George Gershwin, the great American composer, was born in Brooklyn, NY on September 26, 1898—120 years ago today. In honor of this remarkable musical genius, here are…
25 Reasons to Celebrate George Gershwin
1. Gershwin wrote exciting, timeless music that crossed genres from popular and jazz to classical. His work includes sophisticated orchestral compositions like Rhapsody in Blue (1924), An American in Paris (1928), and PORGY AND BESS (1935) in addition to chart-topping popular tunes like “They Can’t Take That away From Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” and “Someone To Watch Over Me.”
2. Gershwin was only 38 years old when he died in 1937 from a malignant brain tumor. Despite his short life, he created an astounding wealth of artistic material.
3. George’s parents, Russian Yiddish immigrants Moishe Gershowitz and Roza Bruskina (Morris and Rose) married on July 21, 1895, when they were just 23 and 19. Before George and his brother Ira were born, their father changed the family name from Gershowitz to Gershwine. George dropped the “e” when he became a musician, and the rest of the family eventually did the same.
4. George and his older brother Ira grew up around the Yiddish Theater District, and attended many shows in their youth. George occasionally appeared onstage as an extra!
6. George left school at the age of 15 and found his first job as a “song plugger” on Tin Pan Alley. Earning $15 a week, George would present songs to sheet music publishers, hoping to write the next big hit. His first published song was “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em,” and his first big hit was 1919’s “Swanee,” popularized by Al Jolson.
7. By 1916, George was recording and arranging piano-roll songs for The Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls. Under his own name and several pseudonyms, he recorded more than 140 player piano rolls.
8. George’s first collaborator on Broadway was songwriter and music director William Daly. Together, they wrote the Broadway musicals PICCADILLY TO BROADWAY (1920), FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE (1922), and OUR NELL (1923).
9. Gershwin’s first and most popular major classical work, the piano concerto Rhapsody in Blue (1924) was conceived partly on a train ride to Boston. Gershwin said the early ideas came “on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating for a composer.”
10. In the mid-1920s, Gershwin briefly lived in Paris. He applied to study composition with noted classical musicians like Nadia Boulanger and Maurice Ravel, but they all rejected him. Ravel said, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”
11. The Gershwin brothers were prolific, writing a hit Broadway show nearly every year: LADY BE GOOD! (1924) starring Fred and Adele Astaire, introduced the song “Fascinating Rhythm”; TIP-TOES (1925) included “Sweet and Low Down” and “Looking For A Boy”; OH, KAY! (1926) featured “Clap Yo’ Hands” and “Someone To Watch Over Me”; and FUNNY FACE (1927) introduced “S Wonderful” and “My One And Only.” The Gershwin hits continued with SHOW GIRL (1929), GIRL CRAZY (1930), and OF THEE I SING (1931), the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
12. GIRL CRAZY featured Ethel Merman in her stage debut, and turned Ginger Rogers into an overnight star. GIRL CRAZY has been adapted into film three times, most notably in 1943, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
13. They weren’t all hits: PARDON MY ENGLISH (1934) ran just 43 performances. The prohibition-era farce never solved its out-of-town problems, but it did yield wonderful songs including “Isn’t It A Pity?” and the title number.
14. PORGY AND BESS, considered by many to be Gershwin’s masterpiece, was based on the novel PORGY by DuBose Heyward. Combining elements of popular music, jazz and opera, PORGY AND BESS contains some of Gershwin’s most sophisticated work. “I Loves You, Porgy,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” remain among his most famous songs.
15. “Summertime” from PORGY AND BESS is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music, with more than 33,000 covers by various bands, ensembles, and individual musicians.
16. Gershwin had a ten-year relationship with composer Kay Swift, whom he frequently consulted about his music. The two never married, although she eventually divorced her husband James Warburg to commit to the relationship. The musical OH, KAY! was named for her.
17. In addition to music, George found great satisfaction in visual art. He was an accomplished amateur painter, and his last oil portrait was of his good friend, composer Arnold Schoenberg.
18. Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he smelled burning rubber. He began to suffer coordination problems, blackouts, and severe mood swings. Doctors determined he had a brain tumor. After an unsuccessful operation, Gershwin died on the morning of July 11, 1937, at the age of 38.
19. Gershwin received his sole Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song at the 1937 Oscars for “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”, written with his brother Ira for the 1937 film SHALL WE DANCE. The nomination was posthumous; Gershwin had died two months after the film’s release.
20. The 1945 biopic RHAPSODY IN BLUE, starring Robert Alda as George Gershwin, added two fictional romances to Gershwin’s life story, and The New Yorker called the plot a “monumental collection of nonsense.”
21. Gershwin’s legacy continued through the decades via several hit Broadway shows featuring his songs: MY ONE AND ONLY (1983), CRAZY FOR YOU (1992), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (2012), and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (2015).
22. CRAZY FOR YOU, the 1992 Tony winner for Best Musical, was a reworking of George and Ira’s GIRL CRAZY, with a new book by Ken Ludwig. Incorporating songs from several other Gershwin shows, CRAZY FOR YOU also won Tonys for director Susan Stroman and costumer William Ivey Long. In his rave review in The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote, “When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Shubert Theater, where a riotously entertaining show called CRAZY FOR YOU uncorked the American musical’s classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the CATS decade.”
23. NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (2012), starring Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, was a farcical prohibition-era romp featuring some of Gershwin’s greatest tunes. Loosely based on OH, KAY! and other works by Guy Bolton and P.G Wodehouse, NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT – with a new book by Joe DiPietro – wowed New York audiences and won 2 Tony Awards.
24. Gershwin is currently represented on Broadway by AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, a brand new musical adaptation of the 1951 Academy Award-winning film. After a successful engagement at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS opened at the Palace Theatre on Broadway in April 2015. Widely praised for its glorious choreography and exquisite visual design, the production won four Tony Awards and is currently being produced around the world.
25. In 1970, George Gershwin was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize to mark the centenary of his birth.
Tams-Witmark is honored to license several wonderful musicals by George Gershwin, and we proudly celebrate the birthday of this great American artist!