First published in 1926, American author and dramatist Edna Ferber's novel Show Boat chronicled the lives of a family of performers from the 1880s to the 1920s. They traveled on the Cotton Blossom, a floating theater that provided entertainment for the small isolated towns on the banks of the Mississippi.
The legendary composer Jerome Kern was impressed by the novel and wished to present a musical theatre version that followed the lives of the performers, stagehands and dock workers on a Mississippi show boat. He persuaded the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to adapt the book for the stage and straight away the pair felt the need for a song to pull all the diverse threads of the story together. They came up with "Ol' Man River," which is sung by a black dock worker on the showboat who contrasts the endless, rolling of the Mississippi River to the hardships of African Americans.
At first, Ferber had been shocked that anyone would want to adapt Show Boat as a musical. However, she relates in her autobiography that when Kern first played this song for her, "The music mounted, mounted, mounted, and I give you my word my hair stood on end, the tears came to my eyes, and I breathed like a heroine in a melodrama. This was great music. It was music that would outlast Kern's day and mine."
Until Show Boat, musicals had as a general rule been two-act shows with an emphasis on song and dance. Plots were kept simple: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. The young lovers always had at least one duet, and there was always a comic character to lighten the plot. By combining multiple forms of ballet, humor, music and theater with a dramatic storyline for Show Boat, Kern and Hammerstein invented the modern musical.
Show Boat opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway on December 27, 1927. The quality of the musical was recognized immediately by the critics and audiences flocked to view it. The show run for a year and a half, and has been frequently revived ever since.
"Ol' Man River" was first performed live by Jules Bledsoe in the original stage production of Show Boat on December 27, 1927. The first hit recording was a surprisingly jazzy, uptempo arrangement by The Paul Whiteman Orchestra with a young Bing Crosby as the featured vocalist. It gave the new crooner his first #1 record.
African-American actor/singer Paul Robeson had created a sensation on the stage in 1925 with his performance in Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones. Kern and Hammerstein wrote "Ol' Man River" with Robeson in mind but he was committed to other projects and unable to participate in the Broadway production of Show Boat.
However on March 1, 1928, Robeson recorded the song backed by band leader Paul Whiteman's orchestra and a 15-member chorus. Sung in his distinctive baritone, many consider it to be the definitive version of the song. Others consider the most famous rendition to be Robeson's version in James Whale's classic 1936 film version of Show Boat.
Many musicians and musical groups have covered the song since the 1920s, and it is today a pop standard. The numerous versions include ones by Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Sam Cooke, Sammy Davis, Jr., Al Jolson, Cilla Black, Django Reinhardt, Ray Charles, The Beach Boys and Aretha Franklin.