here is Daniels' cover. Because it is a medley, "Miss Otis Regrets" starts at the 3:10 mark.

I mention Daniels' race because the song is really about a lynching. Miss Otis is strung up "upon the willow across the way". It would have been impossible for Porter to write such a song about the Black experience in America, but the song's lyrics touched a chord with all those who knew what was going on in much of the American South. That same year, the legendary Ethel Waters recorded the song, ending the tune with a complex exhalation of pity/resignation/cyncism? It's hard to say.

In 1944, iconic folk and blues singer, guitarist, and civil rights activist Josh White recorded the song, and his interpretation decidedly seems informed by the Black experience. I was delighted that Josh White, Jr., who followed in his father's musical footsteps, performed at Arthur L. Johnson High School, where I taught, in the 1980s.

There have been some relatively recent covers. One of the most famous was that of Brit Kirsty Maccoll, the late singer and songwriter who occasionally performed with the Pogues. Here (in 1995) is her anthemic live version with bagpipe and snare drum accompaniment!

And a decade later, the luminous Linda Ronstadt performed a poignant rendition in true chanteuse fashion (Sorry about the poor quality of the video).

Even the legendary Irish singer, Van Morrison, gave us a bluesy rendition in 2016. Hard to believe, but I saw Van Morrison in concert in the fall of 1970! He may not always be a nice human being, but he could sing!

The First Lady of Song in this country, Miss Ella Fitzgerald, famously recorded the tune as well in 1956. I count my blessings that I was fortunate enough to see Lady Ella in concert when I was in college. Here is her stunning "take" on an American classic song.


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