George Gershwin

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  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs

Perhaps the most popular songwriters of the “Golden Age” of Broadway were George and Ira Gershwin. In fact, it was George’s gregarious personality (as well as his brilliance) that made his death at such a young age all the more shocking to millions of Americans.

The Gershwins’ songs have become an integral part of the American songbook. 

George was born into a poor family of first-generation immigrants. In 1912 his parents purchased a piano so that his older brother, Ira, could take lessons (Yip Harburg later claimed to be on the street watching it hoisted through the Gershwin’s parlor window – but Harburg claimed a lot of things that weren’t necessarily so). Although the piano was for Ira’s use, it was George who showed the natural predilection for music. He amazed his family when he sat down at the new piano and played simple tunes. In fact, George had begun his “studies” at a neighbor’s house, where he taught himself the basics of piano playing. He went on to more structured schooling with Charles Hambitzer who in turn urged George to study theory, orchestration, and harmony with Edward Kilenyi.

George had ambitions to become a concert pianist, but his teachers convinced him that such a dream was impractical. Luckily, he had an interest in the burgeoning field of American popular song. Like most of his contemporaries, he idolized Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, two composers who, with George M. Cohan, were most responsible for bringing an American sensibility to what had been a predominantly European art.

George was most interested in the new sounds and syncopations that jazz was bringing to American song. It all began with Scott Joplin and the rags of his contemporaries. Once blacks invented ragtime the white pop writers appropriated their rhythms, took out the rougher edges (actually ragtime, based on quadrilles and other European forms was pretty smooth and sophisticated on its own) and merged it with European art forms. Berlin made ragtime acceptable to white middle class ears (the middle class was another new American institution) with “Everybody’s Doing It Now” and “Stop that Rag” among others. They were as close to ragtime as Paul Whiteman, the King of Jazz, was to jazz. But it was George who really integrated jazz into his popular songs (and his symphonic works too) and in that way became the most influential writer of the 20th century. Ira, with his playful, slangy lyrics matched George’s rhythms.

“When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em (When You Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em)” was the title of George’s first published song, copyrighted in 1916 with lyrics by Murray Roth. George’s first Broadway song, “The Making of a Girl,” was written for The Passing Show of 1916 in collaboration with Sigmund Romberg, with lyrics by Harold Atteridge.

George created his first important song (and the biggest seller of his career), “Swanee,” which was written for the Capitol Theatre’s revue Demi-Tasse and was later incorporated into the tour of the Al Jolson show, Sinbad. The success of that song was truly remarkable and led to George receiving his first Broadway assignments.

Ira, being the younger brother, followed in George’s footsteps. His first show was in collaboration with George. An inauspicious future awaited the show, A Dangerous Maid, it closed out of town in Pittsburgh of all places. Ira was concerned that it would appear he was hired only because he was George’s brother, so he assumed the pen name Arthur Francis, the first names of their brother and sister.

Ira was always interested in language, having written light verse all through school. Ira successfully submitted his early work to Franklin P. Adams for publication in Adams’s newspaper column, “The Conning Tower” which served as an outlet for many young talents including those of Howard Dietz and E.Y. Harburg.

Ira and George were quite the opposite in personality and habit. George was a born raconteur who couldn’t be pried away from the keyboard of whatever piano graced the parlor of whatever party he happened to be attending. Ira preferred staying curled up with a dictionary and leftovers. George adamantly refused marriage preferring a series of affairs, most notably with fellow composer Kay Swift. Ira got married relatively early and for good. George’s music is an ideal reflection of his personality, quixotic, hard to pin down, and constantly surprising. Everything and everyone interested George. He painted, experimented with photography, played tennis, and drew inspiration from everyday life.  The "Rhapsody in Blue" came out of the sound of a train clickey-clacking up the rails from New York to Boston. Like his popular songs, the Rhapsody drew on the breadth of George’s musical knowledge. He explained, “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.”

Of course, George and Ira didn’t arrive as full-blown expert songwriters. Their road was just as rocky as that of any beginner learning his craft. Their luck was being born in an era or opportunity. With radio and television in the future and recordings in their infancy, the theatre was the performance entertainment of choice on Broadway and on the road. The brothers started in a humble fashion supplying an interpolated song here and there to a wide range of early musicals and operettas.

The first song with lyrics by Ira and music by George to appear in a Broadway show that actually reached Broadway was “The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag.” It was put into Ladies First, where it received little notice and wasn’t published until years later. The first published song with music by George and lyrics by Ira was “Waiting for the Sun to Come Up” which was written for The Sweetheart Shop.

George and Ira seemed destined to being acceptable composers who created minor songs for minor musicals. What seemed to change the tide for George in particular was not a Broadway production at all but the premiere of Rhapsody in Blue which premiered in 1924, a year that would be a turning point in George’s talents. In June, he wrote his first real standard (excepting Swanee), “Somebody Loves Me,” in collaboration with B.G. De Sylva and Ballard Macdonald. The success of the Rhapsody and a future standard proved to himself that his self-confidence was warranted. He and Ira’s next Broadway show was Lady, Be Good!, a huge hit and the first of a series of playful musical successes with fine scores. Oh, Kay!, Strike Up the Band (a flop out-of-town but revised into a hit a few years later), Funny Face, Girl Crazy, and a host of others featured Gershwin’s jazz-influenced rhythms and Ira’s playful and heartfelt lyrics. There were the occasional short run but even shows like Treasure Girl, which only played 68 performances, had hits in the score – in this case “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today,” and “Feeling I’m Falling.”

George’s classical aspirations were well served by such masterworks as his Concerto in F, Cuban Overture, and An American in Paris. With sojourns in Hollywood, a Pulitzer Prize (for Ira only) for Of Thee I Sing and even a radio show hosted by George, their fame grew and grew. While George worked on Porgy and Bess, Ira proved he could write with other composers when Life Begins at 8:40 opened with Harold Arlen’s music and lyrics provided by Ira in collaboration with E.Y. Harburg. “Fun to Be Fooled,” and “Let’s Take a Walk around the Block” were the future standards in the score.

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway to, shall we say confused, reviews. Opera lovers considered it a musical and Broadwayites considered it an opera. In any event, the work was that rare thing, a show ahead of its time. It’s a cliché and most things dubbed ahead of their time are just crap but in this case it was true for in 1943 the world had caught up with Porgy and Bess. Unfortunately for George he wouldn’t live to see the folk opera’s worldwide success.

George’s death would prove devastating to Ira and apart for completing the film score of The Goldwyn Follies with the help of Vernon Duke and Kay Swift, he went into a retirement brought on by depression and an incalculable sense of loss. 1941’s Lady in the Dark, in collaboration with Kurt Weill, was Ira’s return to writing. He went on to a series of hits – the film Cover Girl (with Arthur Schwartz), with Harry Warren on The Barkleys of Broadway, A Star Is Born (with Harold Arlen) – and failures including The Firebrand of Florence (with Weill) and Give a Girl a Break with Burton Lane. But even the failures contained Ira’s usual excellence of idea and craft.

The Gershwin songs have become an integral part of the American songbook with countless recordings, revivals of past hits, and new shows based on their catalog. Even with the rise of rock, punk, rap, and ghetto tech, the Gershwins hold their own year after year with no end in sight. (KB)

Between lunch and the piano

George Gershwin and Irving Caesar were lunching at Dinty Moore’s restaurant trying to come up with a surefire hit. “Hindustan” was popular at the time and Caesar suggested marrying the one-step rhythms of that song to another locale. The team continued discussing the song while riding on the upper level of a double-decker bus to Gershwin’s apartment. By the time they reached the piano, the song had been sketched out.Swanee

Plagiarism

When lawyers for G. Ricordi, music publishers of Puccini, heard Vincent Rose and Al Jolson’s “Avalon,” they accused the composer of plagiarism. They alleged that the music was based on Puccini’s aria “E lucevan le stele” from Tosca. Ricordi’s attorney’s brought a piano, violin, and trumpet into the courtroom on January 28, 1921. The instrumentalists played the popular song and the attorneys played a phonograph record of the aria. They won the lawsuit and were awarded $25,000 in damages as well as all future royalties from “Avalon.”Avalon

Away from the lights

“The Man I Love” is that rare Gershwin brothers song that achieved fame away from the lights of Broadway. Not that there wasn’t a concerted effort to use the song in a show. It was written for the Fred and Adele Astaire vehicle Lady, Be Good! but cut in Philadelphia. In 1927, it was inserted into the score of Strike Up the Band (as “The Girl I Love”) but that show closed out of town. Its final stage appearance was in Rosalie (1928), where it was sung by Marilyn Miller, but again it was cut before the show reached Broadway. Lady Mountbatten introduced the song, by then published, to the haut monde in England and it soon conquered the continent, too. Finally, America woke up to the song and it became a hit in the States in the thirties.The Man I Love

The lonely award

This was the only song for which George Gershwin was nominated for an Academy Award.They Can't Take That Away From Me

Original title

“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise was originally titled, ‘A New Step Every Day.’”I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise

Nobody's business

Astaire didn’t sing the song in Lady, Be Good!, Walter Catlett sang it. Fred recalled in his autobiography, “Walter was a funny man, and, like a lot of comedians, even his voice was funny—in fact, it was terrible. And what he did to ‘Lady, Be Good!’ was nobody’s business.” Fred did record the song and it was long associated with him.Oh, Lady Be Good

New Jersey farmer

One day in 1937, Ira Gershwin was speaking to his brother-in-law, English Strunsky,who was telling him that the local New Jersey farms didn’t understand when Strunsky said “to-mah-to” rather than “to-may-to.” Ira complained in turn that Strunsky’s sister Leonore insisted that the proper pronunciation was “eye-ther” while Ira said “ee-ther.” Pretentious or not, the Strunskys’ affected pronunciation led to one of the greatest songs in the popular repertoire.Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

Last song

 "Love Is Here to Stay" was George Gershwin’s last song.Love Is Here to Stay

Mistaken identity

“Edgar Selwyn who produced [Strike Up the Band] was wisely unwilling to hazard too much of his own money, and had persuaded a rich Kentuckian (I think his name was Levy) to help back the show. This turned out to be nothing less than genius on Mr. Selwyn’s part, because in a single tryout week in Philadelphia Strike Up the Band hung up a record which, to the best of my knowledge, never has been equaled to this day. It lost $22,000. In one week, I mean.

I am not sure just how much Mr. Levy dropped in all, but it was considerable. At all events, it was some four or five years after the debacle that I encountered him again. He came up to me in the lobby of a theatre, full of pleasure at seeing me. ‘Well!’ he cried. ‘Here you are!’ And with that he ushered forth his wife. ‘My dear, here is the man that you have been wanting to meet all these years. George Gershwin!’

Then, before I could even give him an argument, he plunged on, ‘Tell me,’ he said—‘tell me one thing. With all the magnificent music that you have written, all the money that your shows have made, why is it that I had to invest in the only one that was a failure? Why wasn’t Strike Up the Band a big success!’

I have always flattered myself that I made the only possible answer. I said, ‘Kaufman gave me a lousy book.’”George Kaufman

Mommy dearest?

“If I had to do it all again I wouldn’t have had kids.”Rose Gershwin

Work for yourself

 “What the hell do you want to work for anybody else for? Work for yourself.”Irving Berlin to Gershwin

Pleasing the muses

 Irving Caesar always denigrated George Gershwin, “You cannot please the muses and the masses.” Irving Caesar

Did she really say that?

 “Why can’t you write hit songs like De Sylva, Brown and Henderson?”Rose Gershwin

Brotherly love

 “My brother didn’t have one particular composition he considered his favorite: there were quite a few. In importance I believe he would have favored Porgy and BessConcerto in F, and Rhapsody in Blue.”Ira Gershwin

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Recordings
Music by Gershwin, 2/19/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
Music by Gershwin, 4/30/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
Rhapsody in Blue, Victor Irwin Orchestra (courtesy Vince Giordano)
Victor Irwin Orchestra
Rhapsody in Blue, Willard Robison Orchestra (courtesy Vince Giordano)
Willard Robison and his Deep River Orchestra
Swanee
Al Jolson, vocal, music by George Gershwin, lyric by Irving Caesar
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD