George Gershwin: Half a Genius

BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN

 

George Gershwin: Half a Genius

 

The title “An American Rhapsody: The Gershwin Songbook” is missing a letter. It should actually be “Gershwins.” Without brother Ira, George would be remembered as…what? Perhaps a composer of a few significant orchestral works, the best-known (“Rhapsody in Blue”) orchestrated by Ferde Grofé.

 

Ira wrote lyrics for almost all of George’s famous songs, the most notable exception being “Swanee.” He wrote half a dozen immortal numbers for “Porgy and Bess” and worked on the libretto with DuBose Heyward, the South Carolinian who did the original novel and play. George even discovered the piano because their parents bought an upright for Ira, who soon turned it over to his gifted brother.

 

Both were born in the Yiddish Theater District of New York, Ira in 1891 and George in 1898. The younger brother started earlier as a songwriter, while Ira was a cashier in a Turkish bath run by their father. When Ira got into show business, he used the name “Arthur Francis” (taken from their other two siblings) to avoid capitalizing on his brother’s fame.

 

They teamed in 1924 for “Lady, Be Good.” The magic worked at once: That show yielded the hits “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and the title tune and made stars of the brother-and-sister act of Fred and Adele Astaire. Until George’s death in 1937, neither brother worked consistently again with anyone else.

 

What made them the dominant team of the ‘20s and early ‘30s, the first contributors to what we call The Great American Songbook?

 

On one hand, sophistication. They were fresh in both senses: brash and innovative. Before Cole Porter mastered double entendres, they paved the way. George’s melodies took unexpected turns; Ira rhymed within lines or broke words in half to make lines rhyme at the end.

 

On the other hand, sentiment. They weren’t afraid to write straightforward songs of melancholy (“But Not for Me”), yearning (“The Man I Love”), nostalgia (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”) or joy (“He Loves and She Loves”). Like Porter and Lorenz Hart, Ira Gershwin felt comfortable with both complicated and uncomplicated emotions.

 

“He was meticulous in his search for rhymes that would be true,” says Michael Andrew, lead vocalist for The Gershwin Big Band. “His puns are clever, but they also tell a story.”

 

Ira waited three years after George’s death to write again, then had a 14-year Renaissance. He collaborated with Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen on Oscar-nominated songs (“Long Ago and Far Away,” “The Man That Got Away”) and wrote clever parodies of psychoanalysis to Kurt Weill’s music for “Lady in the Dark.” But by his late 50s, he settled into retirement. Perhaps he felt that he, too, was half a genius without his brother.

 

The Gershwin Big Band

 

Charlotte Concerts presents “An American Rhapsody: The Gershwin Songbook” on Thursday, Feb. 17. The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. in McGlohon Theater at Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. To learn more about the show, go here.

 

To purchase tickets, go here.

 

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