Gershwin, George (originally, Gershvin, Jacob)

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Gershwin, George (originally, Gershvin, Jacob)

Gershwin, George (originally, Gershvin, Jacob), vibrant American composer; brother of Ira Gershwin; b. N.Y, Sept. 26, 1898; d. Los Angeles, July 11, 1937. Gershwin forged a hybrid of Tin Pan Alley, theater music, jazz, and classical music in a remarkable, if abbreviated, career that found him writing successful popular songs, Broadway musicals, assorted serious compositions, and an opera, all of which have been embraced by performers ranging from symphony orchestras to jazz groups and nightclub singers. His music combined formal brilliance with rhythmic vitality and blues influences to create an original style distinctive in itself and broadly influential, making him the most significant American composer of the 20th century. His most notable accomplishments are found in different forms, including such song standards as “Swanee,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “The Man I Love/7 his revolutionary instrumental work Rhapsody in Blue, and his masterpiece, the opera Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin’s parents, Morris and Rose Bruskin Gershvin (originally Gershovitz), were Russian immigrants. Gershwin gave little evidence of an interest in music until 1910, when the family acquired a piano, ostensibly for his older brother, Ira Gershwin, and he began to play it instead. By the age of 14, he was taking lessons from Charles Hambitzer, and he learned harmony and theory from Edward Kilenyi. (He continued to seek instruction throughout his career, notably working with Joseph Schillinger from 1932 to 1936.) Academic study, on the other hand, did not interest him; he dropped out of high school at 15 to take a job as a demonstration pianist with Jerome H. Remick, music publishers. Though he was writing music as early as 1913, his first song to be published was “When You Want ’Em You Can’t Get ’Em (When You Got ’Em, You Don’t Want ’Em)” (lyrics by Murray Roth) in March 1916. Three months later he placed his first song in a musical revue with the use of “Making of a Girl” (lyrics by Harold Atteridge) in The Passing Show of 1916 (N.Y, June 22, 1916).

Gershwin left Remick in 1917 and was hired as rehearsal pianist for the revue Miss 1917 (N.Y, Nov. 5, 1917). The cast also performed Sunday night concerts during the run, and at one of them, on Nov. 25, 1917, Gershwin accompanied the show’s star, Vivienne Segal, on two of his songs, “You-oo, Just You” and “There’s More to the Kiss Than the X-X-X” (both lyrics by Irving Caesar). The performance brought him to the attention of music publishers T. B. Harms, where he was hired as a composer. This in turn led to a series of interpolations of Gershwin songs into revues and musicals. Among them was his first song with lyrics by his brother Ira, “The Real American Folk Song,” sung in Ladies First (N.Y., Oct. 24, 1918). His first full score for a Broadway musical came in the spring of 1919 with La, La, Lucille, which had a modestly successful run of 104 performances.

Gershwin scored the first, and biggest, hit of his career with “Swanee” (lyrics by Caesar), which originally was used in Demi- Tasse, a revue that opened the Capitol movie theater in N.Y. on Oct. 24, 1919. It was then interpolated by Al Jolson into his touring musical Sinbad and recorded by him on Jan. 9, 1920. The result was a million- selling record, Jolson’s most successful up to that point. The song also sold a million copies of sheet music. Gershwin’s second show, the revue Morris Gest’s Midnight Whirl, marked the beginning of his association with his most frequent lyricist of the next five years, B. G. De Sylva. The show, which also featured lyrics by John Henry Mears, ran 110 performances. Gershwin’s lyricist for the first of the five successive editions of George White’s Scandals that he scored was Arthur Jackson. The 1920 edition produced no hits but ran for 134 performances. Gershwin’s next hit song, “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out,” had lyrics by his brother writing under the pseudonym Arthur Francis. It was used in the musical The Sweetheart Shop (N.Y, Aug. 31, 1920) and recorded by Lambert Murphy, who had a hit with it in January 1921.

The team of Gershwin and De Sylva scored its first major hit with “Do It Again!,” which was used in the play The French Doll (N.Y, Feb. 20, 1922) and recorded by Paul Whiteman and His Orch. for a best-seller in July 1922. That month, “Yankee Doodle Blues” (lyrics by Caesar and De Sylva) was used in the revue Spice of 1922(N.Y, July 6, 1922); a recording by Billy Murray and Ed Smalle became a hit in February 1923. With a run of only 88 performances, the 1922 edition of George White’s Scandals was the least successful of those Gershwin scored, but it is memorable for featuring—at least on opening night—the short opera Blue Monday (libretto by De Sylva) and the song “(I’ll Build a) Stairway to Paradise” (lyrics by De Sylva and “Arthur Francis”), which was recorded by Whiteman, whose orchestra played in the show, for a best-seller in January 1923.

Gershwin enjoyed success with his two shows of 1923, The Rainbow, which ran 113 performances in London, and his fourth George White’s Scandals, which ran 168 performances, but no hit songs emerged from them. Also during the year, the Gershwin brothers wrote “The Sunshine Trail,” a promotional song for a silent film of the same name, their first work for the screen.

Gershwin and De Sylva’s early 1924 musical Sweet Little Devil was a modest success with a run of 120 performances and a hit in “Virginia (Don’t Go Too Far),” recorded by Carl Fenton and His Orch. Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write a jazz-based instrumental work for his Feb. 12, 1924, performance at the Aeolian Hall in N.Y, “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Gershwin responded with Rhapsody in Blue, on which he accompanied Whiteman’s Palais Royale Orch. The piece became the most acclaimed of Gershwin’s serious compositions, and generated a record hit as well, when the composer and the Whiteman Orch. cut a two-sided version of it on June 10.

Gershwin’s score for the 1924 edition of George White’s Scandals was his most successful, at a run of 192 performances, and his last. It featured “Somebody Loves Me” (lyrics by De Sylva and Ballard MacDonald), which became a best-selling record for Whiteman in December.

Gershwin had new shows on in London and N.Y in the fall of 1924. Primrose, with a run of 255 performances in the West End, was a substantial hit, though its score was partially pieced together from earlier efforts. But Lady, Be Good!, featuring Fred and Adele Astaire, which ran 330 performances on Broadway, marked the full-fledged collaboration of the Gershwin brothers for the first time on such a successful venture. Whiteman had a hit with “Oh, Lady Be Good,” and Cliff Edwards, who appeared in the show, had a hit with “Fascinating Rhythm,” both in April 1925. That month, De Sylva and Ira Gershwin wrote lyrics for Tell Me More, which had a run of only 100 performances, though the British version, which opened in London on May 6, was much more successful. Thereafter, De Sylva teamed with Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, while the Gershwins became a permanent songwriting team.

Gershwin had four premieres in December 1925, three on successive days. The N.Y. Symphony Orch. performed his Concerto in F for piano at Carnegie Hall on Dec. 3. Twenty-five days later, the next Gershwin musical, Tip- Toes, opened for a run of 194 performances. Its hits included “Looking for a Boy” (for the ArdenOhman Orch.; pianists Victor Arden and Phil Ohman appeared in the show), “That Certain Feeling” (for Whiteman), and “Sweet and Low-Down” (for Harry Archer and His Orch.). The next day, Whiteman performed 135th Street, a revised version of Blue Monday, at Carnegie Hall. And the day after that saw the opening of the operetta Song of the Flame, on which Gershwin had collaborated with composer Herbert Stothart, with the lyrics written by Otto Harbach and Oscar HammersteinII. The show ran 219 performances and generated hits in the title song (for Vincent Lopez and His Orch., among others) and “Cossack Love Song (Don’t Forget Me)” (for the Ipana Troubadors).

The Gershwins’ next show was nearly a year in coming, but Oh, Kay! was a substantial success, running 256 performances and producing five hit songs: “Someone to Watch over Me” (for Gertrude Lawrence, who starred in the show, with other popular recordings including a solo piano version by the composer); “DoDo-Do” (for George Olsen and His Orch.); “Clap Yo’ Hands” (for Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orch.); “Maybe” (for Nat Shilkret and The Victor Orch.); and “Fidgety Feet” (for Fletcher Henderson and His Orch.).

Gershwin and Whiteman rerecorded Rhapsody in Blue on April 21, 1927, to take advantage of the higher-fidelity electronic recording process; the new version became a hit in September. The Gershwins’s next musical, Funny Face, again starred the Astaires and was another success, with a run of 244 performances and three hit songs: “’S Wonderful77 (for Frank Crumit), the title song (for the Arden-Ohman Orch.), and “My One and Only” (for Jane Green, though Fred Astaire, who sang it onstage, also had a popular recording).

Though Gershwin was the credited composer for the early 1928 Florenz Ziegfeld production of Rosalie, much of the score was made up of interpolations by Sigmund Romberg. The show was a smash, running 335 performances. No Gershwin hits emerged from it at first, though “How Long Has This Been Going On?” eventu-ally became a standard and “The Man I Love,” dropped during tryouts just as it had been for Lady, Be Good! three years earlier, finally became an independent hit in a recording by Marion Harris, among others, in March. The Gershwins7 fall show, Treasure Girl, was a failure, which prevented “I’ve Got a Crush on You” from becoming a success at first.

Meanwhile, Gershwin continued to alternate his theater music with serious compositions, which also found a wide audience. In September and October 1928 he recorded his Concerto in F with the Whiteman Orch.; it became a popular recording in January 1929. His tone poem for Orch., An American in Paris, was premiered at Carnegie Hall in December 1928; on Feb. 4, 1929, Gershwin recorded the work with the Victor Symphony Orch., and it became a popular disc in June.

Show Girl, another Ziegfeld production, was more memorable for the relationship between its star, Ruby Keeler, and her husband, Al Jolson, than for its score. Jolson sometimes emerged from the audience to sing “Liza (All the CloudsTl Roll Away)” (lyrics also by Gus Kahn), and he made a hit recording of the song, but the show ran only 111 performances.

In 1930 the Gershwins revived their political satire, Strike Up the Band, which had closed out of town in 1927, and the revised show ran 191 performances on Broadway, with the title song becoming a hit for Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. Girl Crazy was a return to more lighthearted fare; it brought stardom to Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, ran 272 performances, and generated three hits: “Bidin7 My Time” by The Foursome, who sang it onstage; plus “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm,” both of which earned their initial popularity in recordings by Red Nichols and His Orch. (the pit band for the show), while a fourth song from the show, “But Not for Me,” would gain recognition later.

The Gershwins went to Calif, in November 1930 to write songs for a motion picture, Delicious. They returned to N.Y. in February 1931, and the film opened the following December. The near-title song “Delishious” was recorded by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orch. that month and became a hit in January 1932. Of Thee I Sing, the Gershwins’s second political satire, also opened in December 1931, and it became their most successful show ever, running 441 performances, though its highly integrated score resulted in there being only one outside hit, the title song, which was recorded by Ben Selvin and His Orch. masquerading as The Knickerbockers.

Gershwin gave over much of 1932 to classical works, premiering the Second Rhapsody in January and the Cuban Overture in August. The Gershwins7 Pardon My English, which opened in early 1933, was a failure, as was Let ’Em Eat Cake, a sequel to Of Thee I Sing, though “Mine” became a minor hit for Emil Coleman and His Orch. in November 1933. Gershwin undertook a North American concert tour in January and February 1934, during which he introduced Variations on “I Got Rhythm” and he hosted a radio show, Music by Gershwin, in the spring and again in the fall. He then turned his full attention to Porgy and Bess, collaborating with Du Bose Heyward, author of the novel on which it was based, and with his brother.

Billed as a “folk opera,” Porgy and Bess opened in a Broadway theater in 1935, and despite a score that contained such memorable songs as “Summertime” (lyrics by Heyward), “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin), and “I Loves You, Porgy” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward), it was not financially successful and ran only 124 performances.

The Gershwins moved to L.A. in August 1936 to write songs for the movies. Their first effort was the Astaire-Rogers vehicle Shall We Dance, released in May 1937. Among the six songs featured were “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” both of which made the hit parade in recordings by Astaire. “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” became Gershwin’s only song to be nominated for an Academy Award.

The Gershwins had completed the songs for a second Astaire picture, A Damsel in Distress, and begun work on The Goldwyn Follies when George Gershwin was taken ill. He died of a brain tumor at the age of 38.

A Damsel in Distress was released in November 1937. It contained seven Gershwin songs, including “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which was recorded by Astaire and was in the hit parade for eight weeks. The score for The Goldwyn Follies was completed by Vernon Duke; when it was released in February 1938, four songs were credited to Gershwin, among them “Love Walked In,” which topped the hit parade in May and June for Sammy Kaye and His Orch.

A Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess (N.Y, Jan. 22, 1942) was the most successful restaging in American musical theater history up to that time, with a run of 286 performances. This began the process by which the opera was recognized as Gershwin’s greatest accomplishment. Swing bands revived Gershwin songs during the 1940s, including those of Harry James (“But Not for Me,” 1942), Glenn Miller (“Rhapsody in Blue,” 1943), and Tommy Dorsey (“Embraceable You,” 1944). Dorsey also appeared in the second film version of Girl Crazy (1943), which starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Rhapsody in Blue (1945) was a Gershwin screen biography, notable for its music if not its historical accuracy.

Ira Gershwin and Kay Swift assembled unfinished and unused Gershwin music into songs for the film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, released in January 1947. (Ira Gershwin also contributed some unused music by his brother to the 1964 film Kiss Me, Stupid.) MGM used vintage Gershwin music as the basis for the musical An American in Paris (1951), and in addition to the success of the film—which won the Academy Award for Best Picture—the soundtrack album became a chart-topping hit.

The rise of popular singers in the wake of the demise of the big bands and the introduction of the long-playing record both enhanced Gershwin’s song catalog, as performers frequently revived his work. For ex-ample, Ella Fitzgerald, in a precursor to her Song Book albums of the late 1950s and early 1960s, recorded Ella Sings Gershwin in September and October 1950, and Frank Sinatra included “A Foggy Day” from A Damsel in Distress and ’They Can’t Take That Away from Me” on his first Capitol Records album, Songs for Young Lovers, recorded in November 1953.

Meanwhile, individual Gershwin songs also earned hit revivals on the singles charts. “Love Walked In” reached the Top Ten in a version by The Hilltoppers in 1953, charting again in 1959 for The Flamingos and in 1960 for Dinah Washington. “I Got Rhythm” enjoyed a Top Ten revival in 1967 by The Happenings.

But it was Porgy and Bess that gained the most recognition after Gershwin’s death. The show’s second Broadway revival, opening March 10, 1953, was even more successful than the record-breaking first, running 305 performances. Columbia Records released the first attempt at a complete recording of the opera in 1955. Sam Cooke had a chart revival of “Summertime” in 1957, followed by charting versions in 1961 by The Marcels, 1962 by Rick Nelson, 1963 by the Chris Columbo Quintet, and, in 1966, a Top Ten version by Billy Stewart. The song was even given a bluesy reading by Janis Joplin on the chart-topping Big Brother and the Holding Company album Cheap Thrills in 1968.

Porgy and Bess was brought to the screen in 1959, at which time an avalanche of new recordings was released, including one by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and a Top 40 single of “I Loves You, Porgy” by Nina Simone. The first concert version of the complete opera was given at the Blossom Music Center in Cleveland by the Cleveland Orch. under the direction of Lorin Maazel on Aug. 16, 1975. The following spring, the Houston Grand Opera Company staged the work, and the production opened in N.Y. on Sept. 25, 1976. By the mid-1980s, Porgy and Bess was a part of the repertoire of several major opera companies.

On Broadway, two “new” Gershwin musicals have been created by wedding the scores from earlier shows (plus interpolations) to newly written librettos, resulting in long runs for My One and Only (based on funny Face; 1983) and Crazy for You (based on Girl Crazy, 1992).


(only works for which Gershwin was a primary, credited composer are listed): MUSICALS/REVUE S (dates refer to N.Y. openings unless otherwise noted): La, La, Lucille (May 26, 1919); Morris Gest’s Midnight Whirl (Dec. 27, 1919); George White’s Scandals (June 7, 1920); George White’s Scandals (July 11,1921); George White’s Scandals (Aug. 28, 1922); Our Nell (Dec. 4, 1922); The Rainbow (London, April 3, 1923); George White’s Scandals (June 18,1923); Sweet Little Devil (Jan. 21, 1924); George White’s Scandals (June 30, 1924); Primrose (London, Sept. 11, 1924); Lady, Be Good! (Dec. 1, 1924); Tell Me More (April 13, 1925); Tip-Toes (Dec. 28, 1925); Song of the Flame (Dec. 30, 1925); Oh, Kay! (Nov. 8, 1926); Funny Face (Nov. 22, 1927); Rosalie (Jan. 10, 1928); Treasure Girl (Nov. 8, 1928); Show Girl (July 2, 1929); Strike Up the Band (Jan. 14, 1930); Girl Crazy (Oct. 14, 1930); Of Thee I Sing (Dec. 26, 1931); Pardon My English (Jan. 20, 1933); Let ’Em Eat Cake (Oct. 21, 1933); My One and Only (May 1, 1983); Crazy for You (Feb. 19, 1992). OPERA: Porgy and Bess (N.Y, Oct. 10, 1935). INSTRUMENTAL : Blue Monday (chamber opera performed as part of George White’s Scandals [Aug. 28, 1922]; revised as 135th Street, Carnegie Hall, Dec. 29, 1925, by Paul Whiteman and His Orch.); Rhapsody in Blue (for jazz band and orch.; Aeolian Hall, N.Y., Feb. 12, 1924, by Paul Whiteman and His Palais Royal Orch. with the composer at the piano); Short Story (for violin and piano; Feb. 8, 1925, the Univ. Club, N.Y, by Samuel Dushkin, violinist); Concerto in F (for piano and orch.; Dec. 3, 1925, Carnegie Hall, by the N.Y. Symphony Society with the composer at the piano, conducted by Walter Damrosch); Preludes for Piano (Dec. 4, 1926, Hotel Roosevelt, N.Y, by the composer); An American in Paris (tone poem for orch.; Dec. 13, 1928, Carnegie Hall, by the N.Y Symphony Orch. conducted by Walter Damrosch); Second Rhapsody (for orch. with piano; Jan. 29, 1932, Symphony Hall, Boston, by the Boston Symphony Orch. with the composer at the piano, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky); Cuban Overture (for orch.; Aug. 16, 1932, Lewisohn Stadium, N.Y, by the N.Y Philharmonic-Symphony Orch., conducted by Albert Coates); Variations on “I Got Rhythm” (Jan. 14, 1934, Symphony Hall, Boston, by the Reisman Symphonic Orch. with the composer at the piano, conducted by Charles Previn). FILMS: Delicious (1931); Girl Crazy (1932); Shall We Dance (1937); A Damsel in Distress (1937); The Goldwyn Follies (1938); Girl Crazy (1943); Rhapsody in Blue (1945); The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947); An American in Paris (1951); Porgy and Bess (1959); Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).


I. Goldberg, G. G.: A Study in American Music (N.Y, 1931, 2nd ed., rev., supplemented by E. Garson, 1958); M. Armitage, ed., G. G. (N.Y, 1938); D. Ewen, A Journey to Greatness: The Life and Music of G. G. (N.Y, 1956; 3rd ed., rev. asG. G: His Journey to Greatness, 1986); E. Jablonski and L. Stewart, The G. Years (Garden City, N.Y, 1958; 3rd ed., rev., 1996); M. Armitage, G. G.: Man and Legend (N.Y, 1958); R. Payne, G. (N.Y, 1960); R. Sirmay, ed., The G. and Ira G. Song Book (N.Y, 1960); E. Jablonski, G. G. (N.Y, 1962); R. Rushmore, The Life ofG. G. (N.Y, 1966); R. Kimball and A. Simon, The G.s (N.Y, 1973); C. Schwartz, G.: His Life and Music (Indianapolis, 1973); Schwartz, G. G.: A Selective Bibliography and Discography (Detroit, 1974); A. Kendall, G. G.: A Biography (N.Y, 1987); E. Jablonski, G: A Biography (Garden City, N.Y, 1987); P. Kresh, An American Rhapsody: The Story of G. G. (N.Y, 1988); W. Rimler, A G. Companion: A Critical Inventory & Discography, 1916-1984 (Ann Arbor, 1991); D. Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration ofG. and Ira G. (N.Y, 1991); J. Peyser, The Memory of All That: The Life ofG. G. (N.Y, 1993); R. Greenberg, G. G. (London, 1998);G. Suriano, ed., G. in His Time: A Biographical Scrapbook, 1919-1937 (N.Y, 1998).

—William Ruhlmann

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Gershwin, George (originally, Gershvin, Jacob)

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