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Music Memories: George Gershwin

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
George Gershwin

George Gershwin was born on September 26, 1898. Gershwin wrote music for both the concert hall and the Broadway stage; whether writing popular songs or music for orchestra, he gave us standards that remain popular today.

Gershwin first became interested in music when he was ten, after attending a friend’s violin recital. There was a piano in the family home, which his parents had bought so that his older brother Ira could take lessons, but George wound up playing it more often. Ira didn’t abandon music entirely; he wrote the words for most of George’s best-known songs.

The Gershwin children were a musical group, and younger sister Frances was the first of the family to earn significant money as a musician; she had a short career as a child singer and actress. She retired young to raise a family, but returned to singing later in life, and at the age of 67, recorded an album of songs by her brothers.

Gershwin left school when he was 15, and his first musical job was one that doesn’t exist anymore. He was a “song plugger,” hired by a music publisher to work in a department store as a pianist, playing the publisher’s new songs to sell copies of the sheet music. He published his first song at 16; “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em” hasn’t exactly become a standard, but it’s recorded occasionally.

By 1916, Gershwin was working as a pianist recording more than 140 piano rolls, for several different companies. Piano rolls could be inserted into player pianos, giving the listener the experience of hearing Gershwin play in their own homes. He played some of his own pieces—“Rialto Ripples” was an early success—but mostly played whatever songs were popular at the moment.

3 Gershwin album covers

Gershwin had his first hit song in 1919, when Al Jolson added “Swanee” (lyrics by Irving Caesar) to one of his shows. That gave Gershwin the chance to write for Broadway, where he struggled for several years, writing several unsuccessful musicals with lyricist William Daly.

It wasn’t until Gershwin teamed with his brother Ira in 1924 that things finally fell into place. Their first musical, Lady, Be Good included two of the Gershwins’ first classic songs, the title tune and “Fascinating Rhythm.”

Gershwin’s career predated the era of the original Broadway cast album, but in the 1990s, conductor and Broadway historian John Mauceri conducted a series of studio recordings of the major Gershwin musicals, working from restorations of the original orchestrations; unless otherwise specified, those are the recordings being linked.

For the next several years, it seemed that every Gershwin musical included at least one legendary song. Oh, Kay! gave us “Someone to Watch Over Me;” Funny Face (Fred and Adele Astaire performing songs from the show, with Gershwin at the piano) included “’S Wonderful” and “My One and Only;” Girl Crazy introduced “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.” And in 1931, the political satire Of Thee I Sing (1952 Broadway revival cast album) accomplished something that no other musical had done before, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

While the Gershwin brothers were dazzling Broadway audiences, George was also writing music for the concert hall, highlighted by a series of pieces for piano and orchestra – Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, Second Rhapsody, and a set of variations on “I Got Rhythm.” Pianist Anne-Marie McDermott performs all of those pieces in this collection.

Gershwin spent several years in Paris in the mid-1920s, where he applied to study composition with renowned composers Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel, both of whom turned him down. Ravel asked, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?” His time in Paris inspired the orchestral piece An American in Paris.

In 1935, working with Ira and author DuBose Heyward, Gershwin wrote the opera Porgy and Bess. He called it a “folk opera,” and audiences were initially somewhat confused by it. It had the structure of an opera, and the cast was made up of classically trained African-American singers, but the songs—“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’”—often sounded more like Broadway.

It has been a controversial work over the years. The dialect in which the songs are written is occasionally cartoonishly broad, and even some members of the original cast wondered whether the show reinforced stereotypes about African-Americans living in poverty and solving their problems with violence. While that controversy still remains, the work seems to have become firmly established as part of the operatic repertoire. In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera became the first American opera company to perform the work; the Metropolitan Opera in New York followed in 1985.

Porgy and Bess was filmed in 1959, with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge playing the title roles; their singing voices were dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison. Gershwin was not happy with the film, which added spoken dialogue between the major songs, moving it away from opera and toward musical. In 1974, the Gershwin estate withdrew the movie from circulation, and it has only rarely been seen since.

Gershwin died on July 11, 1937. He had been complaining for several months of headaches and strange smells. He collapsed on July 9 and fell into a coma. The doctors discovered a large brain tumor, which they removed, but Gershwin never recovered.

New projects based on his music have continued to appear. Robert Alda played Gershwin in the 1945 film biography Rhapsody in Blue. The 1951 movie musical An American in Paris was built around several Gershwin songs; it was turned into a Broadway musical in 2015.

Gershwin was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1998, the centennial of his birth; and in 2007, the Library of Congress initiated the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, named for George and Ira, and awarded to singers or songwriters who have made major contributions to the art of popular song in America.

In 2010, we even got some new Gershwin songs. The album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin featured Wilson’s performances of several Gershwin standards, as well as two songs—“The LIke in I Love You” and “Nothing But Love”—for which Wilson had written lyrics to unused Gershwin melodies.