Ira Gershwin

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  • Biography
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  • The Great Songs

Perhaps the most popular songwriters of the “Golden Age” of Broadway were George and Ira Gershwin. In fact, it was George’s gregarious personality (as well as his brilliance) that made his death at such a young age all the more shocking to millions of Americans.

The Gershwins’ songs have become an integral part of the American songbook. 

George and Ira Gershwin were born into a poor family of first-generation immigrants. In 1912 his parents purchased a piano so that his older brother, Ira, could take lessons (Yip Harburg later claimed to be on the street watching it hoisted through the Gershwin’s parlor window – but Harburg claimed a lot of things that weren’t necessarily so). Although the piano was for Ira’s use, it was George who showed the natural predilection for music. Ira, with his playful, slangy lyrics matched George’s rhythms.

Ira, being the younger brother, followed in George’s footsteps. His first show was in collaboration with George. An inauspicious future awaited the show, A Dangerous Maid, which closed out of town in Pittsburgh of all places. Ira was concerned that it would appear he was hired only because he was George’s brother, so he assumed the pen name Arthur Francis, the first names of their brother and sister.

Ira was always interested in language, having written light verse all through school. Ira successfully submitted his early work to Franklin P. Adams for publication in Adams’s newspaper column, “The Conning Tower,” which served as an outlet for many young talents including those of Howard Dietz and E.Y. Harburg.

Ira and George were quite the opposite in personality and habit. George was a born raconteur who couldn’t be pried away from the keyboard of whatever piano graced the parlor of whatever party he happened to be attending. Ira preferred staying curled up with a dictionary and leftovers. George adamantly refused marriage preferring a series of affairs, most notably with fellow composer Kay Swift. Ira got married relatively early and for good.

Ira played games with words. His book knowledge informed his lyrics but he was equally at home with slang – just think of “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful.” His lyrics were a perfect match to George’s music since they both encompassed so many influences. Ira was adamant that his lyrics weren’t poetry. As he wrote in his collection of lyrics, “Since most of the lyrics in this lodgment were arrived at by fitting words mosaically to music already composed, any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable.”

Of course, George and Ira didn’t arrive as full-blown expert songwriters. Their road was just as rocky as that of any beginner learning his craft. Their luck was being born in an era or opportunity. With radio and television in the future and recordings in their infancy, the theatre was the performance entertainment of choice on Broadway and on the road. The brothers started in a humble fashion supplying an interpolated song here and there to a wide range of early musicals and operettas.

The first song with lyrics by Ira and music by George to appear in a Broadway show that actually reached Broadway was “The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag.” It was put into Ladies First, where it received little notice and wasn’t published until years later. The first published song with music by George and lyrics by Ira was “Waiting for the Sun to Come Up” which was written for The Sweetheart Shop.

George and Ira seemed destined to being acceptable composers who created minor songs for minor musicals. What seemed to change the tide for George in particular was not a Broadway production at all but the premiere of "Rhapsody in Blue," which premiered in 1924, a year that would be a turning point in George’s talents. In June, he wrote his first real standard (excepting Swanee), “Somebody Loves Me,” in collaboration with B.G. De Sylva and Ballard Macdonald. The success of the Rhapsody and a future standard proved to himself that his self-confidence was warranted. He and Ira’s next Broadway show was Lady, Be Good!, a huge hit and the first of a series of playful musical successes with fine scores. Oh, Kay!, Strike Up the Band (a flop out-of-town but revised into a hit a few years later), Funny Face, Girl Crazy, and a host of others featured Gershwin’s jazz-influenced rhythms and Ira’s playful and heartfelt lyrics. There were the occasional short run but even shows like Treasure Girl, which only played 68 performances, had hits in the score – in this case “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today,” and “Feeling I’m Falling.”

While George worked on Porgy and Bess, Ira proved he could write with other composers when Life Begins at 8:40 opened with Harold Arlen’s music and lyrics provided by Ira in collaboration with E.Y. Harburg. “Fun to Be Fooled,” and “Let’s Take a Walk around the Block” were the future standards in the score.

George’s death would prove devastating to Ira and apart for completing the film score of The Goldwyn Follies with the help of Vernon Duke and Kay Swift, he went into a retirement brought on by depression and an incalculable sense of loss. 1941’s Lady in the Dark, in collaboration with Kurt Weill, was Ira’s return to writing. He went on to a series of hits – the film Cover Girl (with Arthur Schwartz), with Harry Warren on The Barkleys of Broadway, A Star Is Born (with Harold Arlen) – and failures including The Firebrand of Florence (with Weill) and Give a Girl a Break (with Burton Lane). But even the failures contained Ira’s usual excellence of idea and craft. (KB)

Away from the lights

“The Man I Love” is that rare Gershwin brothers song that achieved fame away from the lights of Broadway. Not that there wasn’t a concerted effort to use the song in a show. It was written for the Fred and Adele Astaire vehicle Lady, Be Good! but cut in Philadelphia. In 1927, it was inserted into the score of Strike Up the Band (as “The Girl I Love”) but that show closed out of town. Its final stage appearance was in Rosalie (1928), where it was sung by Marilyn Miller, but again it was cut before the show reached Broadway. Lady Mountbatten introduced the song, by then published, to the haut monde in England and it soon conquered the continent, too. Finally, America woke up to the song and it became a hit in the States in the thirties.The Man I Love

The lonely award

This was the only song for which George Gershwin was nominated for an Academy Award.They Can't Take That Away From Me

Original title

“I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise was originally titled, ‘A New Step Every Day.’”I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise

Nobody's business

Astaire didn’t sing the song in Lady, Be Good!, Walter Catlett sang it. Fred recalled in his autobiography, “Walter was a funny man, and, like a lot of comedians, even his voice was funny—in fact, it was terrible. And what he did to ‘Lady, Be Good!’ was nobody’s business.” Fred did record the song and it was long associated with him.Oh, Lady Be Good

New Jersey farmer

One day in 1937, Ira Gershwin was speaking to his brother-in-law, English Strunsky,who was telling him that the local New Jersey farms didn’t understand when Strunsky said “to-mah-to” rather than “to-may-to.” Ira complained in turn that Strunsky’s sister Leonore insisted that the proper pronunciation was “eye-ther” while Ira said “ee-ther.” Pretentious or not, the Strunskys’ affected pronunciation led to one of the greatest songs in the popular repertoire.Let's Call the Whole Thing Off

Last song

 "Love Is Here to Stay" was George Gershwin’s last song.Love Is Here to Stay

You don't have any place to go

Hugh Martin on working on 1954’s A Star Is Born: “I wanted her to sing it moodily, quietly, and so did Harold Arlen, I found out later. When I went back to New York, he called me and said, ‘What happened?’ I told him that she had belted it. He said, 'Oh no! It shouldn’t be belted. It’s an introspective song.’ Both Harold and George Cukor thought I was right. The day of the recording, George said, ‘Can you do anything to stop her from yelling that song and making it such a tour de force? If she does that, I don’t have a movie.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, 'Well, if you know she’s a star in the first fifteen minutes, you don’t have any place to go.’”The Man That Got Away

Simple words

“Ira Gershwin writes a show tune, it’s a simple tune. Words are simple. It’s two people sitting and talking.”Jule Styne

Writing for the situation

“Ira always had to write for a plot situation. He could never sit down and write a pop lyric. Even though they became popular hits he always had to have the motivation of the plot.”Michael Feinstein

Listed by composition date

1921
Dolly
Oh Me! Oh My!
Who's Who with You
1922
I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise
1923
Fascinating Rhythm
Oh, Lady Be Good
1925
Looking for a Boy
That Certain Feeling
1926
Clap Yo’ Hands
Do, Do, Do
Maybe
Someone to Watch Over Me
1927
Funny Face
He Loves and She Loves
How Long Has This Been Going On?
Let's Kiss and Make Up
My One and Only
S Wonderful
Strike Up the Band
The Babbitt and the Bromide
The Man I Love
1928
Cheerful Little Earful
Feeling I'm Falling
I Don’t Think I'll Fall in Love Today
I've Got a Crush on You
1929
Embraceable You
Harlem Serenade
1930
Bidin’ My Time
Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!
But Not For Me
I Am Only Human After All
I Got Rhythm
Soon
1931
Blah, Blah, Blah
Love Is Sweeping the Country
Of Thee I Sing
Who Cares?
1932
I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise
My Cousin in Milwaukee
1933
Isn't It a Pity
Mine
1934
Fun to Be Fooled
Let's Take a Walk Around the Block
What Can You Say in a Love Song
You’re a Builder Upper
1935
I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’
It Ain’t Necessarily So
1936
I Can’t Get Started
1937
A Foggy Day
Beginner's Luck
I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck
Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Our Love is Here to Stay
Slap That Bass
They All Laughed
They Can't Take That Away From Me
1938
Love Is Here to Stay
The Saga of Jenny
1940
My Ship
Tchaikowsky (And Other Russians)
1941
This Is New
1944
Long Ago (And Far Away)
Put Me to the Test
1947
Aren’t You Kinda Glad We Did
1954
Here's What I'm Here For
It's a New World
The Gal That Got Away
The Man That Got Away
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Recordings
Music by Gershwin, 2/19/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
Music by Gershwin, 4/30/1934 (15 minutes, courtesy J. Fred MacDonald)
George Gershwin, Louis Katzman and orchestra
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD