I’m not positive what originally drew me to “Whatever Lola Wants,” but I’m guessing I probably heard it in a cartoon back when I was knee high to a grasshopper. Let’s be honest, that’s where all our original musical tastes come from, right? Particularly if you were fortunate enough to have a steady diet of Warner Bros. classics growing up, but now I’m starting to digress.
“Whatever Lola Wants” was written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for the Broadway musical, “Damn Yankees,” in 1958 (the movie version followed shortly thereafter). Though Gwen Verdon did the original, it’s since been covered by some of the biggest names in jazz. And a transvestite. But more on that in a bit.
The song’s titular character refers to Eliza Rosanna Gilbert. Born in Ireland in 1821, she would later take the stage name Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer (owing to her darker complexion; speaking as one of Irish descent myself, this probably means she could absorb a five minute tan before burning, unlike the rest of us). She would later have affairs with Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, that latter of which resulted in her being made Countess of Landsfeld. Scandal and intrigue followed her around the world, clearly making her cool before cool was even invented. Plus, she was known as a courtesan, and, honestly, do you know any courtesans? I’m guessing no, but you sure as hell wish you did.
In addition to the song, she was a main character in Royal Flash from the kick ass Flashman Papers book series. If you like your history fast, loose and largely fictionalized from the point of view of a cowardly, philandering rapscallion, this is the series for you. Flash somehow finds himself in the line of all the important events of the mid-1800s through the early 1902. Think Forrest Gump without the retardation and a lot more sex and alcohol.
Ella Fitzgerald’s version is exactly what you’d expect. Classy, with just a touch of something naughty behind those glorious pipes. For the most part, the backing band realizes just who has the mic and let’s her do her thing, though there are some pretty powerful frills at the end of verses to punctuate things with that little something extra.
Sara Vaughn’s take is a tad more sultry, with an even more subdued backing band. However, we do get the added effect of a barely heard male chorus in the background.
The jazz great Carmen McRae does a version, too. While her pipes aren’t quite in the range of the two previous, that doesn’t make her any less impressive. And where Sara had the faint male backers, McRae opts for some dudes grunting “Ungh!” between verses, so it can’t be said her music here wasn’t without a couple of fresh ideas.
Next up is a far more Latin-y take by Abbe Lane from her Be Mine Tonight with Tito Puente & his orchestra. Tito salsa-ed up this puppy. Not only is there his unmistakable percussion, but there’s even a touch of electric guitar.
In a similar vein, Della Reese puts her own stamp on things on her Swing, Slow & Cha Cha Cha. And shame on all of us for allowing “cha cha cha” for falling out of the popular lexicon. While she’s indelibly imprinted in mind alongside Redd Foxx, some of us need to remember she had one hell of a set of pipes.
And finally, I’m adding this last version by Molly Johnson, mainly because she changes up things quite a bit, utilizing piano in place of horns and a damn hypnotizing percussive beat. Plus, she’s Canuck, and Lord knows I love my brothers and sisters from the Great White North.
Oh yeah, you’re probably wondering about that whole tranny thing I mentioned earlier. For the actual last version, enjoy the dulcet pipes of Chiwetel Ejiofor. From the soundtrack for “Kinky Boots,” the lead character also happens to be a transvestite that goes by the name of Lola. While I haven’t seen the movie, since I learned its about a family shoe business that’s failing so badly that it opts to try out the always valuable she-male market for sales, I’m pretty sure it will be in my NetFlix queue before too long.