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Glorious George

A Century After His Birth, George Gershwin's Music--From "Summertime" to "Embraceable You," Rhapsody in Blue to Porgy and Bess--is Attracting New Generations of Fans
Edward Jablonski
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

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The admiration was returned. "The boy is a genius," Hambitzer wrote to his sister in Milwaukee. "He's just crazy about music and can't wait until it's time for his lesson.... He wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz and whatnot. But I'm not going to let him for a while. I'll see that he gets a firm foundation in the standard music first." As George's musicianship flowered, the boy who was mad about music was indifferent to schoolwork. Instead, he'd skip out of class and head up to West 28th Street off Fifth Avenue, where several music publishers clustered.

They were housed in four- or five-story brownstones, with the business offices on one floor and the other floors consisting of cubicles in which not-always-in-tune upright pianos were played by piano pounders, as they were called, who demonstrated the publisher's songs. During the summer, the clamor from dozens of pianos would spill out the open windows onto 28th Street. This inspired author-songwriter Monroe H. Rosenfeld to observe that it sounded like the noise of banging tin pans. The name Tin Pan Alley stuck, no matter where the publishers moved over the years.

Impressed with Gershwin's pianistic bravura, a friend in the music business introduced him to Mose Gumble, manager of the so-called professional department of Jerome H. Remick & Co., a prosperous publisher of popular songs. In May 1914, a month before the close of the school year, George Gershwin, age 15, joined the staff of Remick's at the then considerable salary of $15 a week. He was the youngest pianist in the cacophonous Alley. He believed the work would keep his fingers in melodic-rhythmic trim (for his ambition was, under the tutelage of Hambitzer, to become a concert pianist); but while playing other composers' tunes, he also tried his hand at composition.

His first instrumental piece, written when he was 15, was a "Tango" for solo piano; a slightly earlier work, never completed, was a song, "Since I Found You." These efforts reveal an ambitious youngster exhibiting a predilection for crossing the musical tracks.

This talent was not encouraged at Remick. When Gershwin submitted one of his songs to Gumble, he was informed, "You're here as a pianist, not a writer. We've got plenty of writers under contract." Whereupon Remick & Co. lost a pianist. For about two years, Gershwin had endured what he later referred to as "the popular song racket," but what he wanted to do was write theater music, what he called "production music." Having discovered the theater songs of Jerome Kern, Gershwin was convinced by the rejection of his own song that he must escape from Tin Pan Alley. Of all the professionals--dancers, singers, comedians--for whom he performed songs at Remick, Gershwin warmly remembered two: a brother and sister dance team from Omaha, Nebraska, the Austerlitzes, soon to become known as Fred and Adele Astaire.

Adrift, Gershwin found work as an accompanist for such rising singers as Vivienne Segal and Louise Dresser and as a rehearsal pianist for shows with scores by his idols Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. At the same time, he was turning out songs that got some attention and led to his first published song, "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em"; the lyrics were written by a friend named Murray Roth. The "Ems" were "girlies." This was the song rejected by Gumble, but with the aid of vaudeville headliner Sophie Tucker, Gershwin and Roth were introduced to songwriter-publisher Harry Von Tilzer, writer of such heart-tuggers as "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie" and "I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad." To the joy of the fledgling writers, Von Tilzer took their song.

Gershwin was quickly introduced to the business of music publishing: "Murray Roth got an advance of fifteen dollars on the song. I waived an advance, wanting royalties--glamorous word!--in a lump sum. After some time I went and asked [Von Tilzer] for a little cash on the song. He handed me five dollars. And I never got a cent more."

He fared better with singer Vivienne Segal's help. She booked him a concert at New York's Century Theater, where the musical Miss 1917 was struggling for survival. The score was by Kern and another giant, Victor Herbert; Segal was in the cast and Gershwin had been the rehearsal pianist. With the theater dark on Sunday nights, producer Florenz Ziegfeld added to his receipts with concerts. According to Ira Gershwin's diary, on November 25, 1917, "Geo played for Vivienne Segal who took him out for a bow. She sang 'There's More to the Kiss than the X-X-X' [the x's indicate the sound of a kiss] and 'You-oo Just You,' both with lyrics by Irving Caesar." The second song was published by, of all companies, Remick's.

Fortunately for Gershwin, Harry Askins, manager of the Miss 1917 company, was a good judge of song. He brought George to the attention of Max Dreyfus, who ran Harms, which specialized in the publication of show music (Herbert and Kern were Harms composers). On hearing some of Gershwin's songs, Dreyfus signed the 19-year-old to a position as staff composer at a hefty salary of $35 a week. If Harms published one of his songs, in addition to the weekly income Gershwin would receive royalties on publication. Seven months later, in 1918, Harms published its first Gershwin song, "Some Wonderful Sort of Someone," which brought in some agreeable royalties. That year George also wrote a song entitled "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)," one of his earliest collaborations with his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics.

Dreyfus was a power in the trade, and unique--he could actually read music. He was responsible for Gershwin's first show assignment; he even put money into the production. It was called Half Past Eight and starred a popular comic named Joe Cook. Gershwin's contribution was a handful of songs, now forgotten. A young producer named Edward B. Perkins had brought the show to Dreyfus with several finished songs. The show opened in Syracuse, New York, on its way to Chicago and then New York. The opening date was December 9, 1918; the show was a disaster and never left Syracuse. "The newspapers came out the next day," Gershwin ruefully recalled, "and I remember one saying 'Half Past Eight isn't even worth the war tax.'" Gershwin was lucky to get his fare back to New York after the show's five-day run. It was an unhappy introduction to the vicissitudes of show business.


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