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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The 20th Century’s Great American Songwriter

By Tom Morrow

While a number of composers like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and others could be considered America’s greatest songwriter, George Gershwin has to be at the top of that list for his ability to write both popular as well as classical music. But, he was a shining star who burned out at the young age of 39.

Gershwin was born in New York city poverty on Sept. 26, 1898. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928).

It’s arguable to say America was introduced to modern-day jazz in 1924 when he played Rhapsody in Blue on the piano with the Paul Whitman Orchestra in a New York City concert.

Gershwin began his career plugging songs, but before long he was composing Broadway theatre works with his brother Ira. He later moved to Paris where he began to compose An American in Paris. After returning to New York City, he wrote Porgy and Bess with Ira and the author DuBose Heyward. Initially a commercial failure, Porgy and Bess is now considered one of the most important American operas of the 20th century.

In 1919, Gershwin scored his first big hit, Swanee with words by Irving Caesar. Al Jolson, the most popular entertainer of the day, sang it on the Broadway stage. Of all his many compositions, it became Gershwin’s most popular  and successful piece.

In 1924, George and brother, Ira, collaborated on a stage musical comedy Lady Be Good, which included such future standards as Fascinating Rhythm and Oh, Lady Be Good! They followed this with Oh, Kay! (1926); Funny Face (1927); Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930).

Gershwin gave Strike Up The Band, with a modified title, to UCLA as a football fight song.

The Gershwin brothers created Show Girl (1929); Girl Crazy (1930), which introduced the standards Embraceable You, debuted by Ginger Rogers; I Got Rhythm.

Gershwin co-wrote wrote Of Thee I Sing (1931), which became the first musical comedy to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Gershwin moved to Hollywood, California. He was commissioned by RKO Pictures in 1936 to write the music for the film Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers..

Early in 1937, Gershwin began getting blinding headaches. On Feb. 11, 1937, Gershwin performed his Piano Concerto in F in a special concert of his music with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Gershwin, normally a superb pianist in his own compositions, suffered coordination problems and blackouts during the performance.

Gershwin’s troubles with coordination and mental acuity worsened, and on the night of July 9, 1937, Gershwin collapsed. He was rushed to Cedars of Lebanon, where he fell into a coma. Only at that point did it become obvious to his doctors that he was suffering from a brain tumor. An attempt to remove the tumor was made, but it proved unsuccessful, and Gershwin died on the morning of July 11, 1937, at the age of 39.

Gershwin’s many friends and fans were shocked and devastated. Playwright John O’Hara remarked, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

A memorial concert was held at the Hollywood Bowl on Sept. 8, 1937, at which Otto Klemperer conducted his own orchestration of the second of Gershwin’s Three Preludes.

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.

Months before he died, George was working on a melody for which Ira simply couldn’t find the right words. Grieving for his beloved brother, words that fit George’s illusive melody came to Ira after George’s death. The result: Love Is Here To Stay. The song isn’t about the love between a man and woman, rather that of two brothers.

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