With music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother, Ira, this song was originally published as "The Girl I Love" in 1924. The first recordings of the song were in 1928.
"The Man I Love" was a song without an audience. It was not that George Gershwin's music or his brother Ira's lyrics were not good enough. They were – and still are – but the song simply did not fit in any of the musicals of the era. It was originally intended to be part of the Gershwins' 1924 musical, Lady, Be Good, with the title, "The Girl I Love." When Adele Astaire, who helped make her younger brother, Fred, more famous than she would ever be, sang the song at the musical's off-Broadway opening in Philadelphia, it was given a nice round of applause. Ira recalled that she sang it "charmingly." Anyone who has ever heard Billie Holiday's version would hardly call it a charming song, and therein lay the problem. This song of simple yearning did not belong in a musical, or at least not a musical of the 1920s.
The Gershwins tried to fit the song in somewhere else after it was dropped from Lady, Be Good. With the new title, "The Man I Love," it appeared in satirical anti-war show, Strike Up the Band, in 1927 and then again in Flo Ziegfeld's Rosalie in 1928, but he deleted the number from the show in rehearsal. There was one person who did like the song, though. Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the great-grandson of Queen Victoria and member of England's high society heard the song when George played it a party. It was not the least bit unusual for George to commandeer a piano at party during the Roaring Twenties and play his catalog of songs. He was not shy about his work or his talent. Lady Mountbatten took a copy of the music back to England and requested that her favorite dance orchestras play it. "The Man I Love" caught fire in London and Paris.
Gershwin's publisher, Max Dreyfus, could hardly let this opportunity to pass by, but he first negotiated a deal with Ira and George. He would push the song as a stand-alone single, but they needed to help offset the costs by cutting their royalties from three cents to two cents per copy. Six months later, "The Man I Love" sold 100,000 copies. The epitome of the torch singers, Helen Morgan, who typically performed while draped over the top of piano, gave the song its first true voice when she gave her interpretation of it. After not being able to find a home, "The Man I Love" was recorded by five different artists in 1928. The most interesting rendition of that year might just belong to Nat Shilkret, recording for Victor Records as The Troubadours, who turned the torch song into a fox trot.
In this song, the singer is waiting for her Prince Charming to come along and make her dreams come true. Depending on your perspective, it's either a delightful throwback to a simpler time, or an outdated stereotype of a helpless woman waiting for a man to save her. This latter view was common at the time the song was written (women were given the right to vote in America just four years earlier), although in its original form, it was transposed, with the guy waiting for the girl to come along.
The women who performed the song in the '50s and '60s likely weren't thinking of it as a setback to the feminist movement, but in later generations, some felt the song should be mothballed along with the happy housewife archetype. For young jazz singers, it can be particularly troublesome because the audiences are often older and less progressive. "The whole song is about how someday a man will come along and he'll be big and strong, and until I find this man, I'm just going to sit around and feel sorry for myself," the singer Kate Davis explained
. "It's a beautiful song melodically and harmonically. It's gorgeous, and it's a piece of history. But looking at it now as a progressive, empowered woman, it's like, You've got to be kidding me