January 27, 1885– Jerome Kern
In 1915, with librettos by Guy Bolton, Jerome Kern began a series of intimate musicals for the 299-seat Princess Theatre in New York City. Among Kern’s songs for these charming musical bon-bons were They Didn’t Believe Me (1914), which I consider to be the first modern ballad to become a standard, plus Look For The Silver Lining (1920).
Kern’s song, The Magic Melody, was the first Broadway showtune with a basic jazz progression. In 2016, Kern and Bolton created Very Good Eddie, which was a surprise hit, running for 341 performances, with additional touring productions that went on into the 1918-19 season. The British humorist, lyricist P. G. Wodehouse joined the Princess team in 1917, as lyricist for Oh, Boy! (1917) which ran for an extraordinary, for the time, 463 performances. Other Princess shows were Have A Heart (1917), Leave It to Jane (1917) and Oh, Lady! Lady!! (1918). The first opened at another theatre before Very Good Eddie closed. The second played elsewhere during the long run of Oh Boy!.
In 1918, Dorothy Parker wrote in Vanity Fair:
”Well, Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern have done it again. Every time these three gather together, the Princess Theatre is sold out for months in advance. You can get a seat for Oh, Lady! Lady!! somewhere around the middle of August for just about the price of one on the stock exchange. If you ask me, I will look you fearlessly in the eye and tell you in low, throbbing tones that it has it over any other musical comedy in town. But then Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern are my favorite indoor sport. I like the way they go about a musical comedy. … I like the way the action slides casually into the songs. … I like the deft rhyming of the song that is always sung in the last act by two comedians and a comedienne. And oh, how I do like Jerome Kern’s music. And all these things are even more so in Oh, Lady! Lady!! than they were in Oh, Boy!.”
In 1927, Kern teamed with Oscar Hammerstein II. They adapted an Edna Ferber novel into one of the greatest of all musicals, Show Boat. This landmark show pioneered the concept of the fully integrated musical, with all aspects of the show working together toward a single artistic unity. Among the songs introduced in Show Boat: Old Man River, Bill, Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man, Make Believe, and Why Do I Love You?
Kern had been an affable young man with great charm and humor, but he became less outgoing in his middle years, sometimes difficult to work with; he once introduced himself to a producer by saying:
“I hear you’re a son of a bitch. So am I.”
He rarely collaborated with any one lyricist for long. With Hammerstein, however, he remained on close terms for the rest of his life.
Strictly speaking, only once, did he deliberately write a song that became a hit outside of a stage show or screenplay. That was The Last Time I Saw Paris. He called himself:
“…a musical clothier… nothing more or less. I write music to both the situations and the lyrics in plays.”
But he was a skilled, polished songwriter who was able to create elaborate effects of counterpoint and complex instrumental and vocal ensembles which gave his work a serious sophistication and sparkle.
After Show Boat, Kern continued to write for Broadway, contributing such classic songs as The Song Is You, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Yesterdays, all from Roberta (1933) with lyrics by Otto Harbach.
In 1935, Kern went to Hollywood, where he spent most of the rest of his life, writing some of his very best music. For the 1935 film version of Roberta he added I Won’t Dance. For Swingtime (1936), he wrote A Fine Romance and The Way You Look Tonight, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. He was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning two.
In 1945, Kern had been commissioned to write the music for Annie Get Your Gun by Hammerstein, who was producing, but before the project began, he collapsed on a Manhattan sidewalk, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was identified only by his ASCAP card. He was just 60 years old when he left this world. Hammerstein was at his side when Kern stopped breathing. Hammerstein sang their song I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star into Kern’s ear as he left this incarnation. Hammerstein then assigned the score for Annie Get Your Gun to Irving Berlin.
At the time of Kern’s death, MGM was busy filming a highly fictionalized version of his life, Till The Clouds Roll By, starring Robert Walker as Kern. A bit of a mess as a film, mostly because Kern’s life was anything but messy, the film is worth catching because Kern’s songs are sung and danced in production numbers by Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, June Allyson, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Gower Champion, and Cyd Charisse.
In 1989, on our 10th anniversary of being a couple, after a swell party thrown by our neighbors and dear friends, I found myself alone in our cottage in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle with the man who would eventually be my husband. He presented me with a piece of his art just for the occasion.
I had planned a moment, but then I doubted it could be pulled off without interruption, giggling, dogs barking, or humiliation. I stood facing him; I looked him in the eye and without flinching, in what I admit is my rather uncommon singing voice, I performed Kern’s All The Things You Are, verse and chorus. I was more nervous than during any of my stage performances. As I finished: ”I’ll know that moment divine, when all the things you are, are mine“, The Husband had teared up. Then he said: ”Beautiful… how come you never sing to me? I love to hear you sing”. He kissed me.
Time and again I’ve longed for adventure
Something to make my heart beat the faster
What did I long for?
I never really knew
Finding your love I’ve found my adventure
Touching your hand, my heart beats the faster
All that I want in all of this world is you
You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song
You are the angel glow that lights a star
The dearest things I know are what you are
Someday my happy arms will hold you
And someday I’ll know that moment divine
When all the things you are, are mine