LIVES OF THE GREAT SONGS / Ev'ry which way but loose: Ev'ry time we say goodbye: In the latest excerpt from our history of the hits, Giles Smith presents a guided tour of an urbane wasteland

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COLE PORTER, ingenious and effusive as a lyricist, was often restrained to the point of austerity as a composer. His attitude seems to have been: why use two notes where one will do? Think of 'Night and Day', with its introductory verse entirely on a single note and the little strings of repeated notes the melody keeps returning to. Or think of 'Miss Otis Regrets' and the long run on the same note in its opening line ('Miss Otis regrets she's unable to lunch today').

Or think of 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye'. The song opens: 'Ev'ry time we say goodbye, I die a little,' and, amazingly, the first eight notes you hear are the same. The next line begins a few tones higher up, but again a note is held, on this occasion repeating seven times: 'Ev'ry time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little.' After that it gets more complicated, as the melody starts to turn its slow, melancholy pirouettes. But it's a mark of the song's genius that it should seize the opportunity offered by monotony.

Monotony has one obvious advantage for the composer of popular songs: it bestows instant familiarity. There's also a kind of one-note writing which can assist a poor singer. When the question is not 'can you hold a tune?' but 'can you hold a note?', there's a lot more of us with our hands in the air. But can you hold the note at the start of 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye'?

Distinguished performers have risen to the challenge - from Ella Fitzgerald through Julie London to Mick Hucknall - with varying degrees of success. When Burt Bacharach wrote 'This Guy's in Love' for Herb Alpert, he got around the problem of Alpert's extremely limited range by devising a tune whose hook stuck determinedly to one note.

But the tactic would have failed had Bacharach not also thoughtfully provided another prop in the form of a consistent beat on which to punch the words home. In 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye', the series of identical notes strings out across a long, open space, making complicated demands on a singer's ability to hold and pull away from a note and enforcing all kinds of decisions about phrasing and shaping. And many have come and many have fallen.

'Ev'ry Time' was written in 1944 for a revue called Seven Lively Arts. Since the show Leave it to Me in 1938, Porter's capacity to write hits had appeared to be on the wane. After Something for the Boys (1943) the critic George Freedley had written in the Morning Telegraph: '(the show had) none of the tunes that you go out of the theater whistling.' And following Mexican Hayride, which opened in 1944, the same paper suggested that Porter's gift had 'very nearly reached vanishing point'. Porter himself had grown depressed.

Seven Lively Arts was conceived by its big-time producer, Billy Rose, as an extravaganza ranging across the arts. There were songs and sketches from a cast featuring Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr. Benny Goodman played jazz clarinet and the dancer Alicia Markova performed to a 15-minute ballet suite, Scenes de Ballet, specially commissioned from Igor Stravinsky. A show so ambitiously mixed was flirting with disaster, but on the day of the opening at the Ziegfeld Theatre, Porter received an encouraging letter from Dr Albert Sirmay, his music editor at Chappell.

Sirmay wrote: 'I myself have a personal affair with your song 'Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye'. It chokes me whenever I hear it . . . It is a dithyramb to love, a hymn to youth . . . It is not less a gem than any immortal song of a Schubert or Schumann . . . This song is a classic and will live forever.'

These were overblown words, maybe, but they were prescient. Seven Lively Arts was attacked by the critics and died after 183 performances. But 'Ev'ry Time' endured.

It's a simple tune and it sounds easy in the right hands, but its tone can prove hard to hit. The song is in the voice of a standard romantic type - the lover who cannot bear to part - but it dusts that old cliche down by thinking not in terms of some cataclysmic, final separation, but of the regular to-ings and fro-ings of a life. The word 'little' goes a long way here. In the urbane world of Porter's lyric, to 'die a little' and to 'wonder why a little' carry the same disenchanted but quietly resolute force.

Elaborate conceits arch winningly through these lines, the singer wondering 'Why the gods above me/Who must be in the know/Think so little of me/They allow you to go'. We are not on the edge here: despair is tempered by charm and the song closes with a musical joke, the chords modulating with the lyric: When you're near there's such an air Of spring about it I can hear a lark somewhere Begin to sing about it There's no love song finer But how strange the change From major to minor Ev'ry time we say goodbye.

Porter famously said: 'writing lyrics is like doing a crossword puzzle'. His internal rhyme schemes could turn a lyric into a cunningly calculated, tightly locked grid. The small cluster of internal rhymes here ('I die', 'I wonder why', 'begin to sing', 'how strange the change') serve to brighten the lyric, and set a current running contrary to the expected mood. Whatever the sentimental burden here, it is manageable, though many singers would try and convince you otherwise. In doing so, they miss the point. In 'Ev'ry Time', Porter produced a song embedded in the circumstances of everyday life.

It was Ella Fitzgerald who sent it round the world. She recorded the song in 1956 and it appears on the album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook (Verve). The band arrangement is simple, and Fitzgerald opens up in the space granted her and sings like a clarinet, as if her throat were made of polished wood. Critics of Fitzgerald often centre their reservations on this very smoothness, hearing no personal drama in her delivery, no gritty autobiography crackling between the lines as there is with Billie Holiday.

But this is a song in which the uncluttered dispassion of her approach clicks a light on over the song's wit. 'Ev'ry time we say goodbye, I die a little,' she sings, and her lack of insistence does remarkable justice to that little death. Her delivery is a miracle of mildness.

'Ev'ry Time' became her most popular song with British audiences. In the late 1950s, radio programmers were reluctant to broadcast jazz, so Fitzgerald's exposure was brief during those vital years. 'Ev'ry Time', though, nipped under the wire, becoming a request-show staple, particularly on Forces Radio. In Fitzgerald's honeyed version, it became, as Stuart Nicholson wrote in the biography Ella Fitzgerald (Gollancz, 1993), 'a 'We'll Meet Again' for the Cold War generation'.

Ray Charles reached the song in 1961 on the album he made with Betty Carter, Ray Charles and Betty Carter (ABC-Paramount). Hard to think of anything more potentially disruptive of the song's easeful play of mind than a duet. In fact, their voices do not meet, except to croon a closing flourish. Charles sings the song right through and then drops back to concentrate on the piano while Carter gets her turn. It's a useful exercise in contrasts. Carter sings like a sax taking a break, angling in and out on jazzy paths, but it's what Charles does that stays in the mind. The calm poise of his phrasing answers to the refinement of the lyric and he paces himself like someone with a sense of the whole shape, rather than snapping the song into fragments of skill, which is rather Sarah Vaughan's approach on the album After Hours (Mercury), recorded the same year.

Jazz instrumentalists have gone to the song for the neat shifting of its chords, which makes a plush bed for soloing, and for the challenge of that single-note start. The saxophonist Sonny Rollins put a version on The Sound of Sonny (Prestige) in 1957, where it is apparent that the mood of the lyric interests him not a jot. The song whips along at a breezy up-tempo swing and still holds together. Rollins also cracks a gag with the melody's monotony, rattling off some 20 staccato notes at the top of the second verse, as if trying to blow a hole in it. John Coltrane's saxophone takes it easier on The Paris Concert album, recorded in 1962 (Pablo), scooping deep into the tune in search of disenchantment.

The trumpeter and singer Chet Baker was in a position to come at the song from both sides, instrumentally and vocally. (A version is on the soundtrack to the film about Baker's last days, Let's Get Lost, Novus, 1989.) The solo is exquisitely pained, but the vocal manages to eclipse it - a quiet, resigned sigh, as of someone slowly exhaling cigarette smoke. This seems perfectly in tune with the mood and helps explain why Nina Simone makes a good singer of the song while a showman like Sammy Davis Jr does not. On The Best of Nina Simone (RCA, 1970), Simone's mournful bell of a voice deliberately lacks attack, never pushes for extremes, and the song favours those undramatic virtues.

Mick Hucknall understood this. In 1987 with Simply Red, he became the only man to make the song a hit, hoisting it to No 11 in Britain. (The single was taken from the album Men and Women, Elektra.) Elsewhere, his voice is the epitome of lustful exertion, but here the vocal sits patiently in the arrangement, coming over all level and engaging. Less successful versions often wrench the song away from its domestic root. The torch singer Julie London may be thought to have started something on her album All Through the Night (London) as early as 1959. Drenched in studio reverb and self-pity, she seems to be whispering down an air vent. It is possibly the first use of 'Ev'ry Time' purely as a vehicle for a star's sensibility - a notion Annie Lennox picked up when she recorded it for the 1990 charity album, Red Hot and Blue (Chrysalis).

Lennox's delivery is effortful, encouraging you to acknowledge its graft. It works fine if what you're after is a frenzy of hand-wringing, but it seems to issue from somewhere other than the lyric or the melody. The subtext appears to be: 'Ev'ry time we say goodbye, I permit myself three minutes of self-flagellation'. The song is smaller than that, and greater.

] Adapted from 'Lives of the Great Songs' (Pavilion, hardback, pounds 14.99), which includes all 26 articles that have appeared in our series, plus 10 more. It is in the shops now, but readers can order it by post at no extra cost. To pay by credit card ring 0235 831700 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm); by cheque, write to Bookpoint Ltd (Mail Order Dept), 39 Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4TD, cheque payable to Bookpoint. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

A matter of everyday life and death: (top row, left to right) Julie London, who seemed to be whispering down an air vent, Ella Fitzgerald, who sent the song round the world, and Nina Simone; (bottom row) Cole Porter, who wrote the song for the short-lived Broadway revue 'Seven Lively Arts' in 1944, and Annie Lennox, who recorded it in 1990 (Photographs omitted)