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George Gershwin

It Begins With A Love Story

Morris Gershovitz, George Gershwin's father, moved from Russia to New York, U.S.A. in 1890.
As soon as he arrived he began searching for Rose Bruskin, the girl he loved. Rose was already somewhere in New York City.
First Morris had to find a tailor named Greenstein.
You see...Greenstein was Morris' uncle and he knew where Rose was. Morris not only found Rose, but he married her in 1895.

Morris, Rose and Uncle Greenstein had left their country to escape the pogroms (murdereous raids) that threatened them every day. Many other Russian Jews had also emigrated for the same reason.

Morris and Rose Gershovitz were poor, but they were happy. They had four children: Ira (1896), George (1898), Arthur (1900) and a daughter, Frances (1906). To seem more American, they changed their Russian last name from Gershovitz to Gershwin.

The Wild One

Their second son, George, was considered "...a pretty wild boy." Many people said, "Mrs.Gershwin has nice children, but that son of hers - ! She's going to have trouble with that son, George."

George wasn't a good student.
He had poor report cards and skipped classes.
He liked roller-skating, sports and exploring his neighbourhood much better than school!

Do you know anyone like that?

George often got angry if he didn't win games.
Sometimes he even took things that weren't his.
Ira was always there to get George out of trouble.

The whole Gershwin family loved music.
Ira was a talented lyricist. He worked on songs with George. (A lyricist is someone who writes the words to songs.) Frances was a good singer. She performed on stage sometimes. Arthur also loved writing songs, but he worked as a stockbroker. George was the one who became a famous American composer.

Music Begins

The Gershwins bought a piano when George was 12 years old. They bought it so Ira could take lessons. George had already discovered his own love of music through an eight-year-old friend, Max Rosenzweig. Max was a violin prodigy. (A prodigy is someone very young who is extraordinarily talented at something.)

George loved ragtime music. He taught himself to play popular songs on a friend's player piano. When his family's new piano arrived, George just sat down and played the songs he already knew. Soon, he began taking piano lessons. Besides the lessons, Gershwin went to concerts, but only if a piano soloist was performing.

Eventually George Gershwin found Charles Hambitzer, a wonderful piano teacher. George said Mr. Hambitzer was the first great musical influence in his life. Hambitzer taught him classical music, but still encouraged George's talent and interest in jazz.

Tin Pan Alley

When George was 14, his mother enrolled him in the High School of Commerce. He only stayed one year because he started entertaining at a Catskills resort. Gershwin had been paid $5 a week. He liked that kind of work. He decided to go job-hunting in Tin Pan Alley.

One small area of New York City housed all the music publishing companies. To advertise, they hired dozens of piano players to play their music constantly. Because of the jangling, tinny sounds, almost like continually rattling kitchen pans, the area was named Tin Pan Alley.

Jerome H. Remick and Co., a New York popular music publisher, hired George. For $15 a week, George Gershwin worked as a "song plugger" or "piano pounder". Ten hours a day, George sat at an old piano in a tiny cubicle playing songs by sight, in any key. He played for vocalists, theatre managers, bandleaders and vaudeville entertainers. It was the way they decided what sheet music they wanted to buy. The Remick company was trying to manufacture and sell songs as quickly as possible. It was a very competitive business.

This work experience proved invaluable to Gershwin both musically and socially. He met the famous dancer and actor Fred Astaire by playing music for him. They became and stayed good friends.

When George Gershwin was 18 years old, he published his first song and was paid $5 for it. He worked with Murray Roth on When You Want'Em, You Can't Get Em (When You've Got'Em, You Don't Want'Em).

What a long song title!
'Em" in the title is short for "them", meaning girls.

To make a little more money, George recorded piano rolls for player pianos. Within nine years, he recorded about 130 rolls. To make customers believe they were getting different pianists, Gershwin sometimes used false names.

George became unhappy with his job because Remick's wouldn't let him play any of his own music. Remick's was so slow that it was 1917 before they published a Gershwin song. It was called Rialto Ripples.

By 1919, George Gershwin was very popular. He and a friend, Irving Caesar, wrote Swanee over dinner and a bus ride home. Gershwin played it at Al Jolson's party. Jolson liked it and included it in his own show. Swanee became Gershwin's most popular song. Somebody Loves Me and I'll Build A Stairway to Paradise were the next two songs he wrote.

George made up for his lack of formal education by becoming a good listener. He especially liked parties where guests would discuss politics, literature and the arts.

Gershwin was in high demand at any social gathering.
He would play the piano, improvising his own music, so none of his performances were alike. Painting was his hobby. He was a musician and a gifted artist with a large valuable art collection.

Ira Gershwin was often invited to the same parties. He would sit quietly, beaming with pride at his little brother's success.

The ladies loved George Gershwin and he loved the ladies. He was tall, dark, muscular, talented, intelligent and handsome. Although there were many women in his life, he never married. Gershwin wrote a little waltz-song that had a blank space in the song lyrics. The blank space allowed him to change the name in the song when he changed girlfriends. Hmm...

Gershwin's Music

A 25-year-old Gershwin made his first public appearance as both a composer and a pianist. He accompanied the Canadian-born singer Eva Gauthier. The program included several of his own compositions. It was called "the beginning of sophisticated jazz".

In 1924, Rhapsody in Blue had its first public performance. The audience was hot and they found the program long and boring. People had started leaving before Gershwin's number was even played. When Rhapsody was finally played everyone got excited! The applause lasted so long that George had to go back for five curtain calls.

George recorded Rhapsody in Blue that summer. That recording is now available on compact disc. Rhapsody was used in the film Manhattan. In 1984 Rhapsody was played at the opening of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 84 pianists performed the solo part on 84 white pianos. It has become part of the fabric of American music.

George and Ira Gershwin had another success with their musical comedy, Lady Be Good. It opened on Broadway in 1924. Up until then, Ira had used the name Arthur Francis on all his work. It was his pseudonym. He discovered that there was an English lyricist by that name, so he decided to reveal himself publicly as George's lyricist.

In 1925, George Gershwin was so famous that he became the first American-born musician to appear on Time magazine's cover.

George liked to compose six tunes a day, just to "get them out of his system". His musical Of Thee I Sing, became the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1931. There was no category for music in that Awards Ceremony, so the prize was awarded to Ira and two other lyricists, not to George. Ira felt his brother had been cheated and was angry about it for years.

The French composer Maurice Ravel was also an admirer of George Gershwin's music. When George asked Ravel to give him some music lessons,
Ravel said George didn't need lessons. He felt that Gershwin's own composing genius and unique style should continue developing in its own way.

This is what George Gershwin said about himself and his music: "Music must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today."

George Gershwin continued travelling and composing.
He composed music in California for the movie, Delicious. On a Cuban holiday, George became fascinated by Latin-American musical instruments. He used them in his Cuban Overture.

Gershwin had become a wealthy man. He had a 14-room duplex, with a gymnasium, an artist's studio and space for his own paintings and art collection. He had lived the "American Dream".

Gershwin wrote one of the most successful American musicals ever, Porgy and Bess. It has also been made into a film.
He made sure that Porgy and Bess could only be performed by an all-black cast.

The Finale

At only 39 years old, Gershwin had serious health problems.
He had horrible headaches that made him collapse in pain.
In July of 1937, George collapsed in a washroom and was rushed to the hospital. For five hours, doctors tried to remove a deeply embedded brain tumour. He never regained consciousness. He died July 11, 1937. George Gershwin's funeral was held at Temple Eman-El in New York City. 3,500 people attended.