Of Many Things: From December 12, 1987
One shaft of sunlight that has illuminated a rather gloomy year for most Americans has been the year-long celebration in honor of George Gershwin. When Gershwin died suddenly at age 38 in 1937, the novelist John O'Hara wrote in his typically hard-boiled-sentimental style: "They tell me George Gershwin is dead, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to." Corny or not, O'Hara's sentiments seemed to have been shared by many this year, as the many television specials, new recordings and stagings of Gershwin's work attest. In fact, the 50th anniversary appears to be closing with a rush this December as one Gershwin gala crowds another throughout the country.
One stay-at-home I know well, who is also white-tie-and-tail-less, prefers sedentary celebrations instead. These would include listening to Ella Fitzgerald's five-record album, The George Gershwin Songbook, which the incomparable Ella did with arranger Nelson Riddle back in 1957, and also rereading Ira Gershwin's wonderfully witty memoir entitled Lyrics on Several Occasions, written in 1959. Ella's renditions demonstrate best the many marvels of the finished Gershwin product, while Ira, George's older brother and lyricist, reminds us of how much happy accidents, when allied with hard work, contribute to musical magic.
For example, the wistful ballad "Someone to Watch Over Me" was originally a fast and jazzy dance number. While they were working on the melody, George at the piano inadvertently slowed down the tempo as he spoke to his brother about the lyrics. As he did so, both had the same reaction: This was not a rhythm tune but a warm one, and should be reserved for some other emotion. Meanwhile, they were pressed to get the score of the show "Oh, Kay!" together, and Ira had taken sick. His friend from school, Howard Dietz (lyricist for "The Bandwagon" later), volunteered to help him. When Dietz heard the ex-jazz tune, he ad-libbed several titles, and one, "Someone to Watch Over Me," stuck in Ira's memory and he developed it.
By contrast, the popular torch song "I've Got a Crush on You" was originally composed by the Gershwins as a "hot" tune, danced in very quick 2/4 time. Years later, Ira—to his initial dismay—heard a recording of singer Lee Wiley's extremely slow and ballady version. It took three attentive hearings on Ira's part before he preferred the new interpretation—as evidently everyone else does, because the up-tempo version is no longer played.
The famous Fred Astaire song "A Foggy Day in LondonTown" was their quickest in composition. George returned about 1 a.m. from a dinner party, took off his jacket, sat at the piano and said, "Feel like working? Any ideas?" Ira said, "Well, I thought we'd do something with fog in it. How about a foggy day in London or a foggy day in London town?" George said, "I like it better with town," and he was off immediately on a melody. They finished the lyrics, the introduction and refrain in less than an hour.
"It Ain't Necessarily So," from "Porgy and Bess," was originally just a dummy title. Ira would write a dummy title for himself so that he could quickly recall the rhythm and accents of a melody. As he recalled, "I could just as well have written 'An order of bacon and eggs' or 'Don't ever sell telephone short'—anything—the sense didn't matter." As he worked on the song he could not come up with any ideas, so in desperation he began to explore the possibilities of the dummy title in the light of Sportin' Life's character in the show ....
The lyrics "Oh, sweet and lovely lady, be good./Oh, lady, be good to me!" were obviously untranslatable. That did not deter the Germans from rendering it as "Was will denn bloss der Otto von dir,/Was will er von dir bei Nacht!"—which means "What did Otto exactly want of you until a quarter of four this morning?"
Happy Todestag, Mr. Gershwin.