Love for Sale – Caetano Veloso’s cover beats out all others

This week we welcome guest blogger Barbara Browning – author of 33 1/3 Brazil’s first entry, Caetano Veloso’s A Foreign Sound – to talk about Caetano Veloso’s cover of “Love for Sale”.

“Love for Sale” was written by Cole Porter for the 1930 Broadway musical The New Yorkers, and in the first staged version it was sung by Kathryn Crawford, a white actress, with a trio of friends in front of Reuben’s Restaurant. But the public, it seems, wasn’t quite ready to hear white womanhood besmirched in the jaded self-accounting of a sex worker. Critics and audiences balked. The song was banned from radio play. In January of 1931 the producers came up with a solution, short of cutting the song from the musical. They pulled Crawford out and replaced her with an African-American singer, Elisabeth Welch, and staged her singing about the “oldest profession” in front of the Cotton Club in Harlem. Evidently, this was a version of the story that audiences could take.

Despite the radio ban and the initial public resistance, “Love for Sale” eventually became a standard. It lay relatively fallow until jazz artists picked it up in the ’40s and ’50s. I’ve already said a bit about the notable recordings of it by men. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the best-known women singers who have covered it are, in the majority, African-American, with the exception of everybody’s favorite ethical slut, Julie London.[1] It’s complicated to talk about the character of the song. Welch claimed an appreciation for the poetry of the lyrics, and sang it with almost operatic brio. Billie Holiday recorded it with Oscar Peterson in 1952, and many consider her version to be definitive (I’ll say more about that momentarily). Ella Fitzgerald sang it pretty much as if it were a romantic ballad—without much in the way of either pathos or a knowing wink. Eartha Kitt did it with lots of percussion, opening with whispered, breathy taunts. Dinah Washington’s version begins very slowly, almost mournfully, but suddenly, after a little growl, she picks up the mood, and the pace. Shirley Horn’s version is smoky and gorgeous, long, deep, and hushed right up until the startlingly gutsy, almost defiant close. White singers, both women and men, have tended to emphasize the sardonic tone, or to make it a finger-snapping inside joke. London’s version is vampy, and she practically chews on the words to get at their mordant potential. Diane Shuur’s take is high show-biz. I already mentioned the interpretations of Bennett, Tormé, and Connick.

And Caetano’s? It’s nothing like that at all. It’s perhaps the most dramatic track on A Foreign Sound, and one that many critics of the album singled out for its emotional force. I’m sure that has much to do with the fact that it’s the only a cappella track on the album, but there are other possible reasons— perhaps it’s his particular attentiveness to the language of the song. The poet and essayist Charles Bernstein cited Caetano’s interpretation in his analysis of the lyric:

One of the most recent covers of the song intensifies, more than any other I know, the foreignness at its heart; perhaps it is not surprising that the Brazilian musician and vocalist Caetano Veloso would—like Billie Holiday—bring out just how haunting and desolate “Love for Sale” is … Veloso knows just how to make the familiar strange.

Bernstein makes this observation in the context of considering Cole Porter as a literary predecessor to other “difficult” (and gay) poets, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, both of whom, like Porter, incorporate references to ostensibly banal popular culture in their work. Bernstein calls Porter a kind of proto-pop artist in this respect—which of course resonates with Caetano’s own preoccupation with pop art’s aesthetic ramifications for popular song. But the peculiar thing about Bernstein’s listening to Caetano’s version of “Love for Sale” is not only that he hears echoes there of Porter’s clever, subtle, and complex pop sensibility and “homotextuality,” but that he also hears something of Billie Holiday.

Holiday’s version is stupefying. Shirley Horn described Peterson’s accompaniment like this: “Oscar spread flowers beneath her.” The vocal on the track is foregrounded—unusually so for a recording of Holiday—and you hear, more than ever, her breath, her lips, her swallowing, and the coy, highly personal spoken quality of the words. The “p”s—and there are a lot of them—are a little wet, and plosive. If other versions seem to choose between gloom and sarcasm, Holiday’s remains in the eerie space between. Does she sound like she’s been drinking? Sort of, in her apparent unselfconsciousness, but that’s not the same as a lack of control. Her musicianship is extraordinary on the song. Still, there’s a kind of self-relinquishing to the tawdry story—it’s not self-mocking, but it’s self-knowing, a near-whimper behind a half-smile.  Of course, one wants to check one’s romanticization of that performance. It’s a bit too tempting to conflate Holiday’s public persona, including her own storied past of adolescent conscription to sex work, with the dramatic narrative of the song. And still.

So why would Charles Bernstein find it “unsurprising” that Caetano, like Holiday, would be able to locate the troubling aspect of the song? Was hers the version that he studied in attempting to find his own? At moments, it certainly sounds like it. He doesn’t take on any affectation that might explicitly reference her—there’s none of that dipping, girlish conversational tone. But his “p”s are plosive and wet like hers, moist lips very close to your ear: “Who’s prepared to pay the price for a trip to paradise?” Why did he choose a barren ground, no petals strewn like those of Peterson under Holiday’s fragile voice? Where Peterson strew petals, there’s just aching silence—seemingly endless seconds of it.

[1] I hope it’s obvious that I’m referring to her public persona, and that I hold it, and her, in the highest regard. I. Love. Julie. London.

To purchase Caetano Veloso’s A Foreign Sound, you can visit the Bloomsbury website, here.

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