George Gershwin by Murray Ginsberg
by Murray Ginsberg
Robert Farnon arranged and recorded the music of many of the great composers. Had those who had passed away remained alive to hear his arrangements, I'm sure each one, including the late great George Gershwin would have contacted The Guv'nor to lavish high praise for his stunning orchestrations of such gems as Porgy and Bess suite, Love Walked In, S’Wonderful and others.
The following passage is borrowed from a foreword by Richard Rodgers on the first page of a book titled The Gershwins by Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon (Atheneum, New York 1973):
"Composers, by tradition, are not a generous lot. Essentially, we are a breed of men and women concerned with the arrangement of the same seven notes. We tend to be somewhat taciturn when it comes to assaying each other's work, and will often go to extremes to avoid having to pay them public compliment.
So it ought to be with some misgivings that I attempt to set down my thoughts on George Gershwin and his music. In this case, however, I am delighted to break with tradition and pay my unreserved respects to a fellow composer.
George had an endearing appreciation of himself in his own work that was quite contagious. When he had a new song he could hardly wait to marshal his friends for a first-time-anywhere recital. On this occasion we were weekend guests at the home of a friend. All was quiet and relaxed, when suddenly George announced (to no one's surprise) that he had ‘a new composition’. Without further introduction he sat down and played his just completed symphonic poem, ‘An American in Paris’. I thought it was superb, and I raved about it. But a little later, as we were all on our way to the beach for a swim, George caught up with me and remarked with some puzzlement, "I never knew you were like that."
I was surprised and asked him what in the world he meant. Hastily, he clarified, "I didn't know you could like anyone else's stuff!"
Gershwin's ‘stuff' was marvellous, and I was crazy about it. I can hardly remember a time when I didn't know about him. He loved to play the piano. He played marvellously. Performing was like a shot of adrenalin to George; he loved to be the life of the party. The best way to sum up George Gershwin's work is simply:
The Gershwin brothers were born within two years of each other - Ira on December 6, 1896, and George on September 26, 1898. Their parents, Rose and Morris Gershwin, each of whom had emigrated from Russia before their marriage in 1895, produced two more children, a son Arthur and a daughter Frances.
Morris Gershwin, according to George, was "a very easy-going, humorous philosopher who took things as they came. He was at the time of his marriage, a foreman in a factory that made women's shoes. But in the next 20 years he moved his family no less than 28 times as his occupations shifted - part owner of a Turkish bath on the Bowery, part owner of a restaurant on Third Avenue, owner of a cigar store, and other pursuits."
Rose Gershwin, on the other hand, was, in George's words, "nervous, ambitious and purposeful." She wanted her children to be educated, feeling that with an education they could at least become teachers. She opposed George's desire to become a musician, thinking of such a career in terms of a $25-a-week piano player. But she did nothing to stand in George's way when he left school to take his first job as a pianist.
George and Ira were as dissimilar as two brothers could be. Almost everything that one was, the other wasn't. And yet, the various pluses and minuses of these two very distinct and individually creative men were so complementary, fitting together as snugly as the parts of a cleanly cut jigsaw puzzle, that, together, they formed a remarkably complete whole.
In everything they did they were opposites. George was open, exuberant, loving the spotlight, an irrepressible performer. Ira was shy, slow-moving, inhibited.
And yet they functioned together with the smoothness of a beautifully tooled piece of machinery.
The dynamism of George's personality was inescapable. Whenever he entered a room, he captured it instantly. He had an irresistible, infectious vitality, an overwhelming personal magnetism beyond that of most of the greatest movie stars.
George loved to play the piano. Whenever a piano was available, George would sit down and play. Part of his joy in going to parties was because of the opportunities they afforded him to play. And what he played was usually whatever songs he had written for many of his own shows.
Nor was his performing limited to the piano. He was a great storyteller and had a natural gift for dancing. If parties gave Gershwin an additional platform for his considerable talents, they were also the perfect showcase for a personality that helped give New York in the '20s so much of the character New Yorkers have come to associate with those years. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia claimed that because of George Gershwin's reputation and his amazing musical output, New Yorkers were walking taller, smiling more, and seemed generally happier. Every citizen was proud to be a New Yorker.
Yet for all the love of self-acclaim that this seeking out of the spotlight might suggest, George was generous in his enthusiasm for other composers, helping to launch the careers of Harold Arlen, Arthur Schwartz, Vernon Duke, Kay Swift, and others.
On a different level he used a weekly radio show in 1934 and 1935 called ‘Music By Gershwin’, to promote the songs of his leading contemporaries - Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, all of whom were close friends. According to several biographers, there was a surprising absence of professional jealousy amongst them.
George Gershwin's musical output was remarkable. During his career George wrote the music for at least 25 Broadway shows, the first of which in 1919 was "La La Lucille" when George was only 20. Others were "Lady Be Good", "I Got Rhythm", "Strike Up The Band", "Funny Face", and a folk opera called "Porgy and Bess", to name a few, as well as a piano concerto for symphony orchestra called "Rhapsody In Blue".
When "Rhapsody in Blue" - the title supplied by brother Ira - was first performed in February 1924, in Aeolian Hall, with Paul Whiteman conducting, the concert was slammed by the critics as rubbish. They felt the work contained too much jazz and blue notes, which classical music must never include.
However, "Rhapsody in Blue" and his other works were not only acclaimed in America, but in Europe as well where Gershwin was hailed a genius.
He was also involved in more than a dozen Hollywood films. And the large number of songs from these shows and films will live forever in the annals of American entertainment.
Gershwin did have a problem with one song however: The Man I Love.
The Man I Love was introduced by Adele Astaire November 25, 1924, in Philadelphia in a show called "Lady be Good!" The show was noteworthy for two reasons: outstanding performances by Fred and Adele Astaire and a superb score by George and Ira Gershwin.
But after a few "Lady Be Good!" performances, Gershwin wrote to a friend: "Imagine my discomfort when the tune received a lukewarm reception that we felt obliged to take it from the play.
"But my spirits rose again shortly after this when Lady Mountbatten asked me for a copy of the song to take back to England. Soon, Mountbatten's favourite band, the Berkley Square Orchestra, was playing The Man I Love. Of course, they had no orchestral arrangement, so they ‘faked’ an arrangement - that is, they played the song by ear. It wasn't long before all the dance bands in London had taken up The Man I Love - also in faked or ear arrangements. Paradoxically enough, I now had a London song hit on my hands without being able to sell a single copy."
"However, its out-of-the-theatre popularity continued to grow, and after considerable success in London and Paris, The Man I Love was sung by an artist who has almost been directly responsible for its American success. I refer to that remarkable personality, Helen Morgan."
In 1928 George Gershwin travelled to London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna. While in Paris he visited Maurice Ravel, composer of the Bolero, and other celebrated works. Both musicians hugged each other on meeting, as though they were lifelong friends. There was no doubt each had become a mutual admiration society for the other. When Gershwin expressed his desire to study with Ravel, the Parisian replied, "But I was coming to America to study with you."
George Gershwin was so busy making music that one wonders whether he was ever interested in women. At first George claimed he was not attracted by the women he met in Hollywood, but soon found companionship with Elizabeth Allan and Simone Simone and became very much interested in Paulette Goddard, whom he met at a party Edward G. Robinson gave in honour of Igor Stravinsky in March 1937.
But he admitted to Ira's wife Lenore that marriage would add responsibilities as a husband and father that would detract from much needed time for composing, so he never married. Rest assured however, that he had women constantly throwing themselves at his feet.
In June 1937 George Gershwin, who was visiting friends in Los Angeles, began complaining about headaches. He went to a doctor who suggested he should have an x-ray taken. When he did the doctor told him he couldn't find anything conclusive, but on July 9 George collapsed into a coma. Friends contacted Dr. Dandy, an eminent brain surgeon in Chesapeake Bay who agreed to fly to California to perform the operation.
When it was too late to get him there in time for the operation, they opened up a direct line between Newark and the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on the Coast so Dandy could follow the course of the surgery and offer advice to the California doctor who wielded the scalpel if needed.
Without regaining consciousness Gershwin died on the operating table on July 11, 1937. He was 38.
He was buried on a rainy July 15 after a simple funeral service, attended by 3500 persons at New York's Temple Emanu-El. Outside the synagogue a crowd of more than 1000 gathered in the rain behind police barricades along both sides of Fifth Avenue. Hundreds had been turned away at the entrance, and policemen were forced to hold back the crowd.
Earlier, Mayor LaGuardia had ordered a two-minute silence to be observed throughout New York City at the precise moment the casket was placed inside the hearse.
I remember it well. I was 14 years old at the time and remember radio stations across America and Canada, reporting on the solemn occasion. And later we saw it in the cinemas when they showed the news before the feature movie started.
Every person on the street, every taxi cab, car and bus stopped, as did the underground trains. For two minutes the city was frozen in time.
George Gershwin was deemed so important that the homage paid to him was the same shown only to wartime heroes.