One day in the middle of the Jazz Age, an interviewer asked George Gershwin, "Didn't you play anything when you were a youngster?"
"Nothing but hooky," Gershwin replied.
True, up to a point, for he was an indifferent and absentee student, and later a high school dropout. His schoolboy behavior led his teachers to consider him a hapless case, and his studious, slightly older brother Ira was often called into the principal's office at P.S. 20 in Manhattan's Lower East Side to account for his brother's poor scholastic record. George's major accomplishment at the time was street games; he was the acknowledged roller skating champion of Seventh Street, around the corner from the apartment on Second Avenue where Morris and Rose Gershwin raised their family.
It was here, in 1910, where the piano arrived that eventually led to George's leaving the High School of Commerce at the age of 15. Brother Ira was the intended victim. Ira, who wasn't keen on studying piano, watched apprehensively as the movers hoisted the upright from the sidewalk through the window of their second-floor flat. But the instant the piano was pushed into place, it was George who sat down and, as Ira recalled, "He played a popular tune of the day. I remember being particularly impressed by his left hand. I had no idea he could play and found out that despite his rollerskating activities, the kid parties he attended, the many street games he participated in [which resulted in the occasional bloody nose], George had found time to experiment on a player piano at the home of a friend on Seventh Street," Ira added. "Although our piano was purchased with my taking lessons in mind, it was decided George might prove the brighter pupil."
He was--with a vengeance. In his brief but dazzling career (he died at 38 of a brain tumor), George Gershwin composed hundreds of songs for dozens of musicals. Today, 100 years after his birth on September 26, 1898, many of his songs (often with Ira's lyrics) are still cherished standards: "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Summertime," "The Man I Love," "Embraceable You" and many more. His musicals and orchestral pieces such as Rhapsody in Blue, Of Thee I Sing, An American in Paris and his opera Porgy and Bess are considered among the greatest in American music.
And throughout George's career, there were always cigars. According to Gershwin's first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, he would ask the composer a question, "to which George, always through the fragrance of the omnipresent cigar, made a ready reply."
Charles G. Shaw, a writer for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, interviewed Gershwin in 1928. By that time Gershwin was a celebrated, successful and frequently interviewed composer. Shaw revealed that Gershwin "likes ice cream sodas and Scotch highballs, with a casual cocktail on the side, but rarely touches loganberry juice. Don Sebastians are his favorite cigars," he noted, adding, "He seldom smokes cigarettes, save in feminine company."
Goldberg described a rehearsal of the Gershwin musical Strike Up the Band during its Boston tryout in December 1929, with George conducting: "The theatre is darkened, all but the stage. In the auditorium, only a few spectators...scattered, perhaps strategically, about the lower house. The composer had just ducked his way through the low door leading from under the stage to the orchestra pit. His gray felt hat and fur-lined overcoat are thrown across the top of the piano; his cigar--that ubiquitous cigar...already going full blast. Later in the evening it will serve as a baton; or George will blow songs through it."
Gershwin enjoyed cigars with his outdoor activities as well. As composer Kay Swift (his longtime mistress) recalled for Gershwin biographers Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon, "Riding. He did it well. He smoked a cigar at the same time. I told him it doesn't go with riding a horse."
At 14, Gershwin had not yet taken up cigars, but he sure had taken to the piano. Up to that time, he had gone through all of the neighborhood piano teachers and study books to no great advantage. But then he was introduced to pianist-composer-teacher Charles Hambitzer of Milwaukee. Years later, Gershwin told Goldberg "I was crazy about that man" who introduced him to Chopin, Liszt and Debussy. "He made me harmony-conscious. I went out, in fact, and drummed up 10 pupils for him."
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.
Meanwhile, Dreyfus, certain that Gershwin would make his mark, continued to market his songs. His pluggers managed to get a few inserted into the scores of musicals being produced at the time. In 1919, Gershwin composed his first full Broadway score in La-La-Lucille!; the lyrics were penned by Arthur Jackson and B. G. DeSylva. The show was a success and boasted an excellent song, "Nobody But You." Later that year Gershwin had two songs in a revue, Demi-Tasse, at New York's Capitol Theater. The vaudeville-like songs and dances were presented onstage between showings of the Capitol's film of the week. Gershwin and his lyricist, Irving Caesar, stood in the lobby with piles of the sheet music. To their dismay, nobody bought the songs.
But early the following year, Gershwin went to a party at which the "World's Greatest Entertainer," as Al Jolson billed himself, was present. He was celebrating his return to New York after touring with his show, Sinbad, scheduled to reopen at the Winter Garden. It took little coaxing to get Gershwin to the keyboard, with his, in Goldberg's phrase, "omnipresent cigar" clenched in his teeth. He played brilliantly through his small but burgeoning repertoire to a responsive audience. When he came to the Capitol revue songs, Jolson's ears perked. He would include one that excited him ("That song's for me!" he exclaimed when he first heard it) into his show.
Early in January 1920, Jolson recorded that Gershwin song, "Swanee," which swept the nation and, in time, much of the rest of the world. Jolson's record sold more than 2 million copies and, with the singer's smiling face replacing the original Art Deco cover, the sheet music also sold in droves. The song was Gershwin's sole smash hit.
The Roaring Twenties dawned with Gershwin on Broadway composing full scores. "Swanee" brought him to the attention of a young producer, George White, whose musical revue, George White's Scandals, was filled with songs no one would remember.
Beginning with the George White's Scandals of 1920, Gershwin wrote music for five Scandals, creating one of his earliest adaptations of the blues, "On My Mind the Whole Night Long," in the first. In the 1922 Scandals he produced another hit in "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," with lyrics by B. G. DeSylva (who wrote most of the lyrics for the 1922 show) and Ira Gershwin, who had been disguising himself since 1920 with the pseudonym Arthur Francis. (The older Gershwin used the names of his younger siblings so that no one could suggest that he was slipping into Tin Pan Alley on his brother's coattails.) Even more significant, Gershwin and DeSylva concocted a one-act mini-opera, Blue Monday, which, while it lasted only one night in New York, intimated the Gershwin to come.
That happened the year of Gershwin's last Scandals (1924), out of which came the enduring "Somebody Loves Me." Paul Whiteman, whose wildly popular band had been featured in the 1922 Scandals, had been impressed with Blue Monday, and suggested to Gershwin that he should write a "serious" composition in jazz. (Whiteman was known as "The King of Jazz" at a time when few had heard of Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton.) Gershwin agreed, then forgot about it.
Two years later, Gershwin was joltingly reminded of that casual exchange. The setting was the Ambassador Billiard Parlor at Broadway and 52nd Street in Manhattan; it was not quite midnight, January 3, 1924. Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva were shooting pool, relaxing after working on their musical, Sweet Little Devil, on its tryout tour in Boston before its New York premiere later that month. Nearby, seated on a tall stool, Ira Gershwin was reading the morning's New York Tribune. A brief item caught his eye: Whiteman Judges Named/Committee Will Decide "What is American Music". Read-ing further he learned that "George Gershwin is at work on a jazz concerto, Irving Berlin is writing a syncopated tone poem and Victor Herbert is working on an American suite."
This was news indeed to George--and to Berlin, for he was not struggling over a tone poem, and while Herbert did compose a Suite of Serenades, not one of them was American.
When he called Whiteman the next day for an explanation, Gershwin learned that the unexpected announcement had been forced on Whiteman because another bandleader was talking about doing a "jazz concert." Gershwin, still involved with Sweet Little Devil, could not see how he could write a concerto for a Whiteman concert scheduled for February 12. But Whiteman was persuasive, settling for any composition for piano and his orchestra and, further, offering the services of his arranger, Ferde Grofé, to assist with the orchestration.
Rather than work within the strict form of a concerto, Gershwin decided that he would compose an "American rhapsody." Ira suggested another title after visiting an art gallery that was displaying the canvasses of James McNeill Whistler. His familiar "Whistler's Mother" is, in fact, titled "Arrangement in Gray and Black"; another, "Nocturne in Green and Gold." So why not, Ira suggested, Rhapsody in Blue?
Gershwin began his Rhapsody in Blue (for Jazz Band and Piano) three days later, on January 7. Grofé haunted the Gershwin apartment on 110th Street daily for pages of the rhapsody in Gershwin's two-piano version (which Gershwin did for all his subsequent concert works--from these he worked out the orchestration). The fully orchestrated rhapsody was completed a month to the day after it was begun, five days before Whiteman's concert at Aeolian Hall in New York City.
It was the sensation of a long, often tedious, afternoon. Newspaper critics argued over it for days, questioning whether a man who wrote show music could compose a serious work. Subsequent concerts of Rhapsody in Blue took place at the hall in March and in Carnegie Hall in April, and then it went on the road. Gershwin stayed with the band until it reached St. Louis, then returned to New York to work on his next show. The notoriety and popularity of his very American and innovative composition brought him a contract from the New York Symphony for a full-scale concerto, resulting in the brilliant Concerto in F in 1925.
As it had begun in triumph with Rhapsody in Blue, 1924 closed with another hit, the musical Lady, Be Good! This was the first major collaboration on a Broadway show by the Gershwins. (By this time, Ira had shed his alter ego, Arthur Francis. By then everyone in the business knew who he was and, in addition, there was an English songwriter named Arthur Frances.)
Lady, Be Good! proved to be a landmark musical, short on plot but abundant in musical and lyrical quality; literate, breezy, youthful, of its time and in a word, Gershwinesque. Forty musicals were produced in New York that year, and after the Gershwins' hit, the sound of the American musical changed--it grew up. Just as Rhapsody in Blue opened the doors at Carnegie Hall to American composers, Lady, Be Good! paved the way for the likes of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans and others. And, as they had hoped for years before, Fred and Adele Astaire were the happy stars who sang such songs as "Fascinating Rhythm," "The Half of It, Dearie, Blues," "So Am I" and, for a time, "The Man I Love," which was dropped from the show after it opened in Philadelphia, two weeks before its Broadway debut.
With the success of Rhapsody in Blue and Lady, Be Good!, George Gershwin was now the George Gershwin, which is how the less dynamic, less flamboyant Ira preferred it; sibling rivalry was no problem in their unique collaboration.
George Gershwin was at the top of his craft, and his popularity soared. He made the cover of Time in 1925. Trim, tan and athletic, he enjoyed golf, horseback riding, tennis and other sports. He loved the arts as well; he was soon to become an accomplished painter and a collector of contemporary art. He was lionized by society and pursued by women (though he never married). He was a celebrity, constantly interviewed and asked for his autograph, and always the center of attention at every party. Yet some of his greatest fans were musicians and pianists. His compositions were performed in Britain and France; the All-Gershwin concerts at Lewisohn Stadium--a Manhattan football stadium that was converted into a concert "hall" each summer--sold out for several years.
(Although he never married, Gershwin had an affair that lasted nearly 10 years with composer Kay Swift, who was married with three children and a frequently traveling husband, banker James Warburg. When Warburg agreed to a divorce, which was finalized in 1934, one of the stipulations was that Swift could never marry Gershwin.)
The Twenties and Thirties resounded to the sounds of more than a dozen Gershwin musicals, boasting such songs as "Sweet and Low-Down," "That Certain Feeling," "Looking for a Boy," "Someone To Watch Over Me," "'S Wonderful," "My One and Only," "Embrace-able You" and "I Got Rhythm." The last two came from Girl Crazy, Gershwin's second major hit of 1930. Earlier in the year, he had revised Strike Up the Band, the short-lived antiwar musical he had composed in 1927; with a sweetened libretto and several new songs, the new version enjoyed a successful run. By this time, George had begun the practice of conducting his musicals on opening night. He loved being involved from start to finish of a show, something that did not happen, to his frustration and distress, in Hollywood.
With Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy blithely and lucratively running in Manhattan, the Gershwins left for Hollywood in November 1930 to work on their first film musical, Delicious, which would star Hollywood's top romantic team of the day, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Hollywood had only recently found its voice, and inevitably began filming generally inept musicals; just as inevitably, it summoned Broadway's most celebrated songwriting team to score Delicious. But it wasn't tasty at all; Hollywood was not ready for the Gershwins, and not quite up to the production of the musical film in 1930-'31.
The major achievement of Delicious was Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, the expansion of a ballet-like music sequence in the script called Manhattan Rhapsody. In its longer version it is a remarkable composition, revealing Gershwin in a new light, with a work less romantic than the first Rhapsody. In keeping with the scenes in the film of a dark, even menacing, metropolis--as seen through the eyes of a young, frightened, Scottish immigrant (Gaynor)--Second Rhapsody is harsh, austere and unsettling. Its opening, a driving piano theme, gave Gershwin the idea for his original title, Rhapsody in Rivets, but he decided on his final title because it was "more simple and more dignified."
When he completed the work in June 1931, Gershwin hired an orchestra of more than 50 to play it for him. After the session, he informed Isaac Goldberg that "in many respects, such as orchestration and form, it is the best thing I've ever written."
The Gershwins returned to New York to produce their acerbic study of American politics, titled Of Thee I Sing. Partly inspired by Strike Up the Band, it was a huge hit and, with 441 performances, their most enduring show. With the book and lyrics by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for drama. But then came three financial flops in succession, Pardon My English and Let 'Em Eat Cake (the Of Thee I Sing sequel) both in 1933, and yes, Porgy and Bess, in spite of 11 months devoted to the composition and nine to orchestration.
Considering that Porgy and Bess is now the most acclaimed of American operas, it is difficult to believe that the public stayed away from the show. But theatergoers had not expected an opera from George Gershwin; they had hoped for another Girl Crazy or a production that reminded them of one of his other popular musicals, such as Tip-Toes (1925) or Funny Face (1927). The critics, some antagonistic, did not believe he could write an opera, saying that he was a mere songwriter and that he should stick to Broadway musicals. Porgy and Bess closed after 124 New York performances, a financial failure. A brief road tour then took it to Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The strength of its songs kept the score alive until revivals and the restoration of original music (which had been removed from the score during its Boston previews before the New York premiere) revealed Porgy and Bess to be the masterpiece it is.
After the public's reaction to Porgy, the Gershwins decided to return to writing lighter musicals. By this time Hollywood was having greater success with the form, reaching its acme with the sophisticated and now classic films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. First teamed in 1933's Flying Down to Rio, with music by Vincent Youmans, Astaire and Rogers had become RKO Radio's leading stars by 1936, with scores provided by such legends as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
Hollywood was suspicious of the operatic Gershwins, fearing that the duo would write only "highbrow" songs. George retorted with "...rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Am out to write hits."
The brothers wrote two complete scores for Astaire--Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress (without Rogers)--as well as the tragically unfinished The Goldwyn Follies, out of which flowed such songs as "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "A Foggy Day," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and George Gershwin's last song, "Love is Here to Stay."
Once contracts had been worked out, the Gershwins--George, Ira and Ira's wife, Leonore--flew to California in August 1936. Hollywood did not keep George occupied as he might have been on Broadway, a fact that after some weeks irritated him. Between work sessions with Ira, he flew to concert appearances in Seattle, San Francisco and Detroit. In early February 1937, while rehearsing a Porgy and Bess medley with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, George lost his balance and nearly fell from the podium, but he recovered immediately. The next evening, he lost his way in a simple solo piano passage of the Concerto in F, complaining later of a headache and the smell of burning rubber.
These were the first manifestations of the brain tumor that would take his life five months later. He had several physicals during that time and saw a battery of doctors, including an analyst (some of his friends believed his dizzy spells and headaches were psychosomatic, caused by his unhappiness in Hollywood). The analyst, however, concluded that the symptoms were physical, not emotional.
In June 1937, Gershwin spent four days in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, undergoing tests. The doctors offered no diagnoses except the opinion that it was "most likely hysteria." Two weeks later, Gershwin was back at Cedars in a coma. The tumor's effects were readily apparent by then, and an immediate "energetic surgical intervention" was begun. It was much too late; the tumor may have been present long before the Concerto in F incident back in February. Gershwin died on a Sunday morning, July 11, 1937. Mourned worldwide, he left behind an unequaled musical legacy.
Gershwin's had been a celebrated life, but he always retained his social equilibrium. Nanette Kutner, who years earlier had successfully applied for a job as his secretary before going on to become a noted producer, had approached the renowned composer (at the time still in his 20s) with apprehensive awe. She recalled their first encounter:
"Meeting him was a shock. Here was no art pose, but a blatant earthiness. God be praised, he was alive; lusty, suntanned, athletic, wearing blue shirts, smoking black cigars."
Edward Jablonski is co-author, with Lawrence D. Stewart, of The Gershwin Years and author of An Encyclopedia of American Music; Gershwin--A Biography; Harold Arlen--Rhythm, Rainbows and Blues and the forthcoming Irving Berlin, American Troubadour.
Gershwin's Greatest Hits
The Gershwin centennial unleashed a profusion of compact discs, some new, some old--reissues of vintage 78 rpms and LPs. It is a rare record manufacturer that has not hopped onto the Gershwin steamroller, and artists, from jazz to rock to pop, are having their way (alas, in some instances) with the Gershwin works. Among the best of this group are:
Historic Gershwin Recordings (BMG) One of the greatest Gershwin compilations, this two-CD set contains the two records of Rhapsody in Blue (1924, 1927) and the first (1929) of An American in Paris, in which George plays the celesta and the taxi horns he brought back from Paris. This is one of the best recordings ever of this work. Also included are songs from Porgy and Bess in a recording, supervised by Gershwin, that was made only days after the premiere of the opera. It stars the New York Metropolitan Opera's Lawrence Tibbett, and not the then-unknown original cast. Alex-ander Smallens conducts Porgy's orchestra and chorus. Other highlights: Leonard Bernstein's early American in Paris, and Morton Gould's (a Gershwin favorite) idiomatic performances of the Rhapsody, the Piano Preludes and a marvelous Porgy and Bess suite. The technical job of restoration is superb.
Gems from Gershwin (BMG) A wonderful collection of Gershwin from a 1938 memorial broadcast starring Jane Froman, Felix Knight and Sonny Schuyler, with chorus and orchestra conducted by Gershwin's good friend Nathaniel Shilkret. A cornucopia of music: medleys of songs presented in period style, with Gershwinesque romanticism and zest. Fine transmissions from early masters.
Selections from Porgy and Bess and Blue Monday (Telarc) The major feature of this disc is the first complete recording of Gershwin's early (1922) opera, Blue Monday, using the original orchestration by Will Vodery. The "opere" lasted for one performance in New York as an unlikely presentation in that year's George White's Scandals. Another priceless discovery is "Lonely Boy," a song Gershwin had composed but did not use, in Porgy and Bess.
George & Ira Gershwin Standards & Gems (Nonesuch) Fifteen gems, some from the Nonesuch series of complete Gershwin musicals, and a couple of new ones. All are authentically orchestrated and lovingly performed by an excellent cast. One of the finest collections of the year.
Porgy and Bess (Sony Masterworks Heritage series) This two-CD set features the 1952 recording of the score, supervised by the astute Goddard Lieberson for Columbia Records. While not in truth complete as it is advertised, the recording contains a good deal of the score, beautifully sung, and knowingly conducted by Lehman Engel. This recording was a trailblazer in its day, and it still is.
George & Ira Gershwin in Hollywood (Rhino Movie Music/Ted Turner) A rich two-CD collection of songs from several films, including Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress and Gershwin's last, The Goldwyn Follies. Also featured are Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and much more. Produced by the indefatigable Gershwinite Michael Feinstein, the set contains alternate takes, cut songs and a couple of Ira songs written with other composers. Such devotion gives scholarship a good name.
Gershwin on Monarch (Monarch Records) A lovable collection of vocals and instrumentals by West Coast musicians, made especially for the centenary. A dozen great songs in great interpretations, some jazzy, some romantic, all Gershwin.
Gershwin Rarities:The 1953/1954 Walden Sessions (Harbinger) Ages ago, I co-founded a tiny record company with Leon Sidell called Walden Records, emphasizing the neglected songs of great American songwriters.
It was a heady time. Al Hirschfeld did our covers. Our performers worked for scale (Leon and I, as it worked out, did it for the love of it). Several of the songwriters, including Cole Porter, Howard Arlen and our "godfather," Ira Gershwin, participated. The series was critically praised but poorly distributed and Walden faded away.
Now two dreamers, Bill Rudman and Ken Bloom, are bringing back the Walden library on compact discs. Though recorded decades ago, the re-recording is remarkable. This CD features such lesser-known Gershwin gems as "Where's the Boy? Here's the Girl!" from the 1928 musical Treasure Girl and the posthumously released "Aren't You Kind of Glad We Did?" from the 1947 film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim. Listening to this labor of love 45 years later, I can honestly say I am proud of what we did.--EJ