Top 10 George Gershwin Songs

George Gershwin Songs

Feature Photo: Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Originally born Jacob Gershwine on September 26, 1898, George Gershwin was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. His parents migrated from Russia as a result of growing tensions in the nation, especially against the Jewish population. He grew up in a community that was mostly made up of Russian and Yiddish immigrants who fled to America and chose New York as their home. While growing up, Jacob was called George and his surname was changed to Gershwin when he first began to make a name for himself as a professional musician. The rest of his family did the same, including his parents. George was the second born out of four children that moved around often but still remained in Brooklyn. George, along with his older brother, Ira, often visited the local Yiddish theaters. George soon began to appear at the theaters as a stage extra.

Musical Discovery

George grew up as a typical young boy who had a collection of his own friends. He enjoyed rollerskating and playing on the streets. At the time, he couldn’t care less about music. That changed in 1908, at ten years old, when he first heard his friend’s violin recital. He was inspired. As fate had it, George’s parents purchased a piano that was meant for his older brother. George was more interested in learning the instrument than his sibling and spent the most amount of time on it. However, Ira did grow up to become a composer of songs himself, as did George and their younger brother, Arthur. Their sister, Frances, was actually the first who made a living in music but after becoming a wife and mother, she shifted to focus on raising her family instead. This left only the three brothers to pursue music as a career choice.

At the age of fifteen years old, George Gershwin dropped out of school. The year was 1913 and he chose to leave school in favor of working as a song plugger in New York City’s Tin Pan Alley. In 1916, he earned fifty cents after publishing his first song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em. When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em.” That same year, he began to work for the Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York. He was responsible for producing several rolls of music under his own name and by pseudonyms that included the aliases of Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn. In 1917, his novelty ragtime tune, “Rialto Ripples,” became a commercial success. This led to his first big national hit in 1919 with “Swanee.” The words were written out by Irving Caesar. Broadway star Al Jolson heard the song while at a party and chose to sing it in one of his shows.

All That Jazz

“Rhapsody in Blue,” was George Gershwin’s first major work, which he completed in 1924 for orchestra and piano. This became his most popular work as a composer that established his signature style as a genius capable of blending classical and jazz music in what was deemed revolutionary. The first half of the 1920s had Gershwin frequently working with lyricist Buddy DeSylva. The two created Blue Monday, a Harlem-based one-act jazz opera that served as a forerunner to the infamous Porgy and Bess that was introduced in 1935. The two also collaborated on the musical stage comedy, Lady Be Good. This is where the future music standards of “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Oh, Lady Be Good!” came from.

The successful music career of Gershwin continued in 1926 with Oh, Kay!, then Funny Face, and Strike Up the Band in 1927. It was the latter of the two that had its title modified to be used for the football song, “Strike Up the Band for UCLA,” after Gershwin approved it.

Broadway, Not Paris

When George Gershwin moved to Paris in the mid-1920s, he hoped to study with classical pianist, Nadia Boulanger. However, she refused as she feared he’d lose his jazz-influenced playing style via classical music study. Maurice Ravel did the same thing, insisting Gershwin’s niche in jazz was where he belonged, not classical. After composing An American in Paris, Gershwin moved back to New York City. Despite receiving mixed reviews after its debut on December 13, 1928, at Carnegie Hall, it quickly became a standard American and European repertoire.

Ira and George followed up An American in Paris with the 1929 production of Show Girl. In 1930 it was Girl Crazy. “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm” came from these Broadway musicals. After Of Thee I Sing came out in 1931, it earned a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, despite the musical being designed as a comedy. George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, and Ira Gershwin were named the winners.

In 1934, George Gershwin spent his summer on Folly Island in South Carolina. This is where he met with novelist DuBose Heyward, the same man behind who wrote Porgy. Inspired, Gershwin wrote the music for the opera, Porgy and Bess. When this was released as a production, critics had a difficult time deciding if it was merely another opera or an ambitious Broadway musical. There were many musical barriers that were crossed, which was recognized as a George Gershwin trademark. Although it was deemed a commercial failure at the time, Porgy and Bess were one of the most important American operas of the twentieth century that also played a key role in shaping American pop culture. Today, it’s considered a cult classic.

Going Hollywood

When Porgy and Bess failed to meet commercial expectations, George Gershwin moved to Hollywood, California. In 1936, RKO Pictures commissioned Gershwin to write music for the movie, Shall We Dance. The mix of ballet with jazz was a musical masterpiece that cemented him even further as a composition genius. While there, he was involved with another music composer, Kay Swift. They were together for ten years that shared both a personal and professional relationship together. Swift eventually divorced her husband, James Warburg. Despite how close Gershwin and Swift were, they never married. It was believed Gershwin’s mother disapproved because Swift wasn’t Jewish.

In 1937, George Gershwin began to experience blinding headaches. He also commented he could smell burning rubber. On February 11, 1937, the piano performance of Gershwin was noticeably compromised due to coordination issues and blackouts. This was followed by mood swings and additional coordination issues from family and friends closest to him. On July 9, 1937, while working on the music score for The Goldwyn Follies, Gershwin collapsed and was rushed to a hospital in Los Angeles. He fell into a coma, the result of a brain tumor that served as the explanation behind Gershwin’s unusual behavior. Two days later, the physicians removed what was believed to be a glioblastoma brain tumor. However, at the age of thirty-eight years old, Gershwin died.

George Gershwin Legacy

After Gershwin’s death, Kay Swift worked with his brother, Ira, on several of George Gershwin’s recordings. Much of his musical influence featured a blend of American, French, and Russian compositions as the influence of Ravel made an impact on Gershwin’s material. Even though Gershwin didn’t officially study under Ravel, the two shared similar styles. In fact, it was Gershwin who influenced Ravel with some of his own work. In 2006, George Gershwin was inducted into the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. Then in 2007, the Library of Congress awarded the first Gershwin Prize to Paul Simon as a composer and performer whose lifetime contributions as a musician exemplified the standard of excellence associated with George Gershwin and his brother, Ira.

In 1979, Woody Allen’s film, Manhattan, produced a soundtrack that had its music composed entirely of George Gershwin’s compositions. “Love is Sweeping the Country” and “But Not for Me” were performed by the New York Philharmonic orchestra under Zubin Mehta, as well as the Buffalo Philharmonic orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. The film began with a monologue performed by Woody Allen as he assumed the role of a writer describing George Gershwin, as well as his love for his true home, New York City.

George and Ira Gerswhin are among the five songwriters who’ve earned the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1985, they joined the ranks of George M. Cohan, Harry Chapin, and Irving Berlin to receive this honor. The two were also honored by UCLA for their contribution and gift of the school’s infamous fight song, “Strike Up the Band for UCLA.” The George and Ira Gershwin Lifetime Musical Achievement Award serves as a reward for students who successfully compete before the faculty’s audience in order to win this prestigious award.

Top 10 George Gershwin Songs

#10 – Strike Up the Band for UCLA

Originally written as “Strike Up the Band,” “Strike Up the Band for UCLA” had the song and title altered after it was approved by its composer, George Gershwin, to do so. This was in 1927. Since then, it has become an iconic football fighting song that has a fan base that extends beyond campus. The song was originally designed as satire with military-style music. The musical, Strike Up the Band, was not commercially successful but it did inspire the instrumental version of this song, “March from Strike Up the Band.”

It became quite well known before the class of 1936 UCLA students sought to welcome a new rally tune. After George and Ira Gershwin were approached, a revision of the original brought about “Strike Up the Band for UCLA.” Since then, it has become one of the primary school songs and continues to have its arrangement played in today’s games.

This contribution by the Gershwins later resulted in the school naming an award in their honor. The George and Ira Gershwin Award features an annual Spring Sing competition that has so far witnessed a handful of world-class artists sing their way to the win. Some of these winners include Clive Davis, K.D. Lang, Lionel Richie, Frank Sinatra, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder, just to name a few.

#9 – Someone to Watch Over Me

“Someone to Watch Over Me” was a 1926 song George Gershwin composed before Ira Gershwin added lyrics to it, along with the help of Howard Dietz. It was written for the 1926 musical, Oh, Kay!, which was named after George’s girlfriend, Kay Swift. It was originally sung on Broadway by Gertrude Lawrence while holding a rag doll. The song became the musical’s centerpiece and became a hit for Lawrence.

“Someone to Watch Over Me” peaked at number two on the UK Singles Chart in 1927. Originally, the song was designed as a fast jazzy number before it was slowed down as a ballad in the 1930s and 1940s by recording artists who performed their own versions. This has since become the standard as a soft jazz, slow torch song. The first version of this was released in 1939 by Lee Wiley. Margaret Whiting did the same in 1944.

In 1946, Frank Sinatra recorded “Someone to Watch Over Me” for his debut album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra. He did so again for the 1954 film, Young At Heart. It was Sinatra’s version that inspired several recording artists to follow suit. There have been well over 1,800 recordings of “Someone to Watch Over Me” by a flurry of artists.

#9 – Love is Sweeping the Country

The Pulitzer Prize-winning 1931 musical was Of Thee I Sing, and its popular song “Love is Sweeping the Country.” It was composed by George Gershwin that later had lyrics added to it by Ira Gershwin. It premiered as a Broadway performance by George Murphy and June O’Dea. In 1979, an inspired Woody Allen had this song featured in his box office hit, Manhattan. The most notable recording of this song came from Ella Fitzgerald, which is featured on her 1959 album, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook.

#7 – Oh, Lady Be Good!

In 1924, “Oh, Lady Be Good!” was a song that was written by the songwriting team, George and Ira Gershwin. It was featured in the Broadway musical, Lady, Be Good! as a musical number performed by Walter Catlett. The musical itself was written by the brothers, as well as Guy Bolton, Fred Thompson, as well as the Astaires, Fred and Adele. Recordings of this song were made in 1925 by Paul Whiteman, Carl Fenton, and Cliff Edwards. For Ella Fitzgerald, this popular jazz standard was a 1947 hit for her.

#6 – They Can’t Take That Away from Me

“They Can’t Take That Away from Me” was a song George Gershwin and his brother, Ira, wrote for the 1937 film, Shall We Dance. Two months after the movie was released, George died from a brain tumor. Posthumously, he and his brother earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. The song was first performed by Fred Astaire and it became hugely successful. The popularity of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” was immense as a love song that was featured in several musicals, both in film and on stage. Several recording artists also performed their own versions of this iconic number that joined the ranks as an all-American cult classic.

#5 – Summertime

For the 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, “Summertime” was a song composed by George Gershwin. The lyrics are credited to DuBose Heyward, who was also the author of the inspiring novel, Porgy. This popular jazz standard was also credited to Ira Gershwin for his contribution. The brilliant mix of jazz and soul triggered what became an all-American favorite that would be recorded many times over by a long list of musical talent. Gershwin began to compose “Summertime” in 1933 before it would be finalized as a song that was sung several times throughout the opera production. On July 19, 1935, it was recorded for the first time by Abbie Mitchell, featuring George Gershwin playing the piano and conducting the orchestra. In 1959, the movie version of Porgy and Bess featured Loulie Jean Norman singing “Summertime.” It became one of AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema, as it placed at number fifty-two.

Adding to the legacy of “Summertime” was Billy Stewart’s 1966 R&B version that peaked as high as number ten on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1966, as well as number seven on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. It also became an international hit, peaking at number thirteen in Canada, and at number thirty-nine in the UK. In 1998 and 2005, “Summertime” earned two different R&B-related Grammy Award nominations. The first was the contribution made by Chaka Kahn for Joe Henderson’s 1997 album, Porgy & Bess. The second was for Fantasia Barrino’s version. Neither earned the win but it established “Summertime” for the all-American favorite as a cult classic that continues to stand the test of time.

#4 – I Got Rhythm

Published in 1930, George and Ira Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” quickly became a jazz standard, noted for its rhythmic changes. This has since served as the foundation behind many other popular jazz musical hits. It was featured in the Broadway musical, Girl Crazy. It was originally produced as a slow song for 1928’s Treasure Girl, but was altered and sped up for Girl Crazy. Ethel Merman was the singer behind the original song which has since become a symbolic trademark of the Gershwins.

The influence of swing music that was so popular in the 1920s can be found in “I Got Rhythm.” In 1951, it was featured in the musical film, An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly. In the clip featuring “I Got Rhythm,” the French-speaking children were taught to shout “I Got!” as Kelly performed the tune.

He sang to this song while tap-dancing in front of the camera. His version ranked at number thirty-two in AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema. However, the most popular version of “I Got Rhythm” came from The Happenings when they turned it into a number three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1967.

# 3 – Embraceable You

“Embraceable You” was a song George composed that was sung by Ginger Rogers as a number for the Broadway musical, Girl Crazy. Not only was it an immensely popular tune at the time but has since become a jazz standard that’s also influenced other genres of music as well. The song was originally written in 1928 for an unpublished operetta. In 1930, the song would be featured in the Broadway musical, Girl Crazy. it was performed by Ginger Rogers in a song and dance routine that was choreographed by Fred Astaire. The 1944 recording performed by Billie Holiday was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2005.

#2 – Fascinating Rhythm

George Gershwin wrote “Fascinating Rhythm,” along with the assistance of his brother, Ira Gershwin. This 1924 classic was first performed by Cliff Edwards, Fred Astaire, and Adele Astaire in the Broadway musical, Lady Be Good. Fred and Adele later recorded the song on April 19, 1926, while in London with George Gershwin playing the piano. Although many recorded versions have been produced since. “Fascinating Rhythm” fascinated Deep Purple enough to perform the legendary riff behind their 1974 song, “Burn.” As for the 1926 original featuring the Astaires, this one was recognized by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry of culturally, historically, or aesthetically important American sound recordings. The 1938 version performed by Sol Ho’opi’i is also in the same registry.

#1 – Rhapsody In Blue

We close out our top 10 George Gershwin songs list with easily the man’s greatest musical composition of his career. In a career that left us with so many wonderful musical pieces and songs that gave meaning to the word standard, George Gershwin’s epic masterpiece Rhapsody in Blue standouts out easily as Gershwin’s greatest composition. Perhaps and with great respect to the many legendary musical pieces that were released in the 20th century “Rhapsody In Blue,” may just well be the most important musical work of the 20th century. Released in 1924, Gershwin merged the genres of blues, jazz, and classical music into a piano and orchestra piece that was truly groundbreaking.

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