FLORENCE, Italy — In December 1929, Irving Berlin published a song with an irresistible but notoriously complex rhythmic pattern and lyrics about the custom in Harlem of putting on one’s Sunday finery to parade up and down Lenox Avenue, “Spendin’ every dime/For a wonderful time.”
Issued by Columbia, Victor and the Brunswick record labels (which had a No. 1 hit with it), “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was eventually sung on film by Fred Astaire and Clark Gable; revised by Berlin to replace the lyric’s resplendent black people with rich whites strutting down Park Avenue; and definitively entered pop culture as easy shorthand for dressing to the nines.
To understand how durably Berlin’s tune permeated pop culture, consider the story of Matteo Gioli, a 28-year-old musician from Pisa who played banjo, guitar and double bass in a retro-style swing band until 2010. Read more.