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Overview for George Gershwin
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: Music ... songwriter composer pianist song plugger cigar salesman Turkish bath attendant


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 20th century. 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."

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