GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937) : Biography

Born in 1898 in Brooklyn, George Gershwin started to get interested in music when he was ten.  The family was of Russian/Ukrainian heritage and had bought a piano for the older brother, Ira.  To everyone’s surprise and Ira’s relief, George enjoyed playing the piano and studied music in 1913 with Charles Hambitzer, who was according to George “the first great musical influence on my life.”  Hambitzer introduced Gershwin to the music of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy and referred him to Edward Kilenyi for instruction in harmony and theory.  On his own by 1916, Gershwin had mastered the art of ragtime piano.  Eubie Blake recalled that “James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts told me of this very talented ofay piano player at Remick’s.  They said he was good enough to learn some of those terribly difficult tricks that only a few of us could master.”

Early Career

As a teenager, Gershwin started out as a “song-plugger” at Jerome H. Remick & Co., stayed there for two years and then left in early 1917.  He accepted $35 a week to be the rehearsal pianist for a Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert show, called Miss 1917 that was being produced by Florenz Ziegfeld and Charles Dillingham, with a book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton.  The show was not successful; however, everyone was impressed with the rehearsal pianist, including Harry Askin, a friend of Max Dreyfus at T.B. Harms. Askin wanted to introduce Gershwin to Dreyfus immediately, but the young pianist had already accepted a tour with Marie Dressler, as her accompanist.  

When he returned from the tour in 1918, Gershwin met with Dreyfus, who was impressed with the young man’s earnestness, particularly when he tried to explain the kind of songs he wanted to write.  “He was the kind of man I like to gamble on,” Dreyfus said, “and I decided to gamble.”  Dreyfus laid out his terms—a drawing account of $35 a week, no set duties or hours; a commitment to keep writing songs and submitting them to Dreyfus.  From 1918, Harms became the exclusive publisher of all of Gershwin’s music.

Welcome To Broadway 

 Gershwin’s “Some Wonderful Sort of Someone” was interpolated into a show called Ladies First  by its star, Nora Bayes, in 1918; when it went on tour, Bayes arranged for Gershwin to accompany her on stage for her specialty songs.  At that point, she added a second Gershwin song, “The Real American Folk Song (Was a Rag).”

It was in Pittsburgh that a young Oscar Levant heard Gershwin’s piano playing for the first time.  In his book, A Smattering of Ignorance, Levant relates:  “I had never before heard such a brisk, unstudied, completely free and inventive playing, all within a consistent framework.”  Unwilling to alter one of his songs to suit her tastes, singer and accompanist fell out and Gershwin returned to New York.  Two things happened to him:  he started to work with Irving Caesar as his lyricist, and Alex Aarons decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as a producer of Broadway shows.

Success on Broadway

In 1919, Gershwin and Caesar teamed up to write the song “Swanee,” which Al Jolson interpolated into his currently running show Sinbad; and Aarons commissioned Gershwin to write the score for La, La Lucille.  Gershwin and Aarons would work together on almost all of Gershwin’s great Broadway shows:  Lady, Be Good! (1924.43, with the great duo pianists Arden and Ohman and the historic dancing of Fred and Adele Astaire); Tell Me More! (1925.14); Tip-Toes (1925.49, with the singing of the incomparable Jeannette MacDonald and Robert Halliday); Oh, Kay! (1926.36, with the great star Gertrude Lawrence); Funny Face (1927.59, again with the Astaires); Girl Crazy (1930.31, introducing Ethel Merman to the Broadway stage, along with Ginger Rogers, the Foursome and the Red Nichols Orchestra, which included Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey).

Edgar Selwyn produced Strike Up the Band (1930.02, which again included a pit orchestra provided by Red Nichols, this time using musicians  Goodman, Krupa, Miller, Dorsey and adding Jack Teagarden).  Sam H. Harris produced Of Thee I Sing (1931.48), using the great song and dance man George Murphy in the cast.

Success With Classical Music

What was truly amazing about Gershwin was his ability to work on serious classical projects while working on Broadway.  In 1922, he worked with Buddy De Sylva to write a one-act opera, Blue Monday.  In 1924, he debuted his Rhapsody in Blue, in 1925 Concerto in F, in 1928 An American in Paris, in 1931 Second Rhapsody, in 1932 Cuban Overture and in 1935 the masterpiece of his or any other American composer’s career, the opera  Porgy and Bess (1935.13).   Porgy and Bess was produced by The Theatre Guild, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, orchestrated by Gershwin, himself; with choral direction by Eva Jessye and starring Anne Brown and Todd Duncan.

Success in the Movies

Movies that contain Gershwin’s scores include Damsel in Distress (1937, with Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine), Shall We Dance (1937, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and The Goldwyn Follies (1938).  

Gershwin’s early death in 1937 robbed the world of a truly great composer.