September 26, 1898– George Gershwin would have celebrated his 117th birthday today. I can only imagine the musical riches that Brooklyn’s own Gershwin would have produced if had not died at just 38 years old.
In his short life he produced a huge catalog of theatre & 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, & Fascinatin’ Rhythm.
In 1935, after the crushing commercial failure of their opera Porgy & Bess, the Gershwin brothers left NYC & took the train to Hollywood, where 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 & They Can’t Take That Away From Me. The Gershwins found a perfect interpreter for their most sophisticated work in Fred Astaire, on Broadway & in Hollywood.
When he was 25 years old, Gershwin’s jazz-influenced “serious” composition Rhapsody In Blue premiered in NYC’s Aeolian Hall at a concert billed as An Experiment In Music. In the audience that evening: Jascha Heifitz, Leopold Stokowski, Serge Rachmaninov, John Philip Sousa & Igor Stravinsky. The concerto was performed by Paul Whiteman (who had commissioned the piece) & his orchestra with Gershwin at the piano. Rhapsody In Blue received mix reviews from critics, but was immediately very popular with the public. Whiteman’s orchestra performed it concert 84 times within the first year & the recording sold a million copies.
Gershwin followed this success with more orchestral works: Piano Concerto In F, Rhapsody # 2, & An American In Paris.
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 & Bess in Boston with only moderate success. It is now easily considered to be one of the most loved operas, included in the repertoire of the major opera companies around the world. In the 2011 Broadway season, there was successful revival with a re-worked libretto by Suzan-Lori Parks with a Tony winning performance by the great Audra McDonald. This Porgy & Bess played to sold-out audiences for more than a year. Porgy & Bess contains such memorable songs as It Ain’t Necessarily So, I Loves You Porgy, & of course, Summertime.
Gershwin had planned a string quartet, a ballet & another opera, but these pieces were never written. He had been acting erratically & suffered blackouts at the start of 1937. Medical tests brought no answers. By that time the doctors deduced it to be a brain tumor. At just 38 years old, Gershwin took that final curtain call in July 1937.
Gershwin’s friends & fans were shocked & devastated. Gay poet John O’Hara stated:
“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 8 weeks after the film’s release. It lost to the classic, often covered Sweet Leilani from Waikiki Wedding, composed by Harry Owens.
78 years after his passing, rumors are still rampant that George Gershwin was a closeted gay man. Michael Feinstein, who got his professional start as archivist for Gershwin’s brother says he never could establish George’s sexual orientation. Gershwin spent a great deal of time, including sleep-overs with BFF, musician/actor/with Oscar Levant.
“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 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 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 & Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel & this year, Willie Nelson.
How about a film about The Gershwins with Zachary Quinto as George & Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ira, directed & 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 & lost my place at 101. It has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Pink, even talented Amy Winehouse does a stand-up job on this rather difficult tune. Men sing it also, including Sting, Elton John & 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 & Nelson Riddle did it in 1983 the most.