This is one of the songs composer George Gershwin and his brother Ira wrote for the musical Girl Crazy, which opened at the Alvin Theatre, Broadway, on October 14, 1930. According to Gershwin biographer Deena Rosenberg in Fascinating Rhythm, the young Ethel Merman 'belted "I Got Rhythm" with an earthiness new to Broadway.'
In the same book, lyricist Ira is quoted on the song: "Filling in the seventy-three syllables of the refrain wasn't as simple as it sounds. For over two weeks I kept fooling around with various titles and with sets of double rhymes for the trios of short two-foot lines."
Numerous recordings, both vocal and instrumental, have been made by artists as varied as Ella Fitzgerald, the Oscar Peterson Trio, the Benny Goodman Sextet, and the Moscow Sax Quintet on their "Jazznost Tour".
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While Ira was struggling with the rhyming problem, George had a solution: skip the rhymes. Pianist/singer Michael Feinstein, who once worked as an archivist for Ira Gershwin, explained in an NPR Fresh Air interview: "George felt that the use of rhymes with that tune sounded too cloying, so then he started experimenting with words that did not rhyme, which was absolutely taboo ... and he finally decided to create a lyric that had no rhymes ... except for the bridge, which is how it stood." Feinstein wrote about his experiences with the legendary team of brothers in The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs (2012).
Feinstein on George Gershwin's meeting with Ethel Merman: "In the early days of Broadway, she had this voice that could be heard all the way through the theater, and she had become successful in vaudeville. And [producer] Vinton Freedley brought Ethel Merman to sing for George Gershwin. I think she was 18 at the time, and George heard this kid perform and he couldn't believe it. He played the songs that he had written for the character that Ethel was to portray in Girl Crazy and when she finished singing these songs he was so bowled over that he knew that he found the perfect person to introduce, among others, 'I Got Rhythm.'
On the opening night of Girl Crazy, Merman stopped the show and had to repeat 'I Got Rhythm' multiple times. And it was Roger Edens, who later who became very famous in Hollywood, who came up with the device of having Merman in the second chorus of 'I Got Rhythm' hold this note for an elongated number of bars."
Unlike his brother, Ira was not a fan of Merman's voice. Feinstein remembered: "He wasn't a fan of Ethel Merman, you know, and Ethel knew that and she told everybody that Ira was gay, which made him laugh. So there was some weird energy between the two of them. But yeah, he didn't like Merman holding that note and he found her voice rather off-putting, even though George loved it. And so one day as a joke I spliced together Merman holding that note and made it about six times as long as it is normally sung, and I said, Ira, I have this great record of Ethel Merman singing 'I Got Rhythm.' I want you to hear it. So she goes ohhhh. She holds the note forever and ever and ever and ever, and Ira is listening and his eyes were getting wider and wider and he's looking at me and finally starts laughing. He says I give up. I give up. OK. Stop. Turn it off. I surrender."
Merman performed this on a broadcast memorial for George Gershwin on July 12, 1937, the day after he died of a brain tumor at age 38. It's also the earliest complete recording of Merman's version.
During his swinging live performances, Bobby Darin would often add the line "anybody who wants anything more than that outta life is just plain evil."
Several film adaptations of Girl Crazy have been made. Kitty Kelly sang the song in the 1932 version. The 1943 version has Judy Garland performing the number with Mickey Rooney and the group Six Hits and a Miss, backed by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra. Connie Francis and Harve Presnell sang it in 1965's re-titled When the Boys Meet the Girls.
Merman included a disco version on her 1979 Ethel Merman Disco Album.
Brian Wilson covered this on his 2010 album Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin.
In a later recording, Merman introduced the song by remembering the first time she performed it onstage: "Once upon a time, back in 1930, I stepped out on stage at the Alvin Theater in New York, got hit in the kisser with a big spotlight, and found myself in big-time show business. It was in a thing called Girl Crazy, which boasted Ginger Rogers, Willie Howard, and the DeMarcos, and a great score by George Gershwin. One of the songs I did that memorable night was 'I Got Rhythm.' And as I riveted the second chorus I held on to a high C like it was from Tiffany's, and the last one in the world. Anyway, it was a show-stopper. It sort of launched me on my way, so I guess you can't blow the whistle on me for saying it's one of my special favorites. It goes like this. And brother, how it goes!"
In Mr. Holland's Opus (1995), starring Richard Dreyfuss, the students audition with this song for the school's Gershwin revue.
The pop cover band The Happenings had a #3 hit with their version in 1967.
In a 1933 radio interview with Rudy Valle, George Gershwin called this his favorite out of his own show tunes.