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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

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musicologists often praise the construction of both the song’s melody and harmony. The strength and beauty of each combine to create one of the most played and arranged of Cole Porter’s compositions. The song continues to challenge new generations of jazz musicians, inspiring improvisations that may stray from the standard but are intrinsically linked with the original. A notable example is John Coltrane’s “Fifth House” which is based on Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” which in turn is based upon “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

While critical analysis of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” usually focuses on the exotic nature of the music, the lyrics are also well crafted. In contrast to the inventive harmony, the words tell a rather conventional love tale with no references to idols or Moroccan dances. From the opening line “I was a humdrum person,” through the lament of love both found and then lost, the refrain asks the listener “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Porter undoubtedly had a feeling for the relative merits of both his words and his music. In “What Is This Thing Called Love?” the charming and well-suited lyrics are restrained so as not to upstage the musical composition. As the song is most often performed as an instrumental it would appear that his instinct was correct. -JW

Musical analysis of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

Original Key C major; false key change to Bb major in “B” section
Form A1 – A2 – B – A3
Tonality Alternating between major and minor
Movement There are mainly steps and skips downward and leaps upward. It is 40% long, sustained pitches.

Comments     (assumed background)

The harmonic progression of “A,” a simple I – iv – V7 – I (the diminished chords in this piece are decorative substitution for the tonic in its secondary dominant or V7/iv function), owes as much to the blues as to North African folk song. “B” begins in the key Bb (established by use of F7 as secondary dominant) and then drops to Ab and G7, giving the piece an almost Eastern feeling, if only briefly.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

Sometimes, as in my recording of “What Is this Thing Called Love,” I will insert the changes from “Giant Steps” in certain parts of the song rather than use the old hackneyed sets of changes that we are so used to hearing. I  IV II VI songs just bore me to tears these days. Ever since Charlie Parker we have been collectively changing the harmonic structures of these songs.

Jay Thomas plays saxophones, trumpet, flugelhorn, and flute

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Soundtrack information
“What Is This Thing Called Love?” was included in these films:
  • You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith (1943)
  • The More the Merrier (1943)
  • Night and Day (1946, Cole Porter biography, Ginny Simms, vocal)
  • Young Man with a Horn (1950)
  • Starlift (1951)
  • The Eddie Duchin Story (1956)
  • New York Stories (1989)
  • The Russia House (1991)
  • Husbands and Wives (1992)
  • De-Lovely (2004, Lemar, vocal)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "What Is This Thing Called Love?" may be found in:

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

(5 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis and song lyrics. (Book includes CD).)

William G. Hyland
The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950
American Philological Association
Hardcover: 336 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages

(2 pages including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

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

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: lyric analysis and song lyrics.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

James P. Johnson was a master of the piano style known as “stride,” the roots of which lay in the ragtime of a generation before. His disciples were to become legend to the generation following: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fats Waller and even Thelonious Monk. Johnson’s 1930 version of this tune includes the seldom-heard verse and is taken at a medium tempo. Johnson’s playing illustrates ideas his pupil, Fats Waller, put to good use.

Sidney Bechet’s 1941 foray, with the great swing era trumpeter Charlie Shavers, is taken at an almost ballad tempo and is a wonderful, relaxed performance.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

James P. Johnson
Snowy Morning Blues
Original recording 1944
Sidney Bechet
The Legendary Sidney Bechet
RCA 6590

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “What Is This Thing Called Love?.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

“What Is This Thing Called Love” has become most commonly heard at a fast tempo, and no up-tempo version stands out more than the one by Clifford Brown and Max Roach with Sonny Rollins (At Basin Street). Sarah Vaughan, meanwhile, offers a definitive vocal rendition of the tune (Sarah Vaughan’s Finest Hour), showing off both the tune itself and its potential for improvisation.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
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

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Cole Porter

Year Rank Title
1930 8 What Is This Thing Called Love?
1930 30 Love for Sale
1932 33 Night and Day
1935 74 Just One of Those Things
1944 119 I Love You
1936 122 Easy to Love
1934 139 I Get a Kick Out of You
1936 160 I've Got You Under My Skin
1942 188 You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To
1937 209 In the Still of the Night
1944 220 Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye
1935 247 Begin the Beguine
1953 279 It's All Right with Me
1939 290 I Concentrate on You
1954 356 All of You
1950 390 From This Moment On
1938 410 Get Out of Town
1948 443 So in Love (Am I)
1934 509 All Through the Night
1953 553 I Love Paris
1938 584 My Heart Belongs to Daddy
1929 734 You Do Something to Me
1934 754 Anything Goes
1941 773 Ev'rything I Love
1928 797 Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)
1937 909 At Long Last Love
1941 910 Dream Dancing
1937 939 Rosalie
1934 940 You're the Top

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