Keeping the GAS (Great American Songbook) Flame Burning: “What Is This Thing Called Love”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout


“What Is This Thing Called Love” is certainly one of Cole Porter’s most inventive songs and, thankfully, it also became popular. The song was first heard in New York the night before New Year’s Eve with the opening of the English revue Wake Up and Dream. In that revue, Tilly Losch danced it exotically to the incessant beat of tom-toms in front of an African idol. Porter stated that he derived the idea for this song from the native dance music he heard in a Marrakesh, Morocco market place. Porter called for a slow blues tempo in the original, but it is better-known today in a faster tempo.

Among the major composers, Porter was not one to spend much time with verses. But the verse to “What is This Thing Called Love” is musically distinguished but somewhat crude as a set-up for a misterioso ballad.

“I was a humdrum person
Leading a life apart
When love flew in through my window wide
And quickened my humdrum heart”

Most vocalists begin with the chorus, which is highly unusual, particularly for the year 1929. The opening chord of the refrain, the C seventh, is rare in popular music as is the immediate modulation to F minor. The fine bridge is based on the main refrain but a fourth higher. However, it varies in the 18th and 22nd measures so as to develop the song. The harmony is extremely unusual but very effective. Porter’s melody shifts dramatically between major and minor keys and lyrically he fits such tonal ambiguity to a lyric of tormented bewilderment, such as “You took my heart – – and threw it away.” By contrast with the music, the words are simple, at least by Porter’s standards – no flashy rhymes, no wordplay, no allusions or imagery. In fact, on the page they can look rather trite but his lyric never upstages the music.

“That’s why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Virtually from its debut “What Is This Thing Called Love” was well received and in 1930 several band-leaders – Leo Reisman, Ben Bernie, Fred Rich – enjoyed hit recordings with the song. Artie Shaw also enjoyed a hit with his 1938 recording. Tommy Dorsey put the song back on the chart in 1942 and Les Paul in 1948. Bassist Bob Haggart, who was Billie Holiday’s musical director on some Decca sessions, was always enthralled by her gift of reshaping melodies. Their 1945 recording (with a few strings) is an excellent example of how she could take a standard tune and add her Midas touch and relaxed swing to an existing melody. Many boppers used its chord structure to create new pieces. Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” and Lee Konitz’ “Subconscious-Lee” are two instances. Another notable example is John Coltrane’s “Fifth House” which is based on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House.” In 1954 Charles Mingus also adopted an unconventional approach as part of the aptly named The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus. Two years later the recording by the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet is emblematic of the song’s most familiar role as a fast swinging number perfect for opening or closing a live gig (or an album.)

In the movies “What Is This Thing Called Love” was sung by The Kings Men in You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith (1943), by Peg La Centra in Humoresque (1946), by Ginny Simms in the 1946 Night and Day and played by Harry James and his Orchestra in the 1950 Young Man With a Horn. Additionally, it was played in the 1956 Eddie Duchin Story and also appeared in the 1987 ‘Round Midnight.

“What is This Thing Called Love” was honored with inclusion on both Variety’s Golden 100 Tin Pan Alley Songs and Hit Parade’ of a Half-Century lists. It became one of the most recorded songs of the pre-rock era.

A Few Sample Recordings


1) Artie Shaw and orchestra in a sublime 1938 swing version. I believe the arrangement is by Ray Coniff.

2) A nearly 8-minute recording. Clifford Brown from the 1956 album.
Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street

This burning recording shows the Brown-Roach band at its peak and
demonstrates the up-tempo approach jazz artists often take with the song.

3) This is a 1951 inspired jam-session version of a song that Charlie Parker would
re-visit frequently.

– – and a year later Parker’s iconic “with strings” version.

There is some meaningless controversy as to the jazz merits of this later recording. “Meaningless” because it is clear from the opening notes that here is a master at work. (Both recordings are available in various compilations.)

4) Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster. A masterful pairing of two saxophonists,
Gerry’s baritone and Ben’s tenor. From the 1959 recording titled Gerry
Mulligan Meets Ben Webster, They are accompanied by the Jimmy Rowles


The great Billie Holiday with a 1945 band led by bassist Bob Haggart that featured Joe Guy on trumpet.

This is from Frank Sinatra’s classic 1955 Wee Small Hours recording, a collaboration with Nelson Riddle. The song opens with Mahlon Clark playing a plaintive clarinet figure and then Frank enters, introspective and seemingly humbled by the immensity of the question he’s asking. And as he gets to the “mystery” he demands to know “why should it make a fool of me?

3) Here is a noirish approach by idiosyncratic song stylist pianist-singer Patricia
Barber from her 2009 Cole Porter Mix CD.

You may also wish to investigate worthy recordings by the following.
Sarah Vaughan (she includes a bit of Dameron’s “Hot House”), Anita O’Day, Mel Torme (with his 1946 Mel-Tones), Sonny Rollins (14 minutes but worth each one), Bobby McFerrin with Herbie Hancock, Art Pepper, Julie London, Sidney Bechet (with Charlie Shavers), Nat King Cole trio, Lena Horn and Ella Fitzgerald, just to cite a few names of those who have chosen to record this beloved standard.

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