Puttin’ On the Ritz
The original lyric describes poor Harlemites dressing up elegantly, parading down Lenox Avenue and otherwise “puttin’ on the Ritz”. The idiom means behaving in a luxurious, extravagant manner, especially while making ostentatious display of one’s wealth. The term Ritz refers to the luxury hotel chain. The lyric particularly needle those who, in efforts to look well off, spend more than they can afford, even their last two bits (25 cents). Some lines in the lyric might have been perceived as racially offensive. For example:
Spangled gowns upon a bevy
Of high browns from down the levee,
Puttin’ on the Ritz
Berlin revised the lyric in 1946, rewriting lines containing words which identified those targeted in jest by their skin color, or by presumed origins in the Deep South (high browns, Lulu Belle, from down the levee), and changing the locale from Harlem to Park Avenue. The fact that in the original lyric it was specifically “Ev’ry Thursday evening” and not on Friday or Saturday nights that the spectacle could be viewed may have been significant. The new version was introduced by Fred Astaire in the film Blue Skies (1946).
Two of the earliest popular recordings were those by Harry Richman (1929)* and Fred Astaire (1930). Clark Gable performed the song in the film Idiot’s Delight (1939). Theater audiences were amazed to see romantic leading man Gable in a lighthearted dance routine with straw hat and cane, and backed by a chorus line. The dance number by Astaire, with whom the song is closely associated, in Blue Skies was probably the best known version until Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle did a comical take on the song in the film Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).
Harry Richman (10 August 1895–3 November 1972) was an American entertainer. He was a singer, actor, dancer, comedian, pianist, songwriter, bandleader, and night club performer, at his most popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
Richman was born as Harold Reichman in Cincinnati, Ohio. He changed his name to “Harry Richman” at age 18, by which time he was already a professional entertainer in vaudeville. He worked as a piano accompanist to such stars as Mae West and Nora Bayes. With Bayes’ act he made his Broadway debut in 1922. He appeared in several editions of the George White’s Scandals in the 1920s to acclaim. He appeared in the 1931 Ziegfeld Follies.
He made his feature movie debut in Hollywood in 1930 with the film Puttin’ on the Ritz, featuring the Irving Berlin song of the same title, which gave Richman a hit phonograph record that year.
Leo Reisman and his Orchestra, vocal: Lew Conrad — Second Hand Songs indicates that this 20 January 1930 recording was the first recording of the song. It was issued in April 1930 on Victor 22306, b/w “Singing a Vagabond Song,” the B-side having been recorded by Nat Shilkret and his Orchestra.
Audio files (MP3, Ogg Vorbis, and PNG) are available at archive.org.
Harry Richman with Earl Burtnett and His Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra — recorded on 30 January 1930, issued on Brunswick 4677, c/w “There’s a Danger in Your Eyes Cherie!,” also recorded by Earl Burtnett and his Orchestra, with vocal by Harry Richman
Harry Richman — in the 1930 film Puttin’ on the Ritz, which premiered on 19 February 1930, with the general release being on 1 March 1930
Earl Burtnett and His Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel Orchestra — recorded on 31 January 1930 (one day after the Harry Richman recording); issued on Brunswick 4679, c/w “With You” (Irving Berlin)
Fred Astaire — 1930
The Clevelanders — Imperial (UK), 1930
Phil Spiltany Orchestra, vocal: Danford Sisters (band credited on the label as “Hotel Pennsylvania Music”) — recorded on 19 February 1930; issued as Harmony 1110-H, c/w “With You”.
The second recording in this video (beginning at 2:57), by Carl Webster’s Yale Collegians, is apparently also from 1930.
Alfredo and his Band — 1930
Clark Gable — Idiot’s Delight (1939)
Fred Astaire — in the film Blue Skies (1946)
Benny Goodman Trio – 1947
Taco Ockerse — A “synthpop” disco version by the artist better known as Taco was released as a single in 1982. According to the Wikipedia article on the artist, the single reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, #1 on Cashbox, and attained a top 5 position in Canada. The single was also very successful in Europe, topping the pop charts in Sweden and New Zealand, and entering the top 5 in other countries including Norway and Austria.
The original video for the Ockerse recording is notorious for having included dancers in blackface. The following video is from a staged performance, without blackface, from 1983.
Jiří Korn — Televarieté 59, 1987
* “Harry Richman (1929)” — This is probably an error. The comprehensive Online Discographical Project (78discography.com) indicates that Richman recorded the song with Earl Burtnett and his Orchestra on 30 January 1930. The recording was issued on Brunswick 4677, c/w “There’s a Danger in Your Eyes Cherie!.”