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What Is This Thing Called Love? (1930)

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Origin and Chart Information
“... the jam sessions feature greats Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter. This is an inspired version of a song Parker would revisit regularly.”

- Ben Maycock

Rank 8
Words and Music Cole Porter

Britain’s “Radio Sweetheart Number One,” singer Elsie Carlisle, introduced “What Is This Thing Called Love?” to the London Pavilion on March 27th, 1929. The song was performed as part of Wake Up and Dream, a musical revue with words and music composed by Cole Porter and the book by John Hastings Turner.

The Wake Up and Dream score comprised over a dozen Porter songs, including “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,” which was introduced the previous year in the musical Paris.


More on Elsie Carlisle at JazzBiographies.com

In addition to Elsie Carlisle, the revue also starred a young Jessie Matthews, (later to become one of Britain’s top musical comedy stage and screen stars), her husband and manager Sonnie Hale, and dancer-actress Tilly Losch. Wake Up and Dream ran on the London stage for 263 performances.

In the United States the Broadway production of Wake Up and Dream was met with mixed reviews. It opened on December 30, 1929, at the Selwyn Theatre and starred Jessie Matthews, Jack Buchanan, and Tilly Losch, with Frances Shelley singing “What Is This Thing Called Love.” The revue was cut short after only 136 performances.

The title Wake Up and Dream would later be used for films in 1934, 1942 (the British title for the American film What’s Cookin’), and 1947, the movies sharing nothing more than the title with the Cole Porter revue.

Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (Lew Conrad, vocal) would be the first artist to place “What Is This Thing Called Love” on the pop charts. On February 15, 1930, 11 months after its introduction, the song made its chart debut rising to number five.

Also making it onto the charts with “What Is This Thing Called Love?” were:

  • Ben Bernie and His Orchestra (1930, #10)
  • Fred Rich and His Orchestra (1930, #19)
  • Artie Shaw and His Orchestra (1939, #15)
  • Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra (Connie Haines, vocal, 1942, #13)
  • Les Paul (electric guitar, 1948, #11)

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

Cole Porter claimed that “What Is This Thing Called Love?” with its innovative alternating major and minor key changes, was inspired by a Moroccan native dance. In the biography Cole: A Biographical Essay by Robert Kimball and Brendan Gill, the lyrics of the song are placed next to a picture of Tilly Losch and Toni Birkmayer in dance pose. Towering over them is William Cavanagh dressed as an African idol. This exotic costuming and dramatization would seem to reflect the supposed origin of the piece.


More on Cole Porter at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages

(Author/educator Forte devotes five pages to the song, including its history and analyses of both the music and lyric. There is also a companion CD.)

- Jeremy Wilson

Recommendations for This Tune
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Clifford Brown/ Max Roach
At Basin Street
1990, Polygram 814648
Original recording, 1956
This burning recording shows the Brown-Roach band at its peak and demonstrates the up-tempo approach that would subsequently become a frequently-taken approach to this song. This recording also documents the important addition of saxophonist Sonny Rollins to the band.
Bill Evans
Portrait in Jazz
Original Jazz Classics/Riverside 1162
Original recording 1959
Many people think of Bill Evans for his more introspective ballad playing, but he could cook too. This extremely exciting rendition features his definitive trio (with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian) in their first recording session.
J.J. Johnson
Trombone Master
Original recording, 1957, Columbia
This exciting arrangement also features the talents of Nat Adderley on cornet and Tommy Flanagan on piano.
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan's Finest Hour

This short but very swinging live recording cooks, and Sassy even interjects a little bit of “Hot House” into her scatting.


- Noah Baerman

Frank Sinatra
In the Wee Small Hours
1998, Capitol 94755
Original recording, 1955
This is the first of many collaborations between Sinatra and arranger Nelson Riddle. Sinatra’s voice and the Riddle clarinet theme create a haunting interpretation of the song.
Charlie Parker
Legendary Jam Sessions
2004, Definitive Classics
Original recording, 1952
Recorded in Hollywood, California, and Washington, D.C., the jam sessions feature greats Oscar Peterson, Barney Kessel, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter. This is an inspired version of a song Parker would revisit regularly.
Sonny Rollins
Night at the Village Vanguard
Blue Note Records
Original Recording 1957
Rollins is heard at his most inventive here as he swoops through a fourteen minute exploration of this song.
Art Tatum/Lionel Hampton
The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 3
Pablo 2405426
Original recording 1955
Tatum swings through this tune in the company of two of the musicians capable of holding their own with him, drummer Buddy Rich and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
Kenny Garrett
Standard of Language
2003, Warner Bros. 48404

Saxophonist Garrett kicks off his CD with a soulful, technically perfect rendition of the song. The phrasing only proves critics right when they suggest he is the second coming of John Coltrane.

- Ben Maycock

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