This song comes from the Gershwin brothers' 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin's bible-doubting lyrics are sung by the sleazy dope-dealing character Sportin' Life.
The role of Sportin' Life was first performed by John W. Bubbles in the inaugural 124 date run of Porgy and Bess at New York's Alvin Theater in 1935. Bubbles was a dancer and couldn't read music. He had to be taught the aria through his feet, dancing the accents of the song structure.
George Gershwin's life work culminated in the three act opera Porgy and Bess, which was based on the 1926 novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. A jazzy fusion of classical opera and Broadway musical, the work is set in the fictional all-black slum dwelling of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. The opera tells of the disabled beggar Porgy's desperate attempts to rescue the beautiful Bess from her twin dependency upon her violent and possessive lover Crown and the aforementioned Sportin' Life.
The song has been covered a number of times including notably by UK band Bronski Beat, who reached #16 on the UK singles charts. Their version was recorded with a 20-piece gay choir, The Pink Singers. Other versions include ones by:
The Moody Blues for their 1965 album, The Magnificent Moodies. Their version is notable for the fact that it was their first recording with band member Ray Thomas singing the lead vocals.
Aretha Franklin and Bobby Darin on the latter's 1959 album That's All. Aretha also recorded the tune for her Aretha (with the Ray Bryant Combo) record.
Sarah Vaughan sung this on her 1982 album Gershwin Live!, for which she won Best Jazz Vocal Performance, Female at the 1983 Grammy Awards.
George Gershwin originally wanted the Metropolitan Opera to perform Porgy and Bess, until they stipulated they would only use white opera singers in blackface. Michael Feinstein, a pianist and singer who worked as an archivist for Ira Gershwin in the '80s, explained in an NPR Fresh Air interview: "There was no way [George] was going to allow Porgy and Bess performed by whites in blackface, because he felt it was demeaning to the race, demeaning to the subject of the opera, and he felt that it would become a caricature, even though he loved the voice of Lawrence Tibbett.
And Lawrence Tibbett actually made the first commercial recordings of Porgy and Bess, supervised by George. And there was even talk later on, after George's death, of Tibbett doing it in blackface. But the family - Ira actually put a stop to that.
The point is that George had a very special feeling for Porgy and Bess, and he felt that it was his great masterwork. And he wanted to depict these characters in a way that was taken very seriously at a time when many people didn't want to know or see a work that consisted entirely of an all African-American cast."
Porgy and Bess seemed destined to fail as George faced opposition from all sides. Feinstein continued:
"It's a very volatile period in our history, because it's 1935. It's the Depression. And when George undertook the writing of Porgy and Bess, everybody was against him. He was considered by some to be a Tin Pan Alley guy, and how could he have the nerve to try and write an opera? The classical world said, oh, this is absurd. Who does he think he is?
The Jewish community was agog. Of course, the black community said our own people should be writing about our race. Who is this guy to do it? I mean, everybody was against him. Except he had this vision and he had to fulfill it. And he absolutely believed in what he knew was inside of him. And that's what's so extraordinary.
And even after it opened and it was financially a failure, he still maintained that it would one day be regarded as his greatest work. And, of course, he was right."