Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Dance Party: It's Nobody's Business But The Turks'

This week's Dance Party has something for everyone: puppets, violins, a belly dancer, a dude in leather shorts, even a turban and a fez. Our star is not a singer nor songwriter nor somebody who recently died. The star of this week's Dance Party is a geographical location:
Everybody remembers the year 330, right? AD, of course. The Emperor Constantine, the first openly Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, recognized what centuries worth of his predecessors did not: that Rome was a lousy place to be the capital of the civilized world. It was just too far removed from the rich Eastern provinces. He turned his attentions to the city of Byzantium, which sat conveniently astride the land route from Europe to Asia, and was perched on the connecting waterway between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It was the perfect location to access both East and West; the mighty river civilizations along both the Danube and the Euphrates were within reach from this spot. Our hero spent 6 years redesigning the place, and in 330, he consecrated the city and moved the Roman Empire's capital. Constantinople was born.

Though the center of the Christian (read: Catholic) world was eventually returned to Rome, Constantinople remained the wealthiest city in the world throughout the Middle Ages. It wasn't until 1453 that the Ottoman Islamic Turks captured the city, threw out the Christian infidels, and renamed the place Istanbul. But in the Western world, the city remained known as Constantinople, as a tribute to its Christian history. The city went by both names for centuries, until 81 years ago this week. On March 28, 1930, the Turkish government officially requested that the rest of the world knock it off. They insisted that everyone recognize their most famous city as Istanbul, not Constantinople.

Songwriters Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon smelled a hit. The first recording of this week's Dance Party was by The Four Lads, who were the 50s version of a boy band. In 1953, they hit #10 on the Billboard charts with "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)." Since then, this novelty tune has been sung by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Duke's Men Of Yale, an all-male acappella group on the Yale campus which has closed all of its concerts with a riotous rendition of the song, every year since 1953.
The song first came to my attention when Bette Midler included it in her live concert recording in 1977. The gang from Tiny Toons had some fun with it a long while back, but perhaps the most famous recording of the song arrived in 1990, when the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants covered the tune, adding a violin and accordion. It is this version which graces this week's Dance Party. You gotta love this song's swing rhythm, which is based on the Irving Berlin classic "Puttin' On The Ritz," and Craig Ferguson and his gang treat the number with the respect it deserves. Break out the baklava and enjoy: