Sunday, 21 January 2018

Biography of a song: Miss Otis Regrets

Cole Porter wrote Miss Otis Regrets in 1934 as a humorous parody of those mournful old folk songs about young girls who've been tricked by an immoral man into "losing their virtue". In the song the eponymous Miss Otis is seduced and defiled, then shoots her seducer dead, is arrested, dragged off by an angry mob, and hanged, all within a single day! The twist in Porter's tale is that Miss Otis is not a poor young girl but a society lady, and it's a butler who communicates her regrets that, due to the unforeseen circumstances of having been hanged, she will be unable to lunch with Madam today.

This clip from the 1946 movie "Night & Day" is the song as Porter wrote it, with Madam clearly not enjoying the bawdy humour.

The song took on a life that Porter could not have imagined. It's been sung as a genuine cowboy ballad (by Lonnie Donegan), as a jazz standard (Ella Fitzgerald), as a tragic torch song (Linda Rondstadt), as an Irish folk song (The Pogues) and as a German cabaret tear-jerker (Marlene Dietrich ... seriously!). Even Édith Piaf has had a go. I listened to more than 20 versions of it on Tidal yesterday, drawing a line only when it came to the Brazilian orchestra doing a Bossa Nova rendition.

It seems to be a song that is infinitely malleable, a precious metal that can be endlessly re-worked into a delicate new bijou. The melody is catchy, the lyrics are striking, but it's the repetition of "Madam" that lends a strange quality to it and allow singers to make it their own, through sideways glances that can be witty, coy, plaintive, heart-rending and more.

Here are the four recordings that I most enjoyed, with my absolute favourite being the one Kirsty MacColl did on the BBC's New Year's Eve show in 1995, accompanied by an army band with bagpipes and drums.

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