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8.120828 - GERSHWIN, G.: 'S Wonderful - Songs of George Gershwin (1929-1949)
Songs of GEORGE GERSHWIN
Original 1920–1949 Recordings
‘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 Oh, Kay!
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 ‘momma’instead.
‘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 and ’60s.
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 recording.
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