'S WONDERFUL - SONGS OF GEORGE GERSHWIN (1929-1949)
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Songs of GEORGE GERSHWIN
Original 1920-1949 Recordings
'I like a Gershwin tune,how about you?' asks thefamous Arthur Freed-Burton Lane song and mostlisteners would agree emphatically.
There's something about the music of GeorgeGershwin (especially when coupled with theidiosyncratic lyrics of his brother Ira) that makes itstill sound as fresh today as it did when firstwritten. This eclectic collection of twentynumbers takes us through his all-too-brief careerand gives us an ample sampling of his genius.
I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise waswritten with Buddy DeSylva. Although created asthe Act I Finale of George White's Scandals of1922, you probably won't be able to listen to itwithout remembering that scene from AnAmerican In Paris where Georges Guetary sangit climbing a giant staircase, which illuminatedstep by step as he ascended.
Irving Caesar claims that he and Gershwinwrote Swanee in less than an hour one eveningafter dinner. Caesar was prone to exaggeration,but one thing is clear: once Al Jolson got throughsinging it in a 1918 show called Sinbad,Gershwinfound himself with his first hit at the age of 21. TheGreat Jolson sings it here in a 1920 studio recording.
We're now so used to well-integratedmusicals, that we often forget that during the1920s, producers would sign up a cast first, thenbuild a show around them. 1924's Lady Be Goodwas one of those cases. The Gershwins had to plytheir craft not only for Fred and Adele Astaire, butfor the then-popular novelty performer CliffEdward, better known as 'Ukulele Ike'. Here'swhat he sounded like on Fascinating Rhythm.
Gertrude Lawrence was one of the majorsuperstars of her time, but it's hard to see howfrom listening to her frail voice, which often wentquaveringly off-key. All critics said you had toimagine her charm. So do that, and picture herclutching a tattered Pierrot doll as she sat alone ina spotlight and broke everyone's heart singingSomeone to Watch Over Me from a trifle calledOh, Kay!One of the most interesting things about thenext selection 'S Wonderful is the lady singing it.
Vaughn De Leath was known as 'the First Lady ofRadio' in the 1920s, appearing all over the dial.
But after 1931, personal troubles drove her out ofperforming and she died in alcoholic obscurity.
Listen to her here at the height of her fame in 1928.
For a hit song, The Man I Love has a highlyunsuccessful history. It was originally cut fromLady Be Good in 1924, then sung in the flop outof town tryout of Strike Up The Band in 1927, cutagain from Rosalie in 1928 and finally rejectedfrom the revised version of Strike Up The Band in1929 - because it had become too popular fromindependent recordings. You never can tell.
The number Liza,written for the 1929musical Show Girl is best remembered as an AlJolson number, although he wasn't officially in theshow. His wife,Ruby Keeler,was appearing in theproduction and very nervous about it. Jolson tookto standing up in the audience and singing alongwith the song, supposedly to give Keeler courage.
How she felt about it,we'll never know, but youcan hear what Jolson sounded like performing it.
The only thing that stayed the same aboutStrike Up The Band was its title. Originallyconceived as a dark 1927 anti-war satire, itflopped on the road, only to re-emerge two yearslater as a comic romp. George reportedly wrotesix versions of the title song and Ira dutifully fittedbrand new lyrics to every one. If there's a littledesperation in the line 'Hey leader, strike up theband!', it's understandable.
Ethel Zimmerman was an unknown stenographerfrom Astoria, Queens, when she stopped a1930 show called Girl Crazy cold by holding onenote seemingly forever in I Got Rhythm. Shedropped the 'Zim' and became a great star as EthelMerman, recording the song later in 1947 whenshe was at the height of her powers.
Embraceable You was supposedly thefavourite song of the Gershwins' father, the RussianbornMorris Gershovitz. The reason? One line:'Come to poppa, come to poppa, do.' Maybethat's why Judy Garland doesn't change thegender of the lyric in this 1939 recording, eventhough she could be forgiven for wanting to be a'momma'instead.
'Cowboy songs'were what they calledCountry and Western numbers in the 1930s andthey were highly popular even back then. Itseems that most major Broadway composers hadtheir turn at writing a piece in this genre. ColePorter struck it big with \Don't Fence Me In"inHollywood Canteen, but the Gershwins had gotthere first, years before, with Bidin' My Time.
Lyda Roberti was one of those highlydistinctive personalities who flourished in the worldof 1930s showbusiness. Polish-born, Shanghairaised,she came to America in the 1920s, but neverlost her middle-European accent. Until her untimelydeath in 1938 at the age of only 32, she was apopular comedienne. This recording is from a 1933radio performance on Rudy Vallee's programme.
The song is a novelty number from Pardon MyEnglish called My Cousin In Milwaukee.
Let 'Em Eat Cake was a prime illustration ofthe truism:'Sequels are Never Equals'. The entireproduction team from the wildly triumphant OfThee I Sing reunited two years later to create asequel, which flopped appallingly. All that's comedown to us through the years is one catchycontrapuntal tune,Mine, performed here by BingCrosby and Judy Garland.
Ira Gershwin frequently wrote 'dummy lyrics'to set the exact cadence of George's tricky rhythmsin his head. For this next number from Porgy andBess, he used two phrases: 'An order of bacon andeggs' and 'Don't ever sell telephone short'. Wewill continue to remember it best by the title hefinally settled on: It Ain't Necessarily So.
So many people have recorded Summertimein so many styles, that we often forget it waswritten as a lullaby, which Clara sings to her babyat the start of Porgy and Bess. The necessarygentleness is provided here by Mable Mercer in a1941 recording which displays a lighter, clearertone than her more famous work from the '50sand '60s.
One of the charms of the Gershwin songs ishow they transformed the seemingly ordinaryinto art.Nice Work If You Can Get It (writtenfor the 1937 Fred Astaire film A Damsel inDistress) turns a conversational commonplaceand a simple melody line into something special,through sheer compositional alchemy. BillieHolliday captures the tone perfectly in thisversion with Teddy Wilson's orchestra.
When George Gershwin died unexpectedlyof a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38, he wasworking on a film called The Goldwyn Follies.
Love Walked In was one of the two numbers hesucceeded in completing, although his closefriend,Vernon Duke, helped tie up some musicalloose ends. Popular musical star of the period,Kenny Baker, introduced the number in the film.
Fred Astaire performed to the songs of theGershwins in numerous Broadway shows andfeature films. There's something about his stylethat matches well with theirs: a casual elegance,an understated craft, a pervasive charm. It's onperfect display in They Can't Take That AwayFrom Me, in a 1949 recording with LennieHayton and the MGM Studio Orchestra.
Some historians claim that the clarinet glissandowhich introduces Rhapsody In Blue isone of the most significant sounds in modernmusic: the moment when jazz crossed the lineinto art and popular composition was acceptedas something other than Tin Pan Alley songwriting.
The piece was first heard in Aeolian Hall,New York, on 12 February 1924 in a concertorganized by Paul Whiteman. It's performed hereby Jack Hylton and his orchestra in a 1933 Britishrecording.Richard Ouzounian