About this Recording
8.120827 - KERN: The Song Is You (1925-1945)

Original 1925–1945 Recordings

The world-renowned creator of stage-music, film scores and time-honoured melodies that rank among the treasures of popular music culture, Jerome David Kern was born in New York on 27 January 1885. His youthful talent was fostered by his mother (who taught him piano) and at seventeen, having enrolled at the New York College of Music, he was steeped in the classical idiom and had already written his first songs. In 1902, during the first of many visits to England, he contributed extra material to Leslie Stuart’s show The Silver Slipper and for the next few years (despite his father’s insistence that he should help him run the family’s New York furniture showroom) followed his instincts and opted for music instead. Returning to New York in 1904, he worked as a pianist and song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley (in this capacity, on occasions, he played for various leading entertainers of the day) and also as an editor, principally for Charles Frohman’s organisation.

Kern quickly became a familiar figure in theatrical circles in both New York and London, where he wrote additional material for shows and often doubled as a repetiteur. His own first hit, “How’d You Like To Spoon With Me?” (written with Edward Laska) found its way into the score of the 1905 Ivan Caryll Broadway musical The Earl And The Girl and by 1912, the year of his own first Broadway production The Red Petticoat, he had already penned around 100 songs, most with a forward-looking ragtime feel, tailored for shows by other writers. The Girl From Utah (1914) delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and although Paul Rubens and Sydney Jones were its accredited composers, its score was dominated by Kern’s own contributions. After an average Broadway run of 120 performances it was imported to the UK and contained, among other numbers, the oftrevived hit They Didn’t Believe Me (words by P. Herbert Reynolds), sung here by its creator, Julia Sanderson, alias Mrs. Frank Crumit.

In December 1915 his next London show Very Good Eddie opened at the Princess Theatre. With libretto by the English-born American Guy Bolton (1884-1979) its first night was favourably reviewed by the English novelist and man-of-letters P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975). At once, the three men began a Broadway and London partnership which lasted, intermittently, until 1924 and, by updating the stale traditional forms of musical comedy, laid the foundations of the modern musical. Their contributions to the Emmerich Kálmán operettas Miss Springtime (1916) and The Riviera Girl (1917) and other minor Broadway shows were followed by Oh Boy (1917). Revived as Oh, Joy (1919) this later ran at the Princess for over a year and presented the world with one lasting hit, “Till The Clouds Roll By”, a song which in 1946 was chosen as the title for the MGM biopic starring Robert Walker which featured 22 best-known Kern songs.

Prolific and durable, by the early 1920s Kern already ranked among the most internationally respected of Broadway composers. In 1920 he scored The Night Boat, Hitchy Koo Of 1920 and, most notably (with book by Bolton and lyrics by Clifford Grey and the New York-born Buddy G. De Sylva 1895- 1950) Sally – with an initial Broadway production of 570 performances and a significant London run of 387 a year later, it was filmed in 1929. The show’s most lasting song, Look For The Silver Lining would later prove almost a Kern anthem (it was revived in 1942, by Jessie Matthews (1907-1981), in a London revision by Frank Eyton and Richard Hearne, re-christened Wild Rose).

The firmly established Kern wrote many other (now forgotten) shows including, in 1921, Good Morning, Dearie (Broadway) and The Cabaret Girl (London), in 1922 The Bunch And Judy (Broadway), in 1923 Stepping Stones (Broadway) and The Beauty Prize (London), in 1924 Sitting Pretty and Dear Sir (both on Broadway), before penning his next real benchmark Sunny. With book and lyrics by Otto Harbach (1873-1963) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960), this ran for 517 performances at the New York Amsterdam from September 1925. Its cast included Clifton Webb, Cliff ‘Ukelele Ike’ Edwards and George Olsen and his orchestra, who had a six-week US No.1 hit with their commercial recording for Victor of Who?

Kern’s Broadway career continued with The City Chap (1925) and Criss Cross (1926), but his biggest coup came in 1927 with his masterpiece Show Boat. Based on the 1926 novel by Edna Ferber and with book and lyrics by Hammerstein and a cast that included Helen Morgan as Julie and Jules Bledsoe as Joe (the part later so associated with Paul Robeson) this much-acclaimed musical has remained a firm favourite. After 572 performances at the Ziegfeld Theatre, it toured for ten months before opening at Drury Lane, London, in 1928. Frequently resurrected (lately on Broadway in the 1994 Howard Prince revival which won five Tony Awards) it was filmed three times, most recently by MGM in 1951, with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel. Its score boasts two undisputed Jerome Kern mega-hits: Ol’ Man River and the poignant Bill, sung here by its creator in a later syndicated program recording, which was actually a revival of a Wodehouse-Bolton lyric from Kern’s 1918 Broadway show Oh, Lady! Lady!

The early 1930s saw Kern scoring Broadway successes now classifiable as ‘vintage’: The Cat And the Fiddle (Harbach; 1931 and filmed in 1934 – this playful extravaganza contained such hits as She Didn’t Say ‘Yes’ and “The Night Was Made For Love”), Music In The Air (1932, filmed in 1934; with lyrics by Hammerstein, this included “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star” and The Song Is You) and Roberta (Harbach; 1933). This last refocused Kern’s attention unequivocally towards Hollywood (barring Very Warm For May in 1939, at only 59 performances a virtual Broadway flop but which included All The Things You Are, he would write no further stage-musicals).

Filmed by RKO in 1935 with Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the original show Roberta’s hits Yesterdays and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes were supplemented by I Won’t Dance and the Oscar-nominated Lovely To Look At (both with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh), heard here respectively in hit creator versions by Irene Dunne (1898- 1990) and Fred Astaire (1899-1987). (Further adapted, Roberta was re-filmed in 1952, as Lovely To Look At, by MGM). Also in 1935, Kern scored I Dream Too Much (an RKO vehicle concocted for the Metropolitan Opera’s reigning French coloratura soprano star Lily Pons) and revised (for Warner Brothers) Sweet Adeline (the 1929 Broadway show, in which Morgan created Why Was I Born?, had run for 234 performances). At the box office, however, both were upstaged by his 1936 successes Show Boat or Swing Time. A ‘satisfactory but unexciting’ RKO reprise of the Astaire-Rogers formula, this last produced an Oscar-winner with Dorothy Fields’ The Way You Look Tonight which, along with A Fine Romance became an Astaire ‘No.1’ hit.

For the remainder of his life Kern was fruitfully engaged in various Hollywood productions. During 1937 he scored High, Wide And Handsome (for Paramount; a ‘disappointingly stilted period musical’ (Halliwell), conceived for Dunne, about a travelling showgirl who falls for a farmer, and co-starring Randolph Scott and Dorothy Lamour, this offered “Can I Forget You?” and the timelessly nostalgic The Folks Who Live On The Hill), while When You’re In Love (in Great Britain known as For You Alone) provided a starring vehicle for Metropolitan Opera sensation Grace Moore and the youthful Cary Grant). In 1938 came Goldwyn Follies, for MGM, followed in 1940 by One Night in The Tropics, a comedy for Universal. In 1941 Lady Be Good (a biographical musical ‘with very little connection with [Gershwin’s] 1924 musical’) carried the interpolation The Last Time I Saw Paris. Although not specifically written for any particular show or film this song, originally dedicated to Noël Coward, won the film an Oscar.

In 1942, Kern collaborated with Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) on You Were Never Lovelier (for Columbia, a ‘pleasing musical’ vehicle for Astaire and Rita Hayworth, this offered “I’m Old-Fashioned” and the Academy Award nomination Dearly Beloved) and in 1944 worked with Ed ‘Yip’ Harburg (1898- 1981) on Deanna Durbin’s Can’t Help Singing and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983) on the Oscarwinning Cover Girl (a wartime glamour musical for Columbia which teamed Hayworth with Gene Kelly and also won three nominations, including one for Long Ago And Far Away, heard here in a contemporary US No.6 hit cover-version by Jo Stafford). After scoring, with Harburg and Leo Robin (1900- 1985), Centennial Summer (the film he did not live to see, this first aired All Through The Day), in 1945 Kern returned to New York to collaborate with Hammerstein on a new musical for Ethel Merman, based on the life of the legendary sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. However, before he could begin the work on the show he died on 11 November, leaving the honours for Annie, Get Your Gun to his erstwhile rival Irving Berlin.

Peter Dempsey, 2005

Close the window