|George Gershwin in 1937. Photo by Carl Van Vechten.|
Presented to the Club on Monday Evening March 19, 2018 by Albert E. Easton
The Triborough Bridge connects the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. Basically it’s a bridge from the Bronx to Manhattan, with an offshoot connected to Queens. George Gershwin built a bridge too, basically from popular music to classical, but connected in is a bridge that already existed from popular music to jazz. We wouldn’t be at all surprised today if a classical piano program included some pieces by Gershwin, and we could probably stand the shock if there was a little jazz thrown in.
Gershwin’s parents came to the United States in the 1890’s from Saint Petersburg, Russia. Rose Burkin came first and was living in Manhattan when a couple years later, Moise Gershowitz (who later changed his name to Morris Gershvin) arrived and asked her to marry him. Both came from fairly well off families in Saint Petersburg and had known each other there. They married in 1895, and in December 1896, their first son Israel (who later changed his name to Ira) was born. Almost two years later, in September 1898, their second son Jacob, who was always called George, was born.
The Gershwin family was fairly well off, and always had a maid. Morris was an entrepreneur at heart and bought and managed several businesses: cigar store, restaurant, several Turkish baths and many others. Each time he took on a new business, he moved his family to be near it. If I told you George Gershwin was a product of the lower East Side, like so many famous Jewish Americans, I wouldn’t be lying because he did live there sometimes, but he also lived lots of other places. In all, the Gershwins had over 20 addresses in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn while George was growing up. Religion and Jewish tradition did not play a very important part in their lives, although they always celebrated the seder at Passover.
One of the Gershwin boys was a model student, always carefully studying his lessons and earning high marks. That was Ira, of course, the serious one. George was more-or-less the opposite. More interested in having fun than in studying, he played hooky at times, and his grades were less than outstanding. Only Ira received a bar mitzvah, George never had one, perhaps because he was reluctant to undertake the necessary study of Hebrew.
As an example of George’s personality as a young boy, there’s a story that he asked his father for ten cents to see a movie. When he was refused, he took off his shoes, went out in the street, and began telling passing strangers that he was a very poor boy and hoped they could spare a few cents. He got to see his movie.
In 1910, Morris Gershwin purchased a piano, with the thought that his serious son Ira, could become proficient at it. Of course, that’s not what happened. As soon as the piano arrived, 12 year old George sat down and began playing some popular music of the time. He had already encountered a piano at a friend’s house, and had learned to play there, something his father was not aware of. The piano quickly became a very important part of George’s life.
George loved that piano, and he spent as much time as he could with it, sometimes to the detriment of his schoolwork, which he never cared much about anyway. He went enthusiastically each week to lessons with his teacher, Charles Hambitzer, an accomplished pianist who even did some composing of his own in the classical realm. Hambitzer wrote of his student: “The boy is a genius, without a doubt. He wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and what not. But I’m not going to let him for a while. I’ll see that he gets a firm foundation in the standard music first.”
George had the two things anyone needs to excel in any field – natural ability and a genuine love for what he was doing. By the time he was 15 he could play any music that was put in front of him, transpose it to any other key, and improvise on it. This talent got him a job at the Jerome Remick music publishing house working with the “song pluggers.” A song plugger was expected to pick up any music Remick wanted to push, and have it played for the visiting talent looking for songs they could add to their act, in whatever key they found comfortable.
Remick music had gotten its start on west 28th Street, the street known at the time as “Tin Pan Alley” for the jangling sound of the many pianos all being ponded at once, although they later moved uptown to West 46th Street, an area that even today is the cradle of popular music. George being on Tin Pan Alley was too much for Charles Hambitzer, and his piano lessons ended at this point, but Hambitzer encouraged him to take music theory lessons from a Hungarian named Edward Kilenyi. Kilenyi was sympathetic to his desire to work with popular music. And at Remick he began to make friends with people who would later play an important part in his career. For example, young Fred and Adele Astaire came looking for material for their vaudeville act, and he became friendly with them. The pay for ten hours a day of pounding the piano in a small cubicle was $15 a week.
It doesn’t seem to be possible to tell any American story without mentioning the influence of race on American history. The public was beginning to become aware of a very original American type of music. Black music, in the form of jazz and ragtime, had come on the scene. Black musicians were emerging from the deep south and performing in northern venues. Syncopated rhythms (ragged time) hadn’t quite made it to popular music, but ragtime pianists, notably Scott Joplin had quite a following. George Gershwin was fascinated by this music and spent hours listening to ragtime piano in cafes and bars.
By 1915 his skill at the piano had earned him such a reputation that he was able to get a job recording piano rolls. For this he was paid a fee of $35 for six rolls, which he could polish off easily on a Saturday afternoon. Over the course of several years he recorded a total of 130 different songs. Most of the piano rolls available on the internet that were recorded by Gershwin are in later years, recordings of his own compositions, but I did find one - Havanola by HugoFrey – that was recorded in 1917. Very definitely classic ragtime.
Gershwin clearly couldn’t be satisfied forever with plugging only songs written by others, but Remicks wouldn’t allow him to plug his own songs. So his first published song “When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ’Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em You Don’t Want ‘Em” was published by the Harry von Tilzer company. For this he was paid five dollars. But it was a start.
After hearing some of his tunes, Gershwin formed a firm friendship with Jerome Kern, who was by then a well established composer. As an established composer, Kern generally had a musical on Broadway. In those days, it was not uncommon for a song by an unknown composer to be interpolated into a show most of whose songs were by an established composer, and Gershwin was able to do some of this. By 1918, he had enough of a reputation to place five songs in a revue called Half Past Eight, but that closed after a week’s tryout. He then wrote the complete score for a musical called La La Lucille, which ran for a while but was not a major hit. But he was about to have a major hit.
By 1919, he had formed a partnership with lyricist Irving Caesar. The two wrote a number of songs together, among which was a song called Swanee. The song was included in a revue that wasn’t too popular. But that wasn’t the end of Swanee. Gershwin’s reputation was such that he was invited to a party by Al Jolson at Bessie Bloodgood’s whorehouse in Harlem, and he was invited to play a few numbers. When Jolson heard Swanee he asked to interpolate it into his own review, Sinbad, which was currently running on Broadway. The combination of Gershwin’s music and Jolson’s delivery proved magical. It was the biggest hit ever for both of them. Jolson’s recording sold over two million copies and the sheet music outsold even that. Suddenly, Gershwin was rich from the royalties. A total of over $10,000 – an enormous sum in 1919.
At the same time as he was writing Swanee, Gershwin was still taking theory lessons from Kilenyi. As part of his lessons, he wrote a movement for a string quartet. This was performed by a few of his friends during his lifetime, but never published. It was revived after his death. It’s been given the name Lullaby and has now beenperformed by many quartets and string orchestras. It was his first venture into classical music.
Gershwin’s passion, however, was still the Broadway musical. Producer George White was anxious to produce a revue that would compare to Florenz Ziegfeld’s Ziefeld Follies. The first edition of George White’s Scandals was produced in 1919, with composer Richard Whiting, who was hired on the strength of his major hit Till We Meet Again. White wasn’t satisfied with Whiting, however, and for George White’s Scandals of 1920, he hired George Gershwin as the composer.
George White’s Scandals were mostly to showcase beautiful girls, and Gershwin realized that they were not a good vehicle for his best material, so he provided music that was mostly pretty pedestrian. Lyrics were partly by Ira and mostly by another well known lyricist, Buddy De Sylva. Gershwin was the main composer for the Scandals for five years, ending in 1924. One of the compositions he included in George White’s Scandals was a one act operetta Blue Monday. Blue Monday featured jazz music and was intended to be sung by African-American actors. As such, it was a precursor to Porgy and Bess.
One of the popular songs that emerged from the Scandals of 1924 was Somebody Loves Me. Somebody Loves Me includes what’s known as a “blue note.” A blue note is a note that isn’t in the major scale, but inserts a note from the minor scale into the song. It can’t be played on the white keys of the piano. It’s characteristic of Afro-American music and is used to produce a sad feeling – the blues. “Somebody loves me, I wonder who” “Who” is the blue note. George Gershwin certainly didn’t invent the blue note, but he used it extensively, and you find them in many, if not most, of his most popular songs.
In January, 1924, Gershwin was taking a break from working on the last of George White’s Scandals, when his attention was called to an article in the New York Tribune that mentioned “George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto.” He was stunned, since he hadn’t begun any work on such a piece, although he had told his friend Paul Whiteman that he hoped to do this soon. Whiteman was anxious to present a concert featuring American music, and had attempted to book Carnegie Hall for the purpose. When Carnegie Hall was booked for the date he wanted, February 12, he switched the venue to the smaller Aeolian Hall. Whiteman, of course, was the source of the press release in the Tribune.
Accounts differ as to the length of time it took Gershwin to write Rhapsody in Blue– anywhere from eight days to three weeks. He wrote the score as a two piano piece, intending that one piano would be orchestrated and replaced by Whiteman’s band. He would play the solo piano. For his later works, he did his own orchestration, but this one was handled by Whiteman’s orchestrator.
Gershwin was quite well satisfied with his work, and by the day of the concert he was confident that it would be well accepted. The Rhapsody was placed nearly at the end of the program, which generally went quite well, but Gershwin’s music and his piano playing far eclipsed everything else. The applause was frenzied. Whiteman wrote later “At half past five on the afternoon of February 12, we took our fifth curtain call.” Whiteman had hoped that the Aeolian Hall concert would help to define American music, but instead it became known as the concert that launched Rhapsody in Blue. It was the one item that occupied music critics and journalists in the weeks that followed, because it established that the jazz idiom had a place on the classical music stage.
The Rhapsody in Blue that was performed that day was sixteen minutes long, but it includes a lot of repetitive passages, and is often edited down. Performances of the Rhapsody can be anywhere from five minutes to sixteen and still include all its beautiful themes. I grew up listening to the very popular Victor recording featuring Gershwin playing and recorded on the two sides of a 12 inch 78RPM disc. For many years I thought that’s all there was to Rhapsody in Blue.
Through the 1920’s Gershwin claimed a premier place on Broadway, and most of his greatest songs come from the shows that he contributed to. For Swanee and others of his early songs, he had used Irving Caesar as a lyricist, and after that he frequently teamed with Buddy De Sylva. But most of his great songs were written with lyrics by his brother Ira. George and Ira made a good team. George composed a tune, Ira then supplied lyrics. It’s not really as simple as that, of course; there had to be a lot of back and forth. But that was easy for two brothers used to getting along with each other.
I’m going to list some of his most popular shows, and the songs from them that have become standards. The list isn’t inclusive, and I apologize if I’ve left out one of your favorites:
1924 Lady Be Good – Oh Lady Be Good and The Man I Love.
1925 Tip Toes – Looking for a Boy and Sweet and Low Down.
1926 Oh Kay! – Do, Do, Do and Someone To Watch over Me.
1927 Funny Face – He Loves and She Loves, How Long Has This Been Going On, and ‘S Wonderful
1928 Treasure Girl – Feeling I’m Falling and I’ve Got a Crush on You
1929 Show Girl – An American in Paris Ballet and Liza (An American in Paris was originally published as a separate orchestral piece and interpolated into Show Girl)
1930 Strike Up the Band – Soon and Strike up the Band
1930 Girl Crazy – Bidin’ My Time and I Got Rhythm (I Got Rhythm made Ethel Merman’s Career. She was a virtual unknown until she held a high C for 16 bars of orchestration)
1931 Of Thee I Sing – Of Thee I Sing, Love Is Sweeping the Country, and Who Cares
In other words, for these eight years, George Gershwin had a hit on Broadway every year and one or more hit songs. His share of the box office as well as his royalties from sale of sheet music and recordings left him quite well off financially. Financial stability leads to the question: Why didn’t he marry? Well he probably intended to someday, but meanwhile he was having way too much fun being a bachelor. He dated lots of chorus girls and other women, never getting too serious about any one although one biographer says the love of his life was Paulette Godard. Another biographer claims that he had an illegitimate son by a chorus queen named Margret Manners (stage name “Mollie Charleston.) Others say this is somewhere between highly speculative and ridiculous.
Following the success of Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin began to write separate concert pieces establishing himself in the classical field. These included An American in Paris, Concerto in F, Second Rhapsody, Cuban Overture, and Variations on I Got Rhythm, all of which have been performed and recorded many times. As Irving Berlin said “He was the only songwriter to become a composer.”
Gershwin had long entertained the idea of writing an opera, and had contact with the Metropolitan Opera. In 1933, he acquired the rights to DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, which he had long considered might be a good vehicle for the kind of opera he had in mind. He worked with Heyward in adapting the play, and finally produced his masterwork Porgy and Bess. He decided to have the Theater Guild produce it rather than the Metropolitan, since a Metropolitan production would run only a few times during the season, whereas a Theater Guild production would run continuously. He insisted on an all black cast (no black-face), which created some difficulty since the opera world had not developed many black artists at the time. The production, which include some of his best songs, like Summertime, I Got Plenty o’ Nothin’ and It Ain’t Necessarily So was critically acclaimed, but only a modest success on Broadway. During the period while he was writing Porgy and Bess, he solidified his financial status by producing a radio program Music by Gershwin. A few episodes have survived.
By 1930, the motion pictures known as “Talkies” had come into their own. Beginning in 1929 with Al Jolson’s appearance in The Jazz Singer, movie goers were treated to music that came with the movie. Gershwin was not particularly interested in movies, but in 1930 he got an irresistible invitation from Fox Studios for him and Ira - $70,000 and a reserved coach from New York to Hollywood. The film – Delicious didn’t produce any hits. George enjoyed the sunny climate that winter of 1930, but decided Hollywood was not for him.
But by 1936, Broadway seemed to have dried up for him. He returned to Hollywood (where Ira had stayed) and wrote some of his best songs for three very successful movies – Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress, and Goldwyn Follies. Songs from these movies included: Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, They All Laughed, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, A Foggy Day in London Town, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Love Is Here To Stay, and Love Walked In.
In June, 1937 he began to have agonizing headaches. He was diagnosed with a glioblastoma brain tumor and died on July 11, only 38 years old. His brother Ira survived him until 1983 and devoted himself to keeping the very considerable Gershwin legacy alive. In 1990, Warner Communications paid a total of 200 million dollars to acquire the rights to the Gershwin catalog.