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The Life and Music of George Gershwin: Part 1

We begin with a couple of pithy anecdotes depicting Gershwin’s almost legendary self-assurance, which some might call arrogance.

1)  The pianist and neurotic wit Oscar Levant once asked the composer in private, “Tell me, George, if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?”
2)  When George wondered if his music would be played 100 years from then, Levant replied, “It certainly will be."

George Gershwin and New York were born the same year and in the same place. It was in 1898 that the independent city of Brooklyn et al were amalgamated with Manhattan to form Greater New York and to complete the five boroughs. On September 27, 1898 Jacob Gershwin was born in Brooklyn to Moishe Gershovitz and Rosa Brushkin, recent Jewish immigrants from urban Russia. Moishe arrived in New York in 1890 and Rosa two years later. They became acquainted and were married in 1895; Morris was 23 and Rosa 18. Jacob, whose name soon was Americanized to George, was the 2nd child of four. Israel (Ira) was the eldest, born 2 years before George, and Arthur and Frances arrived later. Sometime between the birth of Ira and George the family name became updated to Gershwin.


Morris was a hard and energetic worker at many occupations from shoemaking to managing a pool hall to running a cigar store to working as a bookie. The family frequently moved from place to place among various neighbourhoods. Ira has estimated that the family lived in twenty-eight different residences during his youth. But it wouldn’t be accurate to judge the family as suffering from the grinding poverty of tenement life. Morris’ resume may have been lengthy, but he always saw to it that the family was well supported. The lyricist Yip Harburg, a family friend, wrote that "compared to most of us, the Gershwins were affluent."

It was not a religious family. Only Ira was bar mitzvahed and the family rarely attended religious services. In George the Jewish heritage was present but hardly central. The writer Carl Van Vechten wrote, “it’s absurd to talk about Jewish tradition and George Gershwin. There was nothing notably Jewish in him at all. Why, we never thought of it.”

School was entirely unimportant to George. Ira was the studious one in the family, the scholar. George cared nothing for school and when he was fifteen he dropped out of the High School of Commerce after just two years.

Second in status only to a high school diploma for first generation immigrants was ownership of a piano. Thus, it was that a second-hand piano was lifted through the second-floor window of the Gershwin apartment and, given their nomadic lifestyle, was lowered and raised many more times. It was for Ira, the eldest, but no one was more pleased than he when his younger brother sat right down and played a popular song of the day.

George began his first piano lessons from local instructors when he was twelve, but it soon became obvious that his skill level was well past their capabilities. Of the working musicians he studied with, the most significant was Charles Hambitzer who immediately recognized that his “new student was a genius, without a doubt. He is crazy about music and can’t wait until it’s time to take his lesson.”


George embarked on a professional career when he was just fifteen. He was hired as a song plugger for the major music publishing firm of Jerome H Remick and Co. In those pre-radio and silent movie days, song pluggers were critical to the publishing industry. They would make the rounds of watering holes, vaudeville houses and cafés, hustling to convince entertainers to include Remick’s songs in their act.

George never did much enjoy working as a song plugger. He found it tedious and his young but already well- developed ego did not value being condescended to by the performers. He wrote little about his experiences at Remick’s except to complain that it got on his nerves. Because he was paid reasonably well and had nothing better on offer, he remained there for three years. To keep busy and make a few more dollars he took on a job recording piano rolls, which are the earliest and best surviving examples of his pianistic ability. He never really stopped creating piano rolls.

The first complete and surviving instrumental composition of George’s available to us is 1916’s “Rialto Ripples Rag.” Remick published it in 1917, the only song he managed to induce them to issue while he worked there. It is an impressively driving and vibrant piano rag. Forty years later it became the theme song of the enormously creative and idiosyncratic Ernie Kovacs television show.

Ziegfeld and Pennington

This supremely confident young man departed Remick’s, certain that he could find his way as a composer. He was eighteen and unemployed. But as we will come to realise, Gershwin always managed to land on his feet. His reputation as a composer remained negligible but he already had achieved some prominence as a first-rate pianist. While the immediate post- Remick months were difficult, unhappiness for George was always ephemeral.

In July 1917, he was hired by Florenz Ziegfeld to serve as rehearsal pianist for his new revue, “Miss 1917.” The score was by such high- flyers as Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern and the book was written by PG Wodehouse. The cast was an all-star team of Vivienne Segal, Lew Fields, Irene Castle and the dance team of Anne Pennington and George White. To attest that excellent ingredients do not always make a tasty stew, the revue was criticized as a lamentable mishmash and bombed. Wodehouse later wrote, “There was only one thing about ‘Miss 1917’ that is of historic interest. The boy who played the piano at rehearsals was a young fellow named George Gershwin.”

A Sunday night concert by Vivienne Segal of George's unpublished songs brought him to the attention of Max Dreyfus, who ran the musical publishing company T B Harms, the largest and most prestigious publisher of popular music. He hired Gershwin as a staff composer with no obligation or expectations other than to compose songs. An agreeable job description and George remained with Harms as a publisher for the rest of his career.

Young George could always find employment as a pianist. He accompanied vaudeville stars such as Louise Dresser and Nora Bayes on national tours. He became a rehearsal pianist for a Jerome Kern musical. And Ziegfeld once again selected him to be his rehearsal pianist, this time for the 1918 “Ziegfeld Follies.” George was now surrounded by superstars such as Eddie Cantor, WC Fields, Will Rogers, Anne Pennington and Marilyn Miller. He had reached the top of the pyramid as a rehearsal pianist. Now his ambition was tightly focused on a much greater peak.


In 1919, George’s days as a mere rehearsal pianist were forevermore over. Another childhood friend, the lyricist Irving Caesar, and George deliberately sat down together to write a smash song, writing it in the popular two-step idiom and with a trendy Dixie theme. What they had come up with was “Swanee.” Harms liked it well enough to publish it instantly, but it languished for a while until Al Jolson heard Gershwin play it a party. Jolson’s current show, “Sinbad,” was an enormous success, in large part due to Jolson’s blackface reading of “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody”. The tenor/baritone interpolated Gershwin’s and Caesar’s song into “Sinbad” and recorded it for Columbia on January 8, 1920. Suddenly George Gershwin found himself exactly where he had expected he would be: he was a composer of a major hit. It was not only his first triumph but his biggest. The royalties began to flow in. George was only twenty-one years old but he had already made his mark and was ready to take on the world. The deeply striving George Gershwin craved success, fame, fortune and recognition and now had attained all four of them. It was a remarkable debut.

If you invited George to a gathering or a salon you would not need to worry about distractions. Barely into the room, with a drink in his hand, George would sit down to play the piano and might be there for the balance of the party. This accomplished two significant requirements for George: he loved entertaining people, especially with his own songs, and it enabled him to keep his distance from those who might want to befriend or flirt with him.

George was now free from agonising about whether or not his gift would ever be acknowledged. It had taken long enough, almost twenty years, which included his infancy. George was always impatient to get where he thought he should be. It was time now to turn his attention and ambition to writing for the most dominant social and lucrative genre of his time, the Broadway revue. A “revue” refers to a theatrical show featuring a group of performers showcasing a variety of musical and comic forms. A story was optional.


Alex Aarons, the youthful son of a well-known Broadway impresario, aspired to set out on a Broadway producer's career. Like George, he too was young and ambitious, and only seven years older. It was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. A man who had yet to write his first score joined a man who had yet to produce his first show. They remained associated for fifteen years, merged soon enough with Ira Gershwin and Aarons’ partner Vinton Freedley.

In 1919, the year of “Swanee,” George wrote his first score for Aarons, a comic revue, with lyrics by Buddy DeSylva. “La, La, Lucille” was favourably reviewed and the show was on its way to possible financial success when it was closed down for a month by strike action of the Actors’ Equity Association and had to be shuttered.

To save time and sanity we will dispense with the scrutiny of the formulaic, predictable, and silly plot lines of jazz era revues. You’re welcome.

Buddy DeSylva

Despite the forced closure of “La, La, Lucille,” George once again dusted himself off and started all over again. A dancer he had worked with a few years earlier, George White, had decided to set up as a competitor to Ziegfeld and “The George White's Scandals” emerged in 1919. A contract was signed between the two Georges in February 1920 for Gershwin to write the music while Buddy DeSylva would write the lyrics. White was so pleased that he renewed the contract annually so that the team would eventually write for five consecutive “Scandals”, from 1920 to 1924. With some exceptions, George’s music for “Scandals” was inferior when compared to his later work. It was written on order and much of the content had to be constrained by the rhythms and requirements of the revue format. George later said that writing under pressure was a valuable experience for him and he was able to experiment with a variety of styles and harmonic innovations.


The most highly regarded of all of George’s songs for White is 1922’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” This spectacular number closed the first act and Gershwin later recalled the pleasure given to an audience by two circular staircases surrounded by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and occupied by fifty – count ‘em – fifty tall women in spectacular gowns. It was also the first song in which Ira played a role in the lyrics, helping out DeSylva. The song has remained a standard in the Gershwin repertoire ever since.

A version presented in “An American in Paris,” the 1951 MGM musical, in which a French stage singer, Georges Guetary, properly attired in high hat and tails, ascended a colossal staircase, likely reflects the manner in which the song was staged by George White in the 1922 version of “Scandals”.

Gershwin was far too energetic and determined not to solely rely on his work for George White. In 1921, George and Ira, now a full-time lyricist for his brother’s music, provided the score for a new musical, “A Dangerous Maid". There is no surviving book and the score was discarded but two of the songs were quickly interpolated into an Ed Wynn vehicle called “The Perfect Fool”, which enjoyed a long run and national tour. The next year George, once again with Buddy DeSylva, wrote some songs for “The French Doll”. That same year he and lyricist William Daly collaborated on a score for a musical with an unpromising chorus of eleven rustic maidens and six farm boys. “Our Nell, a Jazzy Melodrama Set in England” was as subtle as its title and died an early death.

In 1923 George continued to receive assignments from various sources. That year alone he provided music for a silent Western film, “The Sunshine trail". He also contributed a few lost songs to the Sigmund Romberg/ Marie Dressler revue, “The Dancing Girl”, He was sent to London for the first of many Atlantic crossings to write an original revue, “The Rainbow”. Commissions kept on coming. Some more songs were written for a couple of shows, “Little Miss Bluebeard” and “Nifties of 1923”. And he found time and energy to join once again with Buddy DeSylva to write “Sweet Little Devil”. Despite positive reviews, this show was not particularly successful and the score was not considered one of the show’s major assets. But George Gershwin was now to be found in the Rolodex of Broadway impresarios and his card was becoming creased and tattered.

Ira and George

A brief note on the collaboration between he and Ira. Elton John cannot write a lyric and waits, perhaps sadly sitting by his mailbox, until he receives a poem from Bernie Taupin. Then he sits down and composes a brilliant melody to the lyrics. The Gershwins did it the other way round. George would write a song and Ira, who always lived very closely nearby, would write the lyric. Occasionally Ira would request that George extend or contract a musical line to fit what he would consider superior wording and George would usually do so. The brothers were extraordinarily close all their lives; Ira might have been the only human being with whom George was relaxed and comfortable. There was rarely, if ever, tension or hard feelings between them. It was a remarkable relationship. One advantage is that they both wholly concurred that George was the greater in the partnership.

Kay and George

George’s disinterest in other close relationships was also reflected in his marital status. Although there were always women interested in the tall, well-built, handsome and brilliant composer, they received little hope in return of a possible marriage. The woman with whom he is most closely connected, the composer Kay Swift, even divorced her husband, an extremely wealthy banker from a prominent family, in the hopes that it would ease the way for George to propose. He never did but they remained friends for the rest of his life. There are some who think he might have been homosexual but there is absolutely no evidence to support this. There were few who would really have known and none of them have spoken to us about it. It remains unknowable and remains insignificant. My own belief is that where there is no smoke, there is no fire.

The next year, 1924, saw the second defining moment for George – the first was “Swanee” – when Paul Whiteman commissioned for his February 12 Aeolian Hall concert a composition that has become Gershwin’s hallmark and one of the essential creations of all twentieth century art. This, of course, is the iconic “Rhapsody in Blue”. George was then unknown to the classical music world, not yet having written anything for it despite his enormous interest in “serious” music. Whiteman facilitated George’s prospects by inviting to the concert “the big guns in the highbrow musical bracket” and such titans as Damrosch, Stokowski, Heifetz, Galli-Gurci, and John McCormick were among the sold-out audience for Whiteman’s inventive “An Experiment in Modern Music”.

There are many accounts about the swiftness with which Gershwin completed his “Rhapsody”. It is known that composing was not begun much in advance and was completed only ten days before the concert date. Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofe, was promptly seated at George’s apartment every day, orchestrating under time pressure. It proved the sensation of the concert and was greeted by tumultuous applause and George as soloist received three curtain calls.

Paul Whiteman may not have been the King of Jazz but he knew how to ride a hot hand and immediately scheduled an energetic concert tour to take advantage of the work’s enormous popularity. Throughout 1924 and 1925, the “Rhapsody” was performed to highly appreciative audiences with George, mostly, as solo pianist. In 1926 Whiteman, this time without Gershwin, embarked on a European tour to perform the “Rhapsody”, where it was received with delight and ticket purchases. In short order young George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” became the preeminent concert work of its time. The English music critic Ernest Newman, who did not consider himself an admirer of jazz, described the work as “a creditable first attempt to do something bigger than jazz by a gifted young man with an enviable facility in producing catchy, pungent tunes”. The “Rhapsody” has never lost its exalted place in the repertoire. The opening ceremony of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics showcased Gershwin when eighty-four pianists performed the “Rhapsody” on eighty-four pianos. What could be more Los Angeles – or Busby Berkelian - than that?

With the completion of their score for “Scandals of 1924”, Gershwin and DeSylva’s exertions for George White were concluded. Critics found their work for the 1924 edition increasingly conventional, uninspired and commonplace. The clear exception is “Somebody Loves Me”. The song’s verse, both novel and provocative, reflected the contrast between the comfortable “somebody loves me” and the regret of not knowing “who”.

Continuing his remarkable year of 1924, Gershwin was returned to England by Aarons and Freedley to provide a few songs for the London musical, “Primrose”. This time George did better in “Englishing it up” and the show ran in London for 255 performances. His publisher, Harms, put out a complete piano-vocal score making it one of the best preserved of the early Gershwin revues.

While in London, still in 1924, his producers arranged for a meeting between George and Fred Astaire to discuss a new Broadway musical for the fall. George and Ira completed the score over the summer and titled it, “Lady, Be Good!”

Fred and Adele

It was an enormous success, and the work ripened into one of the quintessential American theatrical works of the nineteen twenties. In addition to Fred and his sister Adele, its cast also included Cliff Edwards and the duo-piano team of Victor Arden and Phil Ohman. Improbably, one of the Gershwins’ finest songs was dropped from the show because it was viewed as too subtle for a revue that emphasized manic stage movement and fast-paced dialogue. The song was too brilliant not to resurface later and take its place among the most outstanding ever written. This was “The Man I Love”.

Critics found the show demented, lunatic, hysterical, and blissfully idiotic. These were accolades, not disparagements. Opening on December 1 “Lady, Be Good!” was relished by reviewers and audiences alike. While the music was found exciting, the triumph of the evening were the Astaire siblings, now recognized as musical-comedy stars of the first magnitude. This was the first George and Ira Gershwin show to have a full national tour followed by a London run. It was the first major theatrical success for the young, twenty-six year old composer and his lyricist brother.

“Lady, Be Good!” contained two songs that have proven enduring: the title song and “Fascinating Rhythm”. Fred and Adele were both much better hoofers than vocalists but it was clear that Fred was Caruso compared to Adele’s painfully thin voice.

George couldn’t and didn’t slow down in 1925. Early that year, George collaborated with Buddy DeSylva and Ira on a musical comedy, “Tell Me More”. The book was judged undistinguished and unoriginal but the music was delicate and restrained. The cast was judged “unworthy of the music” and the show closed after 100 performances. A superior cast was found for London and it ran for 262 shows there. The entire production has since fallen into obscurity.

In the summer of 1925, George began work on his second substantial composition for the classical concert hall, which regrettably would be his only concerto. Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Society, commissioned the work. George was certainly motivated to prove that he was more than just another composer of revues. “Many persons have thought that the 'Rhapsody' was only a happy accident. Well, I went out to show that there was plenty more where that had come from”. From the silence and isolation of a rural cabin in upstate New York, he completed one movement in August and the other two in September. He was now confident in his ability to orchestrate his music and did so himself. By the first week of November, the “Piano Concerto in F” was ready.

Much more than the Rhapsody, the Concerto reflected 19th-century classical music traditions. The orchestration was less conventional and included such untraditional percussion instruments as the woodblock, bells, slapstick and xylophone. It was first publicly performed at Carnegie Hall on December 3, surrounded by classical music by such as Gluck and Glazunov. The mixed audience of classical music lovers and theatre/ jazz enthusiasts eagerly greeted the Concerto.

Debates began immediately as to whether or not this new work represented an advance over the previous year’s “Rhapsody”, or a step backwards. But within a decade the “Concerto in F” found its place in the international portfolio and has been performed and recorded by many principal orchestras of the world.


George’s aspiration was to be accepted as a serious classical composer but he certainly comprehended that Broadway, not Carnegie Hall, was where his meal ticket was to be found. In December 1925 the team from “Lady, Be Good!” was reunited with Aarons and Freedley and Gershwin and Gershwin collaborating once again. “Tip-Toes” was conceived as a vehicle for Queenie Smith, a tiny ballet dancer who had relocated from the Metropolitan Opera to Broadway. She was given a sweetly exuberant score for this customarily romantic farce. “It was a hopeful and expectant audience that swarmed last night into the Liberty Theatre, but not because Queenie Smith whirled about on her toes or because Mr. Aarons was the producer. Their major consideration was that George Gershwin wrote the music”. And by this time Ira’s lyrics began to receive substantial recognition and credit. The great lyricist Lorenz Hart wrote to Ira, “Your lyrics gave me as much pleasure as Mr. George Gershwin’s music…Such delicacies as your jingles prove that songs can be both popular and intelligent”. It ran for 194 performances before what was becoming an expected national tour and a successful invasion of England.

In 1926 George did not keep up the frenetic pace of the previous two years, certainly not as measured by numerical productivity. He continued to stretch his serious side, writing “Five Preludes” for piano. He had attended a debate between a minister and a contralto on the question of, “jazz, the savage music of intellectual and spiritual debauchery, should be outlawed”. The contralto pleased the composer in the audience: “When I die, play George Gershwin’s 'Rhapsody in Blue' at my funeral”. The composer and the contralto promptly agreed to collaborate on a concert that would prove that jazz was “of sound musical value and worthy of a place on any sober and dignified programme”. For this concert he also composed and performed his “Preludes for Piano.” Initially thought of as trifling and sketchy, these were later published and have become frequent additions to the solo piano repertoire.


1926 did see the creation of a major work for Broadway. Specifically written for the English actress Gertrude Lawrence, “Oh, Kay” was a production of Aarons and Freedley and the Gershwin brothers with a book by Guy Bolton and PG Wodehouse. The show received excellent reviews, especially Ms. Lawrence, who is described as “suavely gleeful and politely indiscreet with a voice that was softly enticing”. Opening on November 8, it ran for 256 performances before a national tour and then 214 additional shows in Ms. Lawrence’s homeland.

“Oh, Kay” integrated book and score more compellingly than any revue before had. It still remained for “Show Boat” to demonstrate how the linking could be perfected. Two songs stood out: “Do, Do, Do” and the superior “Someone to Watch Over Me”, which was recorded by George on Columbia 812-D a few days subsequent to the opening. On this recording, you can hear him playing in his own style as if he were at one of his parties.


1927 began for the Gershwin brothers with a collaboration with George S Kaufman, “Strike up the Band”. This seemingly brilliant team produced one of the trio’s worst flops. Kaufman, a caustic satirist, said he never entirely felt at home in musicals. As Ira wrote about him, “Although Kaufman did not hate music, even in musicals he regarded music as a necessary evil”. Tryouts went poorly with second act struggles, star departures, and dwindling attendance. It closed without ever reaching Broadway.

A couple of years later, the producer ripped up the book and replaced Kaufman with Morrie Ryskind and found a new cast. The fierce satire and Kaufman acidity were reduced in the plot and the Gershwins made their score livelier and funnier. It finally opened at the Times Square Theatre on January 14, 1930. This time “Strike up the Band” passably flourished and ran for six months or 191 performances. The one hit from the show was the title song. Because the profound “The Man I Love” was once again scratched, the show did not have two.

Funny Face

Following the failure of the 1927 version of “Strike up the Band”, George and Ira returned to the more familiar Aarons and Freedley and Fred and Adele. The show was called, “Funny Face”. Once again previews were seriously problematic: Richard Rodgers wrote his wife, “God will have to do miracles if it’s fixed”. This time, with six weeks of continuous adjustments, with recasting, rewriting, rehearsing and, finally, rejoicing, it led to a successful Broadway opening. One number added to the score obligated Astaire to make his first appearance in top hat and tails, fronting a similarly attired male dance group. Fred liked the look.

Three songs stood out from the score: “He Loves and She Loves”, “The Babbitt and the Bromide” and the classic, “’S Wonderful”. Ira spent the balance of his life striving to get vocalists not to sing “It’s Wonderful” because it ruined its rhythm. Among the unanimous reviews of acclaim was one by Alexander Woollcott: “I do not know if Gershwin was born into this world to write rhythms for Fred Astaire’s feet or whether Astaire was born into the world to show how the Gershwins’ music can be danced”. Whatever the response, “Funny Face” ran for 244 performances.

Works Consulted

  • Feinstein, Michael. The Gershwins and Me. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012.
  • Hyland, William G. George Gershwin: A New Biography. Praeger, Westport, CT., 2003.
  • New York Times Archives, October 2, 1979, p.1, The Doctor’s World: Gershwin’s Illness.
  • Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. U. of California Press, Berkeley CA., 2006.
  • www.gershwin.com