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Love for Sale (1930)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Bechet uses all his tricks--bent notes, glissandi, growls, double-time and cross-time phrases--proving there is more to jazz improvisation than pyrotechnics.”

- Chris Tyle

Rank 30
Words and Music Cole Porter

On December 9, 1930, Charles Darnton of the New York Evening World wrote,

...“Love for Sale,” as sung by Kathryn Crawford, June Shafer, Ida Pearson, and Stella Friend, was in the worst possible taste.

That same day in the New York Herald Tribune, Percy Hammond reported,

A frightened vocalist, Miss Kathryn Crawford, sings a threnody entitled “Love for Sale” in which she impersonated a lily of the gutters ...When and if we ever get a censorship, I will give odds it will frown upon such an honest thing.

The previous night Darnton and Hammond had attended the opening of the Broadway musical, The New Yorkers, at the Broadway Theatre, during which Crawford introduced Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.”


More on Kathryn Crawford at JazzBiographies.com

In 1924 B.S. Moss had built the colossal Colony Theater to present vaudeville and movies. In 1930 he converted it to a legitimate theater that boasted “the magnitude, luxury and courtesy of the theatre with the comforts and charm of the drawing room.”

Moss chose The New Yorkers as the first production to be staged in his palatial playhouse, the newly renamed Broadway.

The New Yorkers was based upon a story by E. Ray Goetz and Peter Arno, the latter a cartoonist who provided cover art for the New Yorker. Starring Frances Williams, Charles King, Hope Williams, Ann Pennington, Richard Carle, Marie Cahill, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, and Jimmy Durante it was typical of most ‘30s musicals, its flimsy plot centering on the escapades of a society girl who falls in love with a bootlegger. Hopes ran high with a great cast and the Cole Porter music and lyrics, but only the cream of the crop would survive the onset of the depression, and the show was closed by early May after 168 performances.

The infamous highlight of The New Yorkers featured Kathryn Crawford and three girl friends singing “Love for Sale” in front of Reuben’s Restaurant. A white prostitute singing candidly about her profession was too much for 1930 audiences, the same year the motion picture industry felt it necessary to announce the Hays Code.

In an effort to defuse the moral outrage, the authors changed both the singer and the scene. In January, 1931, Crawford was replaced by Elizabeth Welch, an African American singer, who sang the same song with the same girlfriends in front of the Cotton Club in Harlem. Apparently the greater immorality of the switch was lost on many.

“Love for Sale” appeared on the pop charts in February, 1931, with Libby Holman’s recording rising to number five. A few weeks later, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians’ rendition, with vocals by the Three Waring Girls, climbed to number fourteen. A few years later, in 1939, a recording of the song by Hal Kemp and His Orchestra, with vocals by the Smoothies, climbed to number fourteen on the pop charts.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

As a rule, less radio play translates to fewer record sales, but when “Love for Sale” was banned from the radio, the song only gained in popularity. Not only did Walter Winchell promote it in his column but the ban itself proved alluring to the record buying public.

The New Yorkers also contained Cole Porter’s “Go Into Your Dance,” which became a hit by Johnny Green and His Orchestra, and “Where Have You Been?” charting with Emil Coleman and His Orchestra.

“Love for Sale” is often called a melancholy ballad, a prostitute’s lament, and Richard Rodgers termed it the “... bitter exhortation of a streetwalker.” On the other hand, some renditions strike critics as catchy or even fun. Alec Wilder was not one of them, declaring “...the attempt of its lyrics to prettify a rather drab profession embarrasses me.”

It may be the subject of prostitution that colors critics’ reactions to the song, as Porter’s lyrics, like a hardened streetwalker, show little emotion; there is very little said that either prettifies or laments. The phrases that are revealing seem to cancel each other out: “unspoiled” is negated by “soiled,” and “Appetizing young love” is diminished by “I’ve been through the mill of love,” which in turn is trivialized by the clever rhyming, “Old love, new love, every love but true love.” Porter’s impassive account of streetwalking might produce several reactions, depending on one’s point of view. A lack of self-pity and regret imply moral indifference, an affront to those who condemn such behavior, while a lack of joy may lead others to interpret Porter’s lyrics as a melancholic lament.


More on Cole Porter at JazzBiographies.com

Beyond the written lyrics, the vocal deliveries of “Love for Sale” vary widely. Dinah Washington growls and belts; Mel Torme (with appropriately altered lyrics) scats; Diane Schuur closes an up-tempo rendition with backup singers repeating, “Got a little bit of love for sale”; and Ella Fitzgerald leaves you with the feeling that you have just heard another beautiful love song.

“Love for Sale” is musically a well-constructed composition, drawing praise even from those who have contempt for its lyrics. Its unusual form, minor key, and complex chord progressions make it attractive to jazz instrumentalists and vocalists alike, many of whom have recorded it numerous times.

More information on this tune...

Charles Schwartz
Cole Porter: A Biography
Da Capo Press; 1st Pbk edition
Paperback: 365 pages

(Porter biographer Schwartz offers two pages on the song including its history and an analysis of its controversial lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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