On George Gershwin
On Irving Berlin
On George Gershwin
Reminiscing in 1989
The hardest part of any writer’s job when penning an article is to get a good start to the piece, and after much thought during the burning of the midnight oil, your scribe has decided that he can do no better than that which follows: ‘S Wonderful; A Foggy Day; Lady Be Good; Fascinating Rhythm; Strike Up The Band; Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off; They Can’t Take That Away From Me. . . (and there’s more where that came from).
When Moshe Gershovitz decided to follow his bride–to–be, Roza Brushkin, to the New World at the end of the last century, it wasn’t too long before a change of name took place and the young lady from St Petersburg became Mrs Roza Gershovitz. It soon became obvious to Moshe that his name, whilst being perfectly natural back home in his native Russia wasn’t exactly “American sounding”, and so the subtle metamorphosis took place and the residents of the East Side of Manhattan had Rose and Morris Gershwin as neighbours.
Soon to join Rose and Morris in the family home were Israel, Jacob, Arthur and Frances, and if the parents had known that one of the four was to become one of the most famous names ever to grace the pages of the musical history book, they would have settled for that.
But to have two out of the four to make those pages. When parents are discussing their offspring, the maxim that “All Children are Equal” is hard to dispute. But when discussing the Gershwin family, it would seem that, whilst all children may be equal, some are more equal than others, for the lad born on December 6, 1896 and named Israel, and the lad born September 26, 1898 and named Jacob went on to be generally recognised as the most talented two brothers ever known in the field of popular music. And as name changing seemed to be catching in the family Israel was soon to be known as Ira, and Jacob was to be known as George. George and Ira Gershwin. The names, prosaic; the talent, prodigious.
Papa Gershwin was a mite surprised when one of the lads requested a piano to practise on, and if you think that the request came from George—wrong. It came from Ira. But the fates had already decreed that the roles were to be reversed, and it was the younger of the two brothers who was soon taking lessons at 50 cents a session. The apprenticeship was short and sweet: at the age of fifteen George was working as a song plugger on Tin Pan Alley; before his twenty–first birthday he’d written a Broadway musical, La, La, Lucille.
This could be termed a success in anyone’s language, but it was when the great Al Jolson included one of Gershwin’s numbers in his show that the meteoric rise to fame really started. The number was “Swanee.” The lyrics were by Irving Caesar, and when Caesar was asked about that particular number; he would merely look at the questioner, and in a voice that conveyed admiration and respect would say: “Ten minutes. He wrote the tune in ten minutes.” No–one is in any doubt that the number would have made it on its own merits, but the fact that Jolson put it into one of his shows meant that the song was not only an instant hit but also that the name of George Gershwin was now a household one.
But if the song was good for the two writers it was also good for Jolson. Right up to the very end of his remarkable career no show of his was allowed to finish without the inclusion of “Swanee”. Many thought that Jolson was the only performer who could really do justice to this particular number, but those who were fortunate to see Judy Garland sing it in her stage shows know only too well that her show–stopping qualities were used to their maximum in the Gershwin/Caesar song. And if that wasn’t enough, when Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli, Ira’s goddaughter, sings the number, it is almost as though Judy were singing “through” her daughter.
Gershwin's meeting with music publisher Max Dreyfus can only be described as fortuitous. Dreyfus had a happy knack of seeing—and hearing—talent in its incipient state (how about Jerome Kern for starters?), and the agreement that George be paid thirty–five dollars a week to write songs and hand them over to Dreyfus was acceptable to both of them. As Max, that master of hyperbole, remarked: “We both made a buck”. The Gershwin bandwagon was now rolling at an ever increasing rate. “Lady, Be Good” brought him not only the thanks of semipro buskers in every Town Hall all over the world, it also brought him the thanks of that late, great master hoofer, Fred Astaire. Gershwin himself said that of all the artistes who ever sang the number, Astaire had that certain something that almost made it his own.
Irving Berlin, for whom George had such great respect, said the exact same thing about Astaire’s version of “Cheek to Cheek”, “Top Hat” and all the other numbers that came from the man born in 1888, and at the time of writing this article still going strong.
But if Gershwin was writing great songs for great artistes, he was also starting to feel the need to broaden his musical vision. In his early piano lesson days, his teacher, Charles Habitzer, introduced the young Gershwin to such as Chopin, Liszt and Debussy, and the influence of those masters was to remain with him for the rest of his life. His ‘Concerto in F” showed that not only could Gershwin write popular songs, he could also compose in a much more serious vein, and slowly but surely he began to be recognised as much more than just a talented song writer. His “Rhapsody In Blue” was an enormous step forward in his career, and that night at New York’s Aeolian Hall, 1924, saw Paul Whiteman conduct the orchestra with George playing the piano part; an historic night that had Whiteman in tears at the sheer emotional impact of the piece.
Gershwin’s circle of friends was now widening, and it was not uncommon to find him at parties where such as Douglas Fairbanks, Jack Dempsey, Charlie Chaplin and Gertrude Lawrence were present. These parties never lacked for entertainment as Gershwin was one of those musicians who are happy to play all night if necessary. And not only his own stuff; he was just at home with the lovely music of his friends and peers; Porter, Kern and, in particular, Berlin.
His trips to Europe—London and Paris being favourites with him—saw Gershwin accorded the same acclaim there as he was accorded in the States. To be the toast of The Great White Way and of London’s West End whilst still in one’s twenties is no mean feat! But then, George Gershwin was no mean artiste. His friendship with Maurice Ravel saw a mutual respect that had Gershwin asking for lessons from the Frenchman. Ravel’s answer comes under the heading of “All–time Greats”: “What is the point of becoming a second–rate Ravel when you are already a first–rate Gershwin?”
His visit to Stravinsky also had Gershwin asking if the maestro would take him as a pupil. Stravinsky asked him, “How much do you earn?” Gershwin replied, “Between two and three hundred thousand dollars a year.” Stravinsky smiled and answered: “Then. my friend, let me take lessons from you.” Apocryphal maybe, but to even know and have the respect of such as Ravel and Stravinsky shows the heights which the man had reached.
If Broadway and the West End had fallen under the spell of the Gershwins, so had Hollywood and the films are still shown to this day. But remembering the old adage that “You can’t win ‘em all”, it is interesting to note the remarks of one well–known critic when writing of a particular number. Said the knowledgeable (sic) pundit: “... this song might as well have been written by any hack writer. .” The song? “Strike Up The Band”.
Arguably Gershwin’s greatest achievement was his “Porgy And Bess”, taken from a book by Dorothy and DuBose Hayward. He turned a tale of Negro folk into a classic opera. With lyrics by DuBose and Ira, it is now generally being recognised as one of the great works of modern times.
Gershwin’s death was indeed a tragedy. He had been suffering from severe headaches, and when the doctors insisted that they do tests for what might be a brain tumour, Gershwin would have none of it. But the pain was so severe that he finally agreed to be admitted to the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood for tests. They proved positive; he had a severe brain tumour. Although he was operated on immediately, the whole thing had been left too late and he slipped into unconsciousness, a state from which he never recovered. He died at 10.35 a.m., July 11, 1937. He was just thirty–eight years old.
It would be easy enough to finish this tribute to George Gershwin with the time and place of his passing, but that, at least to this writer, would be totally inadequate to the memory of a truly great inventive musician. So many of the famous in the profession did pay their respects to the man—Astaire, Jolson, Crosby, Garland, Rooney, Coward and many, many more—that the best thing that can end this small piece is to say “thank you” to the man leaving us “Someone To Watch Over Me”. “My One And Only”, “The Man I Love”, “Love Is Here To Stay”, “Embraceable You”, “I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise”, “I’ve Got A Crush On You”, “An American In Paris”, “They All Laughed”. “I Got Rhythm”, “Summertime”, “Bess You Is My Woman”.
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