George Gershwin

September 26, 1898 - July 11, 1937

George Gershwin Artistfacts

  • Born Jacob Gershvin to an immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York, George Gershwin was the second of four children. As a teenager, he started his musical career as a writer on Tin Pan Alley for $15 a week, but it was not long before he began composing his own pieces. "When You Want 'Em, You Can't Get 'Em," was published when he was just 17 years old and earned him $5. Gershwin's career as a composer took off soon after that when he met lyricist Irving Caesar, who collaborated with Gershwin in 1919 on the hit, "Swanee," made famous by Al Jolson.
  • In 1924, Gershwin began to collaborate with his brother, Ira. That year, they wrote the musical comedy, Lady Be Good, featuring songs such as "The Man I Love" and "Fascinating Rhythm." However, even as Gershwin had success as a composer of popular music, he wanted to try his hand at more serious music and he agreed to perform in Paul Whiteman's Experiment in Modern Music concert in New York later that year. He wrote the jazz-influenced "Rhapsody in Blue" for the show, but composed it in such a hurry, he had to improvise his own piano playing during the live performance.
  • Gershwin followed up "Rhapsody in Blue" with "Piano Concerto in F, Rhapsody No. 2" and "An American in Paris," which was inspired by his time in France. He took on social issues with musicals such as, Strike up the Band, and Of Thee I Sing, which was a lampoon of American politics that became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932. Dubose Heyward's novel, Porgy, was the inspiration for the folk opera Porgy and Bess, which premiered in 1935 and shocked some with its African American cast. It was a modest success initially, but it eventually became an American standard. "Summertime" is the show's best-known song and, according to The New York Times, has been recorded over 25,000 times.
  • Gershwin and his brother moved to Hollywood to try their hand at the film industry. In 1936, the Gershwins collaborated on the music for Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, followed by Astaire's Damsel in Distress. Gershwin was working on the score for The Goldwyn Follies in 1937 when he collapsed. Complaining of severe headaches and smelling burning rubber, Gershwin was told by doctors that he was just working too hard. He had already been labeled a hypochondriac and two weeks before his death, doctors noted on his medical records that he likely suffered from "hysteria." However, on July 9, Gershwin collapsed again and doctors performed surgery to remove a brain tumor. He died two days later. Gershwin received his only Academy Award nomination two months later for Best Original Song for "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from Shall We Dance. Ira died in 1983 and the Gershwin brothers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in America, in 1985.

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