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George Gershwin

George Gershwin

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Also Known As: Jacob Gershwine Died: July 11, 1937
Born: September 26, 1898 Cause of Death: brain tumor
Birth Place: Brooklyn, New York, USA Profession: songwriter, composer, pianist, song plugger, cigar salesman, Turkish bath attendant

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Along with Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, George Gershwin ranks as one of the most important American composers of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Like Berlin and Kern, he was son of immigrant Jews who settled in NYC, had little interest in formal schooling and originally made his mark on Broadway. Unlike the others, however, Gershwin also proved to be a master classical composer fashioning the familiar "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) and creating what is arguably the first popular American opera "Porgy and Bess" (1935). Born in Brooklyn, Gershwin spent a peripatetic childhood, moving each time his father took a new job. In 1910, his parents purchased a piano for younger brother Ira, but George surprised the family by sitting down to play several popular songs by ear. He began to study music in earnest and decided to pursue a career as a musician. By the time he was in his teens, Gershwin was spending summers as a pianist at resorts in the Catskills and by 1914 had made his professional debut as a pianist (courtesy of his younger brother Ira). When he landed a job as song plugger at Remick's, he found his niche, earning five dollars for his first published song "When You Want 'Em,...

Along with Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, George Gershwin ranks as one of the most important American composers of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Like Berlin and Kern, he was son of immigrant Jews who settled in NYC, had little interest in formal schooling and originally made his mark on Broadway. Unlike the others, however, Gershwin also proved to be a master classical composer fashioning the familiar "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924) and creating what is arguably the first popular American opera "Porgy and Bess" (1935).

Born in Brooklyn, Gershwin spent a peripatetic childhood, moving each time his father took a new job. In 1910, his parents purchased a piano for younger brother Ira, but George surprised the family by sitting down to play several popular songs by ear. He began to study music in earnest and decided to pursue a career as a musician. By the time he was in his teens, Gershwin was spending summers as a pianist at resorts in the Catskills and by 1914 had made his professional debut as a pianist (courtesy of his younger brother Ira). When he landed a job as song plugger at Remick's, he found his niche, earning five dollars for his first published song "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Have 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em" (1916; lyrics by Murray Roth). Later that year, he contributed the song "The Runaway Girl" to the Shubert's "The Passing Show of 1916", marking his Broadway debut.

While working on Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin began making important contacts with people in show business (including Fred Astaire, who was then a budding songwriter). He toured as pianist for singer Louise Dresser and continued to submit songs to Broadway productions, most notably to the unsuccessful musical "Half Past Eight". In 1919, Gershwin's first full song score was featured in "La La Lucille" (lyrics by Arthur Jackson and B G De Sylva) and his career began to blossom. The following year, Al Jolson included "Swanee" (with lyrics by Irving Caesar) in the stage musical "Sinbad" and Gershwin enjoyed his first hit single (which remains a classic to this day). For the next four years, each edition of "George White's Scandals" included several Gershwin songs (often with lyrics by Jackson). In 1920, he also began to write songs with his brother Ira (who used the pen name of Arthur Francis), crafting "Waiting for the Sun to Come Out" and the score to the musical "A Dangerous Maid" (1921). The 1922 edition of the "Scandals" marked the debut of one of the composer's first "serious" works the one-act opera "Blue Monday" which was pulled after one performance. Nevertheless, it marked the beginning of Gershwin's explorations of more than just the popular material. Orchestra leader Paul Whiteman invited the composer to contribute to his program "An Experiment in Modern Music at Aeolian Hall" on February 12, 1924. The result was the now classic "Rhapsody in Blue"; From its opening clarinet wail, this "musical kaleidoscope of America" drew from numerous musical idioms--jazz, blues, Russian-Jewish folk harmonies and classical conventions--to create a piece that not only proved to be controversial in its day but has continued to divide critics as to classification. It nevertheless succeeded in achieving his goal of formulating a truly "American" musical sound and laid the groundwork for future "serious" compositions. The "Rhapsody" remains one of the composer's best-known and most popular and its initial premiere helped to land Gershwin on the cover of TIME magazine.

Even with his "highbrow" musical pursuits, Gershwin did not abandon more plebeian works, frequently partnering with older brother Ira for scores to Broadway musicals that have yielded numerous now-classic standards. While working as a song plugger, he had made the acquaintance of a dancer with songwriting aspirations, Fred Astaire. In the 1920s, Astaire generally took a back seat to his sister and dancing partner Adele, but the collaborations between the Astaires and the Gershwins yielded some of the best work either pair of siblings accomplished in their stage careers. A handful of Gershwin tunes were interpolated into the Astaire vehicle "For Goodness Sake" in 1922 but it was "Lady, Be Good!" (1924), under the auspices of producers Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedly, that marked their formal collaboration. For the first time in their careers the Astaires played siblings and the brothers Gershwin plumbed that relationship crafting a melodious score that were tailored to the unique abilities of its stars. Adele had "Fascinating Rhythm" as a showstopper while Fred's number was "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues". Aarons and Freedly produced four more Gershwin musicals including the memorable hits "Oh, Kay!" (1926) and "Funny Face" (1927), the latter of which reunited the Astaires and the Gershwins in a delightful frothy confection with songs like "'S Wonderful", "He Loves and She Loves" and the specialty number "The Babbit and the Bromide". In between, Gershwin did not neglect his classical work, offering the "Concerto in F" in 1925, the "Preludes for Piano" (1926-27) and "An American in Paris" in 1928. Parts of the latter were included as ballet music for "Show Girl" (1929).

1930 saw Gershwin produce back-to-back stage successes with the revised "Strike Up the Band" (yielding "I've Got a Crush on You") and later in the year, "Girl Crazy", which made stars of Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers (who introduced "Embraceable You"). Hollywood finally beckoned and the brothers Gershwin signed a contract with Fox to provide the songs for "Delicious" (1931), a run-of-the-mill romance teaming Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The score proved more memorable than the film, but it inaugurated the brothers' film career. Back East, the brothers returned to the stage with "Of Thee I Sing" (1931), a political satire with a book by George S Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind that became the first musical to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama (although the music was not eligible for the award). A highly-anticipated sequel "Let 'Em Eat Cake" proved disappointing coming on the heels of the flop "Pardon My English" (both 1933). The latter, however, included a more complex score that foreshadowed Gershwin's most ambitious work, the 1935 opera "Porgy and Bess". The composer had approached author DuBose Heyward about the musical rights to "Porgy" as early as 1930. (A dramatic stage adaptation was in the works at that time.) After years of negotiations and persuasion, Heyward relented and the resulting work, further drawing on Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Jewish folk tunes and other sources, has come to be acknowledged as the composer's masterwork.

The failure of "Porgy and Bess" (which it should be noted was treated as a Broadway musical and not an opera) led Gershwin to seek offers from motion pictures. He reportedly sent a telegram that read: "Rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Stop. Am out to write hits". RKO hired the Gershwins to pen songs for one of its rising stars, Fred Astaire. Drawing on their previous collaborations, the Gershwins crafted the scores for "Shall We Dance" and "A Damsel in Distress" (both 1937). The former marked the seventh screen teaming of Astaire and Ginger Rogers and its flimsy plot was more than compensated for by the superlative score and the sublime dancing of its stars. Their score yielded standards including "They All Laughed" (the film's choreographic high point) and the Oscar-nominated "They Can't Take That Away From Me". Astaire wanted to break from his screen pairing with Rogers and "A Damsel in Distress" was to be the vehicle. Unfortunately, despite the lovely score (which featured "A Foggy Day" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It"), the presence of George Burns and Gracie Allen, audiences were unwilling to accept Astaire without Rogers (he was teamed with non-dancer Joan Fontaine) and the film proved to be a box-office disappointment. Gershwin began suffering from headaches and when the doctors finally diagnosed a brain tumor, it had progressed beyond salvation. Despite an operation, the composer never regained consciousness and died on July 11, 1937. The posthumously released "Goldwyn Follies" (1938) featured his final contributions to American music, including "I Love to Rhyme", "Love Walked In" and "Love Is Here to Stay".

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Family moved frequently when Gershwin was growing up; as his father landed a new job, the family changed residences so he could walk to work
1910:
Family purchased a piano; began to take lessons
1913:
Worked for the summer playing piano at a resort in the Catskills
1914:
Professional debut as a pianist, performed at the Finlay Club; arranged by Ira
:
Worked as a song plugger at Remick's
1915:
Began making piano rolls; also played piano at nightclubs
1916:
First published song "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em" (lyric by Murray Roth); earned five dollars for the song
1916:
First song on Broadway "The Runaway Girl" in "The Passing Show of 1916"
1917:
Served as rehearsal pianist for the show "Miss 1917"
1918:
Toured with Louise Dresser as her accompanist
1918:
Signed to a contract as staff composer with Harms Publishing Co.
:
Contributed several songs to the unsuccessful stage musical "Half Past Eight"
1919:
First complete score for a Broadway musical "La La Lucille"
1920:
Al Jolson interpolated the Gershwin song "Swanee" into "Sinbad"; first hit song
1920:
Provided songs for editions of "George White's Scandals"
1921:
First stage musical written with brother Ira (who used the pen name Arthur Francis), "A Dangerous Maid"
1922:
Wrote first opera, "Blue Monday"; a failure it was dropped from the "Scandals"
1922:
Initial stage collaboration with Fred and Adele Astaire, contributed songs to "For Goodness Sake"
1923:
First film score, "The Sunshine Trail"
1924:
Paul Whiteman and his orchestra introduced "Rhapsody in Blue" as part of "An Experiment in Modern Music at Aeolian Hall" in NYC
:
With brother Ira, wrote stage musical "Lady, Be Good"; production starred the Astaires; song "The Man I Love" cut during the pre-Broadway tour
1925:
Made the cover of TIME magazine (July)
1925:
Commissioned by the Symphonic Society of New York to write "The Concerto in F"
1926:
Had stage hit with "Oh, Kay!"
1927:
Had failure with first version of "Strike Up the Band" (written with Ira)
1927:
Bounced back with a reteaming with the Astaires, "Funny Face"
1928:
"An American in Paris" debuted at Carnegie Hall in December
1929:
Debut as symphony conductor
1930:
Had Broadway hit with "Girl Crazy", starring Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers
1930:
With brother Ira, signed contract to write songs for the Fox feature "Delicious"
1931:
Premiered the political satire "Of Thee I Sing"
1932:
Debuted "Second Rhapsody" at the Boston Symphony; played piano
1932:
Composed "Cuban Overture"
1932:
"Of Thee I Sing" became first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama
1933:
Had flops with "Pardon My English" and "Let 'Em Eat Cake", the sequel to "Of Thee I Sing"
1934:
Hosted the NYC-based radio program "Music By Gershwin"
1935:
"Porgy and Bess" debuted at the Alvin Theater
1935:
Formed Gershwin Publishing Co.
1935:
Signed to a contract by RKO
1936:
Moved to L.A.
1937:
Provided the songs to "Shall We Dance" and "A Damsel in Distress", both starring Fred Astaire; earned Oscar nomination for the song "They Can't Take That Away From Me" from the former
1937:
Underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor; died on July 11
1937:
Posthumous exhibition of paintings
1938:
Last songs "Love Walked In" and "Love Is Here to Stay", included in "The Goldwyn Follies"
1945:
Portrayed by Robert Alda in the studio biopic "Rhapsody in Blue"
1951:
Vincente Minnelli's "An American in Paris" used his musical suite as the basis of an original film musical teaming Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron
1957:
"Funny Face" filmed with a revised story, teaming Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn
1959:
Feature adaptation of "Porgy and Bess" released, directed by Otto Preminger
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Education

High School of Commerce: New York , New York -
P S 25: New York , New York -

Notes

In addition to his compositional skill, Gershwin was an amateur painter and art collector.

Oscar Levant tells of an overnight train trip taken with George Gershwin. When it came time to go to bed, George settled into the more comfortable lower berth leaving Levant to climb to the upper. He later recounted, "I adjusted myself to the inconveniences of the upper berth, reflecting on the artistic economic progression by which Paderewski has a private car, Gershwin a drawing room and Levant a sleepless night. At this moment my light must have disturbed George's doze, for he opened his eyes, looked up at me and said drowsily, 'Upper berth - lower berth. That's the difference between talent and genius'."

"This is the Gershwin miracle. These songs never age. Their ability to project unalloyed joy never diminishes. If performers occasionally need to speak to convey their wonder at this miracle, it's forgivable. Nothing they say speaks as directly or as magnificently as the songs themselves." --From "Fascinatin' Rhythms" by Howard Kissel, Daily News, February 8, 1998.

An incident described by George's friend, the publisher Bennett Cerf, "One day, I happened to remark that the score of one of his infrequent failures, Pardon My English, was below par. George demurred. All of us were sunbathing in the nude; George insisted that we all go inside while he proved his point by going through the score from opening chorus to finale. I can still see him sitting at the piano, stark naked, playing the songs and singing them too at the top of his voice."

"I'd like my music to keep people - all kinds of people - awake when they should be sleeping. I'd like my compositions to be so vital that I'd be required by law to dispense sedatives with each score sold." --George Gershwin.

"There is only one important thing in music and that is ideas and feelings. The various tonalities and sounds mean nothing unless they grow out of ideas. Not many composers have ideas. Far more of them know how to use strange instruments which do not require ideas. Whoever has inspired ideas will write the great music of our period." --George Gershwin.

Companions close complete companion listing

companion:
Mollie Charleston.
companion:
Marguerite Eriksen.
companion:
Margaret Manners. Chorus girl. Was married at time of her liaison with Gershwin; allegedly had a son with Gershwin who was born on May 18, 1926 as Albert Schneider; later adopted the name Alan Gershwin; his paternity claims have never been conclusively proven.
companion:
Kay Swift. Pianist, composer.
companion:
Paulette Goddard. Actor. Reportedly courted her while she was still married to Charlie Chaplin.
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Family close complete family listing

father:
Morris Gershovitz. Changed family name first to Gershvin and later Gershwin; married in 1895; held a variety of jobs.
mother:
Rose Gershovitz. Married in 1895.
brother:
Ira Gershwin. Lyricist, composer. Born on December 6, 1896; collaborated on numerous songs with his brother George; died on August 17, 1983.
brother:
Arthur Gershwin. Composer. Born on March 14, 1900; died in 1981.
sister:
Frances Gershwin Godowsky. Singer. Born on December 6, 1906; died on January 18, 1999 at age 92.
VIEW COMPLETE FAMILY LISTING

Bibliography close complete biography

"The Gershwin Years" Doubleday
"An American Rhapsody: The Story of George Gershwin" Universe Publishing
"The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin"

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