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ClassicsOnline Home » GERSHWIN, G.: 'S Wonderful - Songs of George Gershwin (1929-1949)
‘I like a Gershwin tune,how about you?’ asks the
famous Arthur Freed–Burton Lane song and most
listeners would agree emphatically.
There’s something about the music of George
Gershwin (especially when coupled with the
idiosyncratic lyrics of his brother Ira) that makes it
still sound as fresh today as it did when first
written. This eclectic collection of twenty
numbers takes us through his all-too-brief career
and gives us an ample sampling of his genius.
I’ll Build A Stairway To Paradise was
written with Buddy DeSylva. Although created as
the Act I Finale of George White’s Scandals of
1922, you probably won’t be able to listen to it
without remembering that scene from An
American In Paris where Georges Guétary sang
it climbing a giant staircase, which illuminated
step by step as he ascended.
Irving Caesar claims that he and Gershwin
wrote Swanee in less than an hour one evening
after dinner. Caesar was prone to exaggeration,
but one thing is clear: once Al Jolson got through
singing it in a 1918 show called Sinbad,Gershwin
found himself with his first hit at the age of 21. The
Great Jolson sings it here in a 1920 studio recording.
We’re now so used to well-integrated
musicals, that we often forget that during the
1920s, producers would sign up a cast first, then
build a show around them. 1924’s Lady Be Good
was one of those cases. The Gershwins had to ply
their craft not only for Fred and Adele Astaire, but
for the then-popular novelty performer Cliff
Edward, better known as ‘Ukulele Ike’. Here’s
what he sounded like on Fascinating Rhythm.
Gertrude Lawrence was one of the major
superstars of her time, but it’s hard to see how
from listening to her frail voice, which often went
quaveringly off-key. All critics said you had to
imagine her charm. So do that, and picture her
clutching a tattered Pierrot doll as she sat alone in
a spotlight and broke everyone’s heart singing
Someone to Watch Over Me from a trifle called
One of the most interesting things about the
next selection ’S Wonderful is the lady singing it.
Vaughn De Leath was known as ‘the First Lady of
Radio’ in the 1920s, appearing all over the dial.
But after 1931, personal troubles drove her out of
performing and she died in alcoholic obscurity.
Listen to her here at the height of her fame in 1928.
For a hit song, The Man I Love has a highly
unsuccessful history. It was originally cut from
Lady Be Good in 1924, then sung in the flop out
of town tryout of Strike Up The Band in 1927, cut
again from Rosalie in 1928 and finally rejected
from the revised version of Strike Up The Band in
1929 – because it had become too popular from
independent recordings. You never can tell.
The number Liza,written for the 1929
musical Show Girl is best remembered as an Al
Jolson number, although he wasn’t officially in the
show. His wife,Ruby Keeler,was appearing in the
production and very nervous about it. Jolson took
to standing up in the audience and singing along
with the song, supposedly to give Keeler courage.
How she felt about it,we’ll never know, but you
can hear what Jolson sounded like performing it.
The only thing that stayed the same about
Strike Up The Band was its title. Originally
conceived as a dark 1927 anti-war satire, it
flopped on the road, only to re-emerge two years
later as a comic romp. George reportedly wrote
six versions of the title song and Ira dutifully fitted
brand new lyrics to every one. If there’s a little
desperation in the line ‘Hey leader, strike up the
band!’, it’s understandable.
Ethel Zimmerman was an unknown stenographer
from Astoria, Queens, when she stopped a
1930 show called Girl Crazy cold by holding one
note seemingly forever in I Got Rhythm. She
dropped the ‘Zim’ and became a great star as Ethel
Merman, recording the song later in 1947 when
she was at the height of her powers.
Embraceable You was supposedly the
favourite song of the Gershwins’ father, the Russianborn
Morris Gershovitz. The reason? One line:
‘Come to poppa, come to poppa, do.’ Maybe
that’s why Judy Garland doesn’t change the
gender of the lyric in this 1939 recording, even
though she could be forgiven for wanting to be a
‘Cowboy songs’were what they called
Country and Western numbers in the 1930s and
they were highly popular even back then. It
seems that most major Broadway composers had
their turn at writing a piece in this genre. Cole
Porter struck it big with “Don’t Fence Me In”in
Hollywood Canteen, but the Gershwins had got
there first, years before, with Bidin’ My Time.
Lyda Roberti was one of those highly
distinctive personalities who flourished in the world
of 1930s showbusiness. Polish-born, Shanghairaised,
she came to America in the 1920s, but never
lost her middle-European accent. Until her untimely
death in 1938 at the age of only 32, she was a
popular comedienne. This recording is from a 1933
radio performance on Rudy Vallee’s programme.
The song is a novelty number from Pardon My
English called My Cousin In Milwaukee.
Let ’Em Eat Cake was a prime illustration of
the truism:‘Sequels are Never Equals’. The entire
production team from the wildly triumphant Of
Thee I Sing reunited two years later to create a
sequel, which flopped appallingly. All that’s come
down to us through the years is one catchy
contrapuntal tune,Mine, performed here by Bing
Crosby and Judy Garland.
Ira Gershwin frequently wrote ‘dummy lyrics’
to set the exact cadence of George’s tricky rhythms
in his head. For this next number from Porgy and
Bess, he used two phrases: ‘An order of bacon and
eggs’ and ‘Don’t ever sell telephone short’. We
will continue to remember it best by the title he
finally settled on: It Ain’t Necessarily So.
So many people have recorded Summertime
in so many styles, that we often forget it was
written as a lullaby, which Clara sings to her baby
at the start of Porgy and Bess. The necessary
gentleness is provided here by Mable Mercer in a
1941 recording which displays a lighter, clearer
tone than her more famous work from the ’50s
One of the charms of the Gershwin songs is
how they transformed the seemingly ordinary
into art.Nice Work If You Can Get It (written
for the 1937 Fred Astaire film A Damsel in
Distress) turns a conversational commonplace
and a simple melody line into something special,
through sheer compositional alchemy. Billie
Holliday captures the tone perfectly in this
version with Teddy Wilson’s orchestra.
When George Gershwin died unexpectedly
of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38, he was
working on a film called The Goldwyn Follies.
Love Walked In was one of the two numbers he
succeeded in completing, although his close
friend,Vernon Duke, helped tie up some musical
loose ends. Popular musical star of the period,
Kenny Baker, introduced the number in the film.
Fred Astaire performed to the songs of the
Gershwins in numerous Broadway shows and
feature films. There’s something about his style
that matches well with theirs: a casual elegance,
an understated craft, a pervasive charm. It’s on
perfect display in They Can’t Take That Away
From Me, in a 1949 recording with Lennie
Hayton and the MGM Studio Orchestra.
Some historians claim that the clarinet glissando
which introduces Rhapsody In Blue is
one of the most significant sounds in modern
music: the moment when jazz crossed the line
into art and popular composition was accepted
as something other than Tin Pan Alley songwriting.
The piece was first heard in Aeolian Hall,
New York, on 12 February 1924 in a concert
organized by Paul Whiteman. It’s performed here
by Jack Hylton and his orchestra in a 1933 British
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GERSHWIN, G.: 'S Wonderful - Songs of George Gersh...