"Cocktails for Two" celebrates the end of Prohibition, which was the period when alcohol was illegal in the United States. That ornery era lasted from 1920 to 1933 and was one of the more culturally significant periods in American history. Deeply unpopular among the public (coming as a surprise to no one), it fed a dramatic expansion in organized crime, as mobsters responded to fill the demand for illegal alcohol.
Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow wrote "Cocktails for Two,"" which first appeared in the movie Murder of the Vanities in 1934. Carl Brisson performed it in that film.
It was Duke Ellington's version that really hit pay dirt, however (in addition to Spike Jones, but we'll get that to that later). Released later that year, Ellington's version was not only popular in its own era but also was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007. Ellington's version is instrumental, but the song was written with lyrics and is performed with lyrics in most other versions.
The song's lyrics, like the music, are elegant and classy - two adjectives that aptly describe Big Band music in general. Those lyrics tell of a romantic meeting with a woman in "some secluded rendezvous that overlooks the avenue," as the two enjoy cocktails and cigarettes (in this period of American history smoking was not only common and socially acceptable but lauded as one of life's great pleasures).
Sam Coslow wrote about the song in his autobiography Cocktails for Two: The Many Lives of Sam Coslow. In that story, Coslow recalls that he started with a verse:
Oh what a delight to be
Given the right to be
Happy and carefree again,
No longer slinking,
Like civilized ladies and men.
He wrote the words at the ending of Prohibition, which not only made alcohol illegal but also made the playing of drinking songs on the radio illegal. While everyone else was rushing to get the booze back on the streets after Prohibition's repeal, Coslow had the foresight to get the music back on the air.
He sent his verse to his writing partner, Arthur Johnston. The two were already working on the score for the movie Murder at the Vanities; they quickly finished "Cocktails for Two" and added it to the movie's playlist. The song nearly didn't make it into the film, as producer Earl Carroll wanted to reject it. Ultimately, Carrol was overruled, and "Cocktails for Two" went on to be the film's biggest song.
Ellington's version was honored at the Grammys, but the most popular rendition of "Cocktails For Two" is by Spike Jones and his City Slickers.
Jones recorded the song in 1944 with Carl Grayson singing lead. Jones added all sorts of silly, comical sound effects, and made the song farcical. The popular audiences loved it, sending it to #4, but Murder at the Vanities producer Earl Carroll never did take to it. He remained friends with Jones, but he always hated the song.
From Coslow's biography: "For some strange reason that I have never fathomed, Spike decided it was a good idea to take a graceful, continental-style melody like 'Cocktails' and record it as a noisy, slapstick, grotesque novelty. He never told me he was doing it, and the record was a shock to me. I hated it, and thought it was in the worst possible taste, desecrating what I felt was one of my most beautiful songs. To make matters worse, every time I tuned in on a disc jockey show at that time I heard the God-damned thing. It kept me boiling."
Big Crosby recorded a version of the song in 1955. It came after Jones', but didn't adopt any of the buffoonery. Tommy Dorsey did a swing version in 1938. Ray Charles and Betty Carter did one on Ray Charles and Betty Carter in 1961.