George and Ira Gershwin, part 1: selected songs 1919-1927


George Gershwin (September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937)

The following biography is from the “About the Composer” feature of the PBS American Masters series, George Gershwin episode, dated June 7th, 2006

George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn in 1898, the second of four children from a close-knit immigrant family. He began his musical career as a song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley, but was soon writing his own pieces. Gershwin’s first published song, When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, demonstrated innovative new techniques, but only earned him five dollars. Soon after, however, he met a young lyricist named Irving Ceaser. Together they composed a number of songs including Swanee, which sold more than a million copies.

In the same year as Swanee, Gershwin collaborated with Arthur L. Jackson and Buddy De Sylva on his first complete Broadway musical, La, La Lucille. Over the course of the next four years, Gershwin wrote forty-five songs; among them were Somebody Loves Me and Stairway to Paradise, as well as a twenty-five-minute opera, Blue Monday. Composed in five days, the piece contained many musical clichés, but it also offered hints of developments to come.

In 1924, George collaborated with his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, on a musical comedy “Lady Be Good”. It included such standards as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “The Man I Love.” It was the beginning of a partnership that would continue for the rest of the composer’s life. Together they wrote many more successful musicals including “Oh Kay!” and “Funny Face”, staring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. While continuing to compose popular music for the stage, Gershwin began to lead a double life, trying to make his mark as a serious composer.

When he was 25 years old, his jazz-influenced Rhapsody in Blue premiered in New York’s Aeolian Hall at the concert, An Experiment in Music. The audience included Jascha Heifitz, Fritz Kreisler, Leopold Stokowski, Serge Rachmaninov, and Igor Stravinsky. Gershwin followed this success with his orchestral work Piano Concerto in F, Rhapsody No. 2 and An American in Paris. Serious music critics were often at a loss as to where to place Gershwin’s classical music in the standard repertoire. Some dismissed his work as banal and tiresome, but it always found favor with the general public.

In the early thirties, Gershwin experimented with some new ideas in Broadway musicals. Strike Up The Band, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, and Of Thee I Sing, were innovative works dealing with social issues of the time. Of Thee I Sing was a major hit and the first comedy ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 1935 he presented a folk opera Porgy and Bess in Boston with only moderate success. Now recognized as one of the seminal works of American opera, it included future standards such as It Ain’t Necessarily So; I Loves You, Porgy; and Summertime.

In 1937, after many successes on Broadway, the brothers decided go to Hollywood. Again they George_&_Ira_Gershwin_with Fred Astaire-1-t50-f20teamed up with Fred Astaire, who was now paired with Ginger Rogers. They made the musical film, Shall We Dance, which included such hits as Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off and

They Can’t Take That Away From Me. Soon after came A Damsel in Distress, in which Astaire appeared with Joan Fontaine. After becoming ill while working on a film, he had plans to return to New York to work on writing serious music. He planned a string quartet, a ballet and another opera, but these pieces were never written. At the age of 38, he died of a brain tumor. Today he remains one of America’s most beloved popular musicians.


Rialto Ripples (George Gershwin, Will Donaldson) Gershwin had his first commercial success with this novelty rag in 1917, at age 18.

Regina music box



Swanee (George Gershwin, Irving Caesar)

Swanee was written for a New York City revue called Demi-Tasse, which opened in October 1919 in the Capitol Theater. Caesar and Gershwin, who was then aged 20, claimed to have written the song in about ten minutes riding on a bus in Manhattan, and then at Gershwin’s apartment. It was written partly as a parody of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home”. It was originally used as a big production number, with 60 chorus girls dancing with electric lights in their slippers on an otherwise darkened stage.[1]

The song had little impact in its first show, but not long afterwards Gershwin played it at a party where Al Jolson heard it. Jolson then put it into his show Sinbad, already a success at the Winter Garden Theatre, and recorded it for Columbia Records in January 1920.[2] “After that,” said Gershwin, “Swanee penetrated the four corners of the earth.”. The song was charted in 1920 for 18 weeks holding No. 1 position for nine.[3]It sold a million sheet music copies, and an estimated two million records. It became Gershwin’s first hit and the biggest-selling song of his career; the money he earned from it allowed him to concentrate on theatre work and films rather than writing further single pop hits. Arthur Schwartz said: “It’s ironic that he never again wrote a number equaling the sales of Swanee, which for all its infectiousness, doesn’t match the individuality and subtlety of his later works.”[4]wikipedia , adapted

Piano roll of George Gershwin performing his first hit.


Al Jolson – 1920


Songs to follow: music by George Gershwin, words by Ira Gershwin unless otherwise noted.


In 1924, the same year that Rhapsody in Blue was composed, George and Ira Gershwin were engaged to write the musical score for the Broadway showLady, Be Good, their first collaboration. The play, written by Guy Bolton, Fred Thompson, debuted at the Liberty Theatre on December 1, 1924.

George and Ira Gershwin were engaged to write the musical score for the Broadway showLady, Be Good, their first collaboration. The musical, with book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, debuted at the Liberty Theatre on December 1, 1924. The jazz standards Oh, Lady Be Good! and Fascinating Rhythm were introduced in this show. A third, The Man I Love, was dropped, as explained below.

Oh, Lady Be Good

Carl Fenton and his Orchestra – recorded 11 December 1924


Ben Bernie and his Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra – 1924


Count Basie & his Orchestra featuring Lester Young – recorded 9 October 1936


Charlie Parker – Recorded: Trocadero Ballroom, Wichita, KS, 2 December 1940 — Personnel: Jay McShann Orchestra Featuring Charlie Parker — Charlie Parker – Alto Sax; Buddy Anderson – Trumpet; Orville Minor – Trumpet; Bob Gould – Trombone /Violin; Bob Mabane – Tenor Sax
Jay McShann – Piano; Gene Ramey – Bass; Gus Johnson – Drums


Eleanor Powell and her dog in the film Lady Be Good1941


Cleo Laine and the Johnny Dankworth Band in an episode of the BBC series Jazz 625, dated February 1965


Fascinating Rhythm was first introduced by Cliff Edwards (click the name for his 1924 recording with a slide show), Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good. The video below features the recording by the Astaires with Gershwin on piano made in London on April 19, 1926 (English Columbia 3968 or 8969).[1]– wikipedia

Vodpod videos no longer available.


The Man I Love – Dropped from Lady, Be Good!, to be used three years later in Strike Up the Band

Behind the Song: The Man I Love — article by David Freeland, 1 July 2009 – published at

Certain songs, it seems, are destined to become hits, even if everything possible is done in advance to help them fail. Undoubtedly, few songs have been given more opportunities not to succeed than “The Man I Love,” the Gershwin brothers’ now-classic portrayal of romantic longing. Through its many incarnations over the decades, “The Man I Love” is one of those time-honored pieces that always seems to have been there, but, in truth, its early chances for long-term survival were anything but guaranteed. [read more]


Marion Harris – 1928


Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra- 1928


Benny Goodman and his Orchestra – 1937


Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday & Her Orchestra, 13 December 1939, NY — Buck Clayton, Harry `Sweet` Edison (tp) Earle Warren (as) Lester Young (ts) Jack Washington (as)(bs) Joe Sullivan (p) Freddie Green (g) Walter Page (b) Jo Jones (d) Billie Holiday (v)



Jazz At The Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, 3 June 1946 — Joe Guy (tp) Georgie Auld (as) Illinois Jaquet and Lester Young (ts) Ken Kersey (p) Tiny Grimes (?)(el.g) Al McKibbon (b) J.C. Heard (d) Billie Holiday (v)


Anita O’Day – 1975


The Gershwins with Guy Bolton who wrote the libretto (book) for Oh Kay!


In 1926 George and Ira Gershwin wrote the music and lyrics (Howard Dietz is also credited on some songs for lyrics) for the Broadway musical Oh Kay! starring Gertrude Lawrence and Victor Moore. The show was well-received and ran 256 performances. It opened on the West End in 1927 for a similarly successful run.

The ballad Someone to Watch Over Me, sung by Lawrence to the rag doll she clutches, was the hit of the show. It became a Gershwin standard.



Someone to Watch Over Me (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin)

Gertrude Lawrence — I presume that if the date given by the provider, 1932,  is correct, then it is a reissue of the original Victor recording of 29 October 1926. It was released on the 78 rpm single Victor 20331 as the B-side of Do-Do-Do, also from Oh Kay! .


Coleman Hawkins on the album Hollywood Stampede1945


Ella Fitzgerald – from Ella Sings Gershwin1950


Chet Baker –  from the album My Funny Valentine1954


Sinatra in studio, 1956 – by Herman Leonard

Frank Sinatra – soundtrack of the film Young at Heart (1954) – recorded 23 Sep 1954 – arranged by Nelson Riddle



Strike Up the Band was composed for the 1927 musical of the same name.

George Gershwin plays Strike Up the Band (0:35), filmed during a promotional event in December 1929 to kickoff a new production of the musical.


George Gershwin, 1918


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Margaret Beckett
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 02:18:14

    Hello, would you know the copyright of the still showing George and Ira Gershwin together on your website?
    I would like to seek permission from the copyright owner, if there is one, to use the still in a history of London’s west end theatres.
    Thanks, MArgaret Beckett



    • doc
      Apr 27, 2011 @ 22:56:21

      Hi Margaret,

      I’ve had this picture for a couple of years and do not presently recall the source. I’m also unaware of the copyright status. If I do perchance find any relevant information I will send it to you. — Regards, Jim



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

web stats

%d bloggers like this: