Jacob Gershvin was born on this day in Brooklyn, New York in 1898. Today is the 114th anniversary of his birth.
His parents were Russian Jewish emigrants. He had three siblings, Ira, Arthur and Frances. His parents bought a piano and paid for lesson for Ira, but it was George who took up the instrument. At 15 he left school and began to work at New York’s Tin Pan Alley. (He changed his name George Gershwin when he entered the professional music world.) He sold his first song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em; When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em,” for $5.
Music theatre folk-lore has it that one day Gershwin was performing his composition “Swanee” at a party when Broadway star Al Jolson heard it. Jolson added the song to his show in 1919 and it became his signature song. Gershwin rose in the ranks of New York City song composers.
Gershwin collaborated with Arthur L. Jackson and Buddy De Sylva on his first complete Broadway musical, “La, La Lucille” [American Masters; George Gershwin]
He worked in Vaudeville for a bit, and in 1920 he teamed up with lyricist Buddy DeSylva for a one-act jazz opera, Blue Monday.
At 25 his Rhapsody in Blue for solo piano and orchestra debuted in New York. It combined Gershwin’s twin musical loves a jazz and classical. Bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned the piece and it was premiered in a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music on February 12th with Gershwin at the piano. His other “serious music” includes Concerto in F, An American Paris and his Second Rhapsody (originally New York Rhapsody.)
In 1924, when George teamed up with his older brother Ira, “the Gershwins” became the dominant Broadway songwriters, creating infectious rhythm numbers and poignant ballads, fashioning the words to fit the melodies with a “glove-like” fidelity. [Gershwin.com]
George and his brother Ira worked together in 1924 on the musical Lady Be Good. The show opened at the Liberty Theatre and starred Fred Astaire and his sister Adele and featured the songs “Fascinating Rhythm“, “O Lady Be Good” and, “The Half of It, Dearie, Blues.” You can hear Gershwin’s complicated rhythms and the jazz chords that he would build on in later compositions like Rhapsody and Blue in this early recording of “The Half Of It, Dearie, Blues“…
Oh, Kay! a musical about an English Duke and his sister turned American bootleggers opened at the Princess Theatre in 1926. It featured the dance number”Clap Yo’ Hands,” the love duet “Maybe” and “Someone To Watch Over Me“.
Funny Face opened in 1927, again with the Astaires in the lead. Songs included “S’Wonderful”, “My One and Only,” He Loves and She Loves” and “Let’s Kiss and Make Up.” An updated of Funny Face opened on Broadway as “My One and Only” in 1983 and ran for over 700 shows. And Hollywood made a move starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn in 1957 called Funny Face and using four of the songs, but with a different plot.
In Strike Up the Band America declares war on Switzerland. The original production only made it to previews in Philadelphia in 1927, but the Gershwins revised it and brought it to Broadway in 1930. The songs “The Man I Love,” “Strike Up the Band,” “Soon,” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You“ were added to the Gershwin Song Book from the show. [If you ignore all the other links in this post, do yourself a favor and click on I’ve Got a Crush on You — I pulled the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald’s smooth as silk rendition of the Gershwin classic… and no matter how crazy / busy your day is… you deserve this 3min. 18sec. piece of musical heaven.]
True to its name, Show Girl, is all about show business. It starred Ruby Keeler as an up and coming show girl Dixie Dugan. Other “A list” performers like Jimmy Durante and Eddie Foy, Jr. filled out the bill. It was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. Songs include“Harlem Serenade,” and “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” [– Ruby Keeler was married to Al Jolson and he used to come see the show several times a week and sing this, the last song, out loud from the audience, lovingly, to her. ]
In 1929 he wrote the score for the Fox film Delicious. His “New York Rhapsody” (which later became his “Second Rhapsody”) and a five-minute dream sequence was all that the producers chose to use of his score. Gershwin was disgusted.
In 1930 Girl Crazy hit the stage. It starred Ethel Merman, and made a star out of Ginger Rogers [to read the Thought of the Day Ginger Roger’s profile click HERE.]. The show was made into 3 movies, and while the films shared many of the stage show’s most popular songs — like “Embraceable You,” “But Not For Me” and “I’ve Got Rhythm” — the plots lines deviated from the original.
This all-American political satire focuses on the election campaign and Presidency of John P. Wintergreen, whose party, lacking a viable platform, runs on love, promising that if elected he will marry the partner chosen for him at an Atlantic City beauty pageant. When he falls for Mary Turner (a campaign secretary who bakes a mean corn muffin) instead of Diana Deveraux (the fairest flower of the South and winner of the pageant), trouble begins! [MTI Music theatre International]
His ground breaking, genre defying Porgy and Bess came out in September of 1935. George wrote the music, DeBose Heyward wrote the libretto, and Heyward and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics. It was based on Heyward’s novel Porgy . Gershwin intended it to be a folk opera. Although it is considered a modern masterpiece now, the show flopped when it premiered on Broadway. It had revivals in 1942 and 1952, but it and didn’t get the recognition it deserved in the opera world until the Huston Grand Opera staged it in 40 years later (1976). Songs include “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess You Is My Woman Now,” and “Summertime.”