September 26, 1898– George Gershwin
He would have celebrated his 118th birthday today. I can only imagine the musical riches that Brooklyn’s own Gershwin would have produced if had not checked out when he was just 38 years old.
In his short lifetime Gershwin produced a huge catalog of theatre and popular songs that are among the very best ever composed. He worked with several lyricists, but it was his lifelong musical compositions with his own brother, Ira Grshwin, that are, for me, the creamiest cream of American Musical Theatre Music: The Man I Love, Embraceable You, But Not For Me, I’ve Got A Crush On You, Our Love Is Here To Stay, Summertime, and Fascinatin’ Rhythm.
In 1935, after the crushing commercial failure of their opera Porgy And Bess, those Gershwin brothers left NYC and took the train to Hollywood. There the siblings were much in demand writing the songs for a special sort of sparkling sophisticated musical film like Shall We Dance (1936), which included the hit songs Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off and They Can’t Take That Away From Me. The Gershwin brothers found a perfect interpreter for their most sophisticated work in Fred Astaire, on Broadway and in Hollywood.
When he was only 25 years old, Gershwin’s jazz-influenced “serious” composition Rhapsody In Blue premiered in NYC’s Aeolian Hall in a concert billed as An Experiment In Music. In the audience that evening: Jascha Heifitz, Leopold Stokowski, Serge Rachmaninov, John Philip Sousa and Igor Stravinsky. The concerto was performed by Paul Whiteman (who had commissioned the piece) and his orchestra, with Gershwin at the piano. Rhapsody In Blue received very mixed reviews from critics, but it was immediately very popular with the public. It still is. Whiteman’s orchestra performed it in concert 84 times within the first year and the recording sold a million copies.
Gershwin followed this success with more works for orchestra: Piano Concerto In F (1925), Rhapsody Number Two (1930), and An American In Paris (1928).
Serious music critics were at a loss as to where to place Gershwin’s concert music in the standard orchestral works. In 1935 he presented the opera Porgy And Bess in Boston with only moderate success. It is now easily considered to be one of the world’s most loved operas, included in the repertoire of the major opera companies. In the 2011 Broadway season, there was successful revival with a re-worked libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks with a Tony Award winning performance by the great Audra McDonald as Bess. This Porgy And Bess played to sold-out audiences for more than a year. Porgy And Bess contains such memorable songs as It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Loves You Porgy, and of course, Summertime.
Gershwin had planned a string quartet, a ballet and another opera, but these pieces were never written. He had been acting erratically and suffered blackouts at the start of 1937. Medical tests brought no answers. By that time the doctors deduced it to be a brain tumor. Gershwin took that final curtain call in July 1937.
Gershwin’s friends and fans were shocked and devastated. Gay poet John O’Hara wrote:
“George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
Gershwin received his only Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for They Can’t Take That Away From Me with lyrics by Ira for the film Shall We Dance (1937). The nomination was posthumous. Gershwin was gone just eight weeks after the film’s release. Unbelievably, it lost to the classic, often covered, Sweet Leilani from Waikiki Wedding, composed by Harry Owens.
Nearly 80 years years after his passing, rumors are still going around that George Gershwin was a closeted gay man. Michael Feinstein, who got his professional start as archivist for Ira Gershwin, says he never could really establish George Gershwin’s sexual orientation. Gershwin spent a great deal of time, including lots of sleep-overs with his BFF, musician/actor/wit Oscar Levant; we know that for certain.
“So many people have claimed he was gay. There is no definitive proof that George Gershwin was gay. He might have been, from my point of view, he was so sexually confused in a certain way that he was unable to form a lasting relationship. Lyricist Irving Caesar, who co-wrote Swanee with Gershwin, did say in an interview that George Gershwin was certainly homosexual. But, he could have been bisexual or asexual.”
In 2007, the Library Of Congress named their annual Prize For Popular Song after the Gershwin Brothers. The prize is awarded to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence in pop music. The first Gershwin Prize was awarded to Paul Simon, followed by Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, and Willie Nelson. This year’s Gershwin Prize was awarded to Smokey Robinson.
How about a film about The Gershwin Brothers with Zachary Quinto as George and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ira, directed and written by Todd Haynes?
My favorite Gershwin song (I think it is a perfect song, really) is Someone To Watch Over Me. It was first performed by Gertrude Lawrence in the musical Oh, Kay! (1926). I tried to count the recorded versions and lost my place at 101. It has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Pink, even talented Amy Winehouse did an emotional version of this rather difficult tune. Men sing it also, including Sting, Elton John and Willie Nelson. I dig Frank Sinatra‘s take on it, sung in a bar, ignored by the crowd but heard intensively by Doris Day in the film Young At Heart (1954). I sang it for auditions for a while in the 1980s without changing the pronouns. I think I like the way Linda Ronstadt and Nelson Riddle did it in 1983 the most-est of all.