Before it became Bing Crosby's first solo hit in 1931, this was a popular Austrian song derived from composer Leonello Casucci's 1928 tango "Schoner Gigoli, armer Gigolo," with lyrics by Julius Brammer. The original version, about a former officer who fell on hard times after World War I, struck a chord with Austrians who suffered a similar fate in the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the English version, lyricist Irving Caesar swaps out the Austrian soldier for a French war hero who frequents a Parisian cafe to peddle his services as a gigolo.
A gigolo is a professional male escort who caters to wealthy older women. Back in the '20s and '30s, the definition wasn't so different, though the services he provided weren't always sexual; he could just be a paid dancing partner ("paid for every dance, selling each romance"). Either way, the term labels him a "kept man" who can't provide a living for himself without his good looks: he's "just a gigolo."
This was first sung in America by the French star Irene Bordoni. Her version bookends a Betty Boop cartoon in Max Fleischer's "Just A Gigolo" (1932).
In a move that would re-launch his career, Louis Prima recorded this as an uptempo medley with the jazz standard "I Ain't Got Nobody
" in 1956. Nearly 30 years later, Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth's solo cover
of the track landed at #12 on the Hot 100.
This lent its name to two films: a 1931 romantic comedy starring William Haines and a 1978 German film starring David Bowie as the title gigolo.
Crosby's version was used on Mad Men at the end of the Season 6 episode "The Collaborators."
Robert De Niro sings Prima's version in the 1993 movie Mad Dog and Glory.
"Just A Gigolo" was also the name of a short-lived 1993 British sitcom starring Tony Slattery, who sang the song over the closing credits.
The Village People recorded Prima's version for the 1978 Macho Man album.