The consummate showman Billy Rose produced the Broadway revue The Seven Lively Arts which featured songs by Cole Porter, ballet music by Igor Stravinsky, scenery designed by Salvador Dali, and a cast which included jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who also conducted the pit orchestra. The show opened in December, 1944, at the Zeigfeld Theater, which had been purchased by Rose who had its foyer decorated by Dali with illustrations of the seven lively arts: architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, drama, music and literature.
The show, which starred Beatrice Lillie, was an overblown extravaganza which ran for only 183 performances. It not only featured comic Bert Lahr and ballerina Alicia Markova but included jazz greats Teddy Wilson and Red Norvo in the pit orchestra. Nan Wynn introduced “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” in a sketch with Jere McMahon. The song was recorded by opera singer Dorothy Kirsten and by Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians, but it was the Benny Goodman Quintet with vocalist Peggy Mann who took it to number 12 on the charts in 1945.
“Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” was the only song to survive the disastrous show. In Cole Porter: A Biography Charles Schwartz describes the song’s attributes: “Its simple, elegaic, repeated-note melody--a Porter characteristic--and cogent harmony complement a superior text. One example of how closely Cole correlated words and music in this song can be seen by his switch from primarily major to minor harmony to correspond with the phrase ‘from major to minor’ in the lyrics for the refrain.”
Preceding a detailed description of the song, Alec Wilder, in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, says, “...There are no specific Porter characteristics in either music or lyric. Both are marvelous but untypical of his writing.” Supporting that view is Thomas S. Hischak in The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia. “‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ may be an atypical Cole Porter ballad in its melody and lyric, but it is still one of his finest efforts. The unusual shifts in key give the song’s melody a haunting quality, and the sentiment of the lyric is straightforward and deeply heartfelt.”
In his book Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century Alan Lewens says, “‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ is quite simply a great love song.... Porter utilizes the hypnotic effect of a continuous, repetitive note through the song, making the triumphant sweep near the end all the more dramatic.... One thing that sets it apart from some of his other songs is the way that each artist is able to adapt it to suit their particular strengths.... Being neither lyrically clever, nor musically complex, it is almost a blank sheet from which each singer can emote. Whoever the performer, Porter’s genius always shines through....”
As Allen Forte points out in his book Listening to Classic American Popular Songs, it was a combination of Porter’s clever lyrics and “the affective setting of the words” that captured an audience of war-weary listeners bruised by partings. Forte discusses Porter’s inner rhymes, rhyme “chains” (“ever,” “clever,” “never”) and near-rhymes. “[He] creates an intricate and interesting verbal fretwork that amplifies the idea of the song: the parting of lovers, with all of its emotional overtones.”
Forte continues to explore Porter’s musical setting for the lyrics, noting that “since the vocalist sings the title phrase on one note throughout the first three bars, the only motion results from the repeated change in harmony. Indeed, the repeated note (eight times!) at the very beginning of the melody is the hallmark of this song....” Porter’s famous line “from major to minor” is accompanied by a chord change from Ab to Abm.
There’s no love song finer,
But how strange
From major to minor
Ev’ry time we say goodbye.
The lyrics are some of Porter’s most sublime and they are perfectly matched to melody and harmony. Consider these memorable lines appropriately set to a descending melody that intensifies the sorrow:
Why the gods above me
Who must be in the know
Think so little of me
They allow you to go.
Natalie Cole performed the song in De-Lovely, the 2004 film biography in which Kevin Kline plays Cole. Jazz musicians have been drawn to the tune by its interesting harmonic progressions. Some of the many contemporary musicians who have recorded “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” include trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Marcus Printup; trombonist Rob McConnell; saxophonists Harry Allen and Phil Woods; guitarist John Pisano; pianists Fred Hersch, Dave Peck, Mulgrew Miller, and Cedar Walton; and vocalists Andy Bey, Karrin Allyson, Kurt Elling, Ann Hampton Callaway, and Jimmy Scott.