Gershwin, Ira (originally, Gershvin, Israel)

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Gershwin, Ira (originally, Gershvin, Israel)

Gershwin, Ira (originally, Gershvin, Israel), ingenious American lyricist; brother of George Gershwin; b. N.Y, Dec. 6, 1896; d. Beverly Hills, Aug. 17, 1983. Gershwin wrote lyrics primarily for the songs of his brother George Gershwin in a series of stage and movie musicals in the 1920s and 1930s. Witty and colloquial, Gershwin’s lyrics ranked with those of Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart as the most sophisticated of their time. With his brother, Gershwin wrote such hits as “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,“and “Love Walked In.” Before and after his brother’s death, Gershwin also collaborated with composers Vincent Youmans, Vernon Duke, Harry Warren, Harold Arlen, Kurt Weill, Aaron Copland, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz, and Burton Lane on such songs as “Long Ago (And Far Away)” and “The Man That Got Away.”

Gershwin’s parents, Morris and Rose Burskin Gershvin (originally Gershovitz), were Russian immigrants. Gershwin attended the City Coll. of N.Y. from 1914 to 1916 and began contributing stories and light verse to periodicals. His first lyric to be heard onstage was “The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)” (music by George Gershwin), used in the Nora Bayes musical Ladies First (N.Y., Oct. 24, 1918). By the time of the Gershwins’ next notable collaboration, George had achieved success with “Swanee,” and Ira adopted the pseudonym Arthur Francis for his first song to be published, “Waiting for the Sun to Come Out,” used in the musical The Sweet-heart Shop (N.Y, Aug. 31, 1920). The song was recorded for a hit by Lambert Murphy in January 1921.

Still as Arthur Francis, Gershwin wrote lyrics to songs by Youmans and Paul Lannin for the musical Two Little Girls in Blue, which had a run of 135 performances, with “Oh Me! Oh My!” becoming a hit for Frank Crumit and the Paul Biese Trio in November 1921. By 1922, George Gershwin had begun writing songs for the annual revue George White’s Scandals’, in that year’s edition, Ira Gershwin collaborated with B. G. De Sylva on the lyrics to “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” which became a best- selling instrumental record for Paul Whiteman and His Orch. in January 1923.

Gershwin abandoned his pseudonym in 1924 and he and his brother mounted their first successful Broadway show, Lady, Be Good! Featuring the dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire as well as Cliff Edwards, it ran 330 performances and generated two hits in the spring of 1925: “Fascinating Rhythm,” recorded by Edwards, and “Oh, Lady Be Good,” given its most successful recording as an instrumental by Whiteman, though Edwards had a popular vocal record. Also intended for the show was “The Man I Love,” though it was cut and published independently. After being dropped from two other Gershwin shows, the song finally became a hit in March 1928 for Marion Harris (among others) and went on to become a standard.

The Gershwins were joined by De Sylva for the disappointing Tell Me More, which ran 100 performances; they bounced back with Tip-Toes, which ran 194 performances and contained three songs that became hits in the spring of 1926: “Looking for a Boy” by the Arden-Ohman Orch., “That Certain Feeling” by Whiteman, and “Sweet and Low-Down” by Harry Archer and His Orch., all recorded as instrumentals.

The run-up to the next Gershwin musical, Oh, Kay!, was dramatic for Ira: While it was being written, he came down with appendicitis, so Howard Dietz was brought in to write some lyrics; later, during rehearsals, on Sept. 14, 1926, he married Leonore Strunksy. (The couple remained married until Gershwin’s death. They had no children.) The show, which starred Gertrude Lawrence, was a hit, running 256 performances, and its score featured five songs that became hits in 1927: “Someone to Watch over Me” by Lawrence, among others; “Do, Do, Do” by George Olsen and His Orch.; “Clap Yo’ Hands,” an instrumental recording by Roger Wolfe Kahn and His Orch. and a vocal record by “Whispering” Jack Smith; “Maybe” by Nat Shilkret and the Victor Orch.; and “Fidgety Feet,” an instrumental record by Fletcher Henderson and His Orch.

The Gershwins next attempted an antiwar political satire in Strike Up the Band (Long Branch, N.J., Aug. 29, 1927), which had a book by George S. Kaufman, but the show closed out of town. The more conventional Funny Face, featuring the Astaires, was a success, running 244 performances, with three songs emerging from it as hit records in 1928: “’S Wonderful” by Frank Crumit; the title song, by the Arden-Ohman Orch. (pianists Victor Arden and Phil Ohman appeared in the show); and “My One and Only” by Jane Green.

The Gershwins worked for impresario Florenz Ziegfeld on the extravaganza Rosalie, although Sigmund Romberg and P. G. Wodehouse had already written a score for the show. It ran 335 performances, its most memorable song being the Gershwins’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Even more successful was the British musical That’s a Good Girl, to which Gershwin and others contributed lyrics; it ran 363 performances. The Gershwins’s own next musical, Treasure Girl, on the other hand, was a flop, now memorable only for introducing the standard “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”

Show Girl, another Ziegfeld production, found the Gershwins collaborating with Gus Kahn, notably on “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away),” given unscheduled performances by Al Jolson, whose wife, Ruby Keeler, was featured. The show ran 111 performances, and the song became a hit in a recording by Jolson in September 1929.

With a new book by Morrie Ryskind, Strike Up the Band finally reached Broadway at the start of 1930, where it became a hit, running 191 performances. The title song was a popular record for Red Nichols and His Five Pennies in February. Gershwin next contributed lyrics to the revue The Garrick Gaieties (N.Y, June 4, 1930), including “I Am Only Human After All” (music by Vernon Duke, lyrics also by E. Y Harburg), which became a hit for the Colonial Club Orch. in July. The Gershwins returned to light musical comedy with Girl Crazy, which became the biggest success of the 1930-31 Broadway season, running 272 performances, establishing the careers of Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers, and generating two immediate hits, “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm,” which made up the two sides of a popular record by Red Nichols in the fall of 1930. The score also featured “Bidin’ My Time,” which became a hit for The Foursome in November 1931, and “But Not for Me.” Before the end of 1930, Gershwin had another hit as “Cheerful Little Earful” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics also by Billy Rose) was featured in the revue Sweet and Low (N.Y, Nov. 17, 1930) and given a popular recording by Tom Gerun and His Orch. in December.

By that time, Ira and George Gershwin had signed a contract with Fox Pictures and traveled to L.A. to write songs for their first film musical. Delicious, released at the end of 1931, featured four Gershwin songs, among them “Delishious,” which became a hit for Nat Shilkret in January 1932. The Gershwins, however, had long since returned to N.Y to concentrate on stage work. Their next effort was the ambitious satire on presidential politics, Of Thee I Sing, which ran 441 performances, produced a hit in the title song (recorded by Ben Selvin and His Orch. performing as The Knickerbockers), and became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the award shared by book writers Kaufman and Ryskind and lyricist Gershwin.

The Gershwins suffered two flops in 1933: Pardon My English and the sequel to Of Thee I Sing, Let ’Em Eat Cake (which nevertheless generated a hit in “Mine,” recorded by Emil Coleman and His Orch. in November). They then separated temporarily, as George began work with DuBose Heyward on the opera Porgy and Bess and Ira collaborated with Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg on the revue Life Begins at 8:40. The revue was a hit, running 237 performances and featuring two hits: “You’re a Builder-Upper,” recorded by Leo Reisman and His Orch. with Arlen singing, and “Fun to Be Fooled” by Henry King and His Orch.

Gershwin re-joined his brother and Heyward and collaborated on lyrics to several of the songs in Porgy and Bess, including “I Got Plenty o´ Nuthin’” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” as well as writing all the lyrics to “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin´ Soon for N.Y.” Opening in a Broadway theater, Porgy and Bess ran a modestly successful 124 performances, though it gained in stature over time, eventually being recognized as one of George Gershwin’s greatest achievements.

Gershwin and Duke wrote the songs for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. It ran 115 performances, its most memorable song being “I Can’t Get Started.” The Gershwins then signed to RKO, and on Aug. 10, 1936, they moved permanently to L.A. Their first effort was the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Shall We Dance, for which they wrote six songs, among them “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” which reached the hit parade in May 1937, and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” which was in the hit parade in June, both in recordings by Astaire. “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” earned an Academy Award nomination. The score also included “They All Laughed.”

George Gershwin died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937. Prior to his death, the brothers had completed the songs for their next film and begun work on another. A Damsel in Distress, also starring Astaire, contained seven songs, among them “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which was on the hit parade in November 1937, and “A Foggy Day.” Ira teamed with Vernon Duke to complete the songs for The Goldwyn Follies. The final songs credited to the Gershwins included “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “Love Walked In.” The latter topped the hit parade in May 1938 for Sammy Kaye and His Orch., becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.

Gershwin’s first major effort since the death of his brother came in 1941 with Lady in the Dark, on which he collaborated with Kurt Weill. A precursor to the more serious, integrated musicals that became common after Oklahoma! two years later, the show ran 467 performances and was memorable for star Gertrude Lawrence’s performance of “The Saga of Jenny” and Danny Kaye’s emergence as a star through his tongue-twisting rendition of the patter song “Tchaikowsky (And Other Russians).”

Porgy and Bess received its first Broadway revival on Jan. 22, 1942; the revival outdistanced the original production, running 286 performances. In August, Harry James and His Orch. had a hit recording of “But Not for Me.” The following year the song was heard onscreen in the second film version of Girl Crazy, starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Also in 1943, Gershwin wrote the lyrics to music by Aaron Copland for the film The North Star.

The year 1944 began with a chart revival of “Embraceable You” by Tommy Dorsey and His Orch. with Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers on vocals, a 1941 recording that had been reissued due to the musicians union recording ban. Gershwin collaborated with Jerome Kern on songs for the film Cover Girl, among them “Long Ago (And Far Away),” which became his single most successful song, attracting half-a-dozen chart recordings, the most popular of which was by Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest in April; the song was nominated for an Academy Award.

Gershwin had two projects with Kurt Weill in 1945. The Firebrand of Florence, a musical for which Gershwin also cowrote the libretto, was unsuccessful, and the team also wrote the songs for the 20th Century-Fox feature Where Do We Go from Here? Park Avenue, written with Arthur Schwartz, was another failure and marked Gershwin’s last new Broadway musical. For the film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, Gershwin and Kay Swift assembled some of George Gershwin’s musical sketches into songs. Gershwin collaborated with Harry Warren on the last Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway, in 1949.

An American in Paris, written by Alan Jay Lerner, directed by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Gene Kelly, brought the Gershwin brothers’s music back into movie theaters in 1951 and, with the release of a soundtrack album, to the top of the charts at the start of 1952. For the film, Gershwin added new lyrics to such songs as “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful.”

Revived on Broadway a second time, Porgy and Bess(N.Y, March 10, 1953) had its most successful run yet, continuing for 305 performances. In November 1953 The Hilltoppers took a revival of “Love Walked In” into the Top Ten. Give a Girl a Break, a new film musical on which Gershwin collaborated with Burton Lane, was released in December.

Gershwin retired at the end of 1954 after completing two films with Harold Arlen, both dramas with music: A Star Is Born, starring Judy Garland, who sang the Oscar-nominated “The Man That Got Away,” and The Country Girl, starring Bing Crosby.

Porgy and Bess enjoyed another resurgence of interest in 1959 with the release of a film version of the opera along with several recordings, among them Nina Simone’s Top 40 revival of “I Loves You, Porgy.” Dinah Washington scored a Top 40 revival of “Love Walked In” in 1960. Ketty Lester had a chart revival of “But Not for Me” in 1962. In 1964, Gershwin contributed three new songs based on existing fragments of music by his brother for use in director Billy Wilder’s satiric film Kiss Me, Stupid, starring Dean Martin. The Happenings revived “I Got Rhythm” for a Top Ten hit in 1967. In the 1980s and 1990s the Gershwins returned to Broadway with two new musicals, My One and Only and Crazy for You, that featured their songs. Gershwin’s songs also enjoyed frequent concert and nightclub performances and recordings by a variety of singers, notably Michael Feinstein, who had served as Gershwin’s secretary in his later years.


(only works for which Gershwin was a primary, credited lyricist are listed): MUSICALS/REVUE S (all dates refer to N.Y. openings unless otherwise indicated): Two Little Girls in Blue (May 3,1921); Lady, Be Good! (Dec. 1, 1924); Tell Me More (April 13, 1925); Tip-Toes (Dec. 28, 1925); Oh, Kay! (Nov. 8, 1926); Funny Face (Nov. 22, 1927); Rosalie (Jan. 10, 1928); That’s a Good Girl (London, June 5, 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); Life Begins at 8:40 (Aug. 27, 1934); Porgy and Bess (Oct. 10, 1935); Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 (Jan. 30, 1936); Lady in the Dark (Jan. 23, 1941); The Firebrand of Florence (March 22, 1945); Park Avenue (Nov. 4, 1946); My One and Only (May 1, 1983); Crazy for You (Feb. 19, 1992). FILMS : Delicious (1931); Girl Crazy (1932); Shall We Dance (1937); A Damsel in Distress (1937); The Goldwyn Follies (1938); Girl Crazy (1943); The North Star (1943); Cover Girl (1944); Where Do We Go from Here? (1945); The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947); The Barkleys of Broadway (1949); Give a Girl a Break (1953); A Star Is Born (1954); The Country Girl (1954); Porgy and Bess (1959); Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).


Lyrics on Several Occasions (N.Y., 1959); The George and I. G. Song Book (N.Y, 1960).


E. Jablonski and L. Stewart, The G. Years (Garden City, N.Y, 1958; 3rd ed., rev., 1976); R. Kimball and A. Simon, TheG.s (N.Y, 1973); D. Rosenberg, Fascinating Rhythm: The Collabo-ration of George and I. G. (N.Y, 1991); R. Kimball, The Complete Lyrics of I. G. (N.Y, 1993); P. Furia, I. G.: The Art of the Lyricist(N.Y, 1996).

—William Ruhlmann

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Gershwin, Ira (originally, Gershvin, Israel)

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