In the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem and the African-Americans who lived there and flocked to that same destination every weekend, were always the topic of conversation. Books were written about them, as well as songs. Carl Van Vechten, a Caucasian, wrote the book “Nigger Heaven”. It was a very accurate depiction of life in Harlem, which received critical acclaim, both good and bad. One of my favorite songs from that era was written by another Caucasian, Irving Berlin, in 1930, is “Puttin’ On The Ritz”. The song exemplified the frenzy with which African-Americans swarmed to Harlem on the weekend, spending what little they had on song and dance. Here is a clip from the movie of the same title.
Fast forward to 1982. Singer/songwriter Taco updates the music, changes a few lyrics and offends African-Americans everywhere. The main cause of offense was the appearance of a character in blackface. Below is the original video. Later, the blackface sequence was edited from the video, but not before it had caused its sensation.
If I had my “druthers”, I would prefer Taco’s updated music with Berlin’s original lyrics. By the time Taco came on the scene, the words had been changed dramatically, taking the emphasis off of the African-Americans, and focusing, instead, on the Caucasians who partied in Harlem.
Irving Berlin wrote
“Have you seen the well to do, up on Lennox Avenue?” (clearly Harlem)
Taco’s version (and other versions) were
“Have you seen the well to do, up and down Park Avenue?” (Midtown and below)
“If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where Harlem flits? Puttin’ on the ritz.” (a nod to Harlem)
Other versions were written as
“If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where fashion sits?” (takes the emphasis away from Harlem, suggesting a more fashionable neighborhood)
Again, Berlin salutes the African-Americans with
“Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns from down the levy, all misfits, putting’ on the Ritz.” (clearly a reference to African-Americans)
In contrast, other versions were written as
“Come let’s mix where Rockafellers walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts, puttin’ on the Ritz.” (undoubtedly the rich and Caucasian)
I stated that I would prefer Taco’s newer music mixed with Berlin’s original lyrics (unfortunately, no such version, as yet), but truth be told, if it were to be made absolutely perfect, the combination would be Taco’s music, Berlin’s lyrics, sung by the vivacious songbird Queen Latifah. Oooh la la!! I’ve gotta make that happen.
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