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composer of Broadway and movie scores
Jacob Gershowitz was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 26, 1898, the son of Russian immigrant parents. It is believed that his father changed the family's last name to Gershwin within a year or two of George's birth. It was his brother Ira who was supposed to study the piano when his parents bought one for the family, but it was George who took interest in it and immediately began to successfully play by ear. He began studying piano seriously at the age of 12, began writing popular songs at the age of 15, and studied composition and orchestration his entire life.
George began his music career working as a "song plugger" for the Jerome Remick Company, one of several companies in New York City's infamous Tin Pan Alley. His first published song, "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em," was not a major hit, but it did attract the attention of a few Broadway composers. In 1919 he wrote the song "Swanee," which became a major hit when it was sung by Al Jolson in the Broadway musical Sinbad. That same year he composed the music for La, La Lucille, and from 1920 to 1924 he supplied George White with several songs for use in the popular George White Scandals series.
In 1924, bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write a symphonic jazz piece to be played at Aeolian Hall. Gershwin had all but forgotten about writing the piece until, about three weeks before the composition was to premier, he saw an advertisement announcing the premier of a new composition by George Gershwin. In less than three weeks, Gershwin would compose the work which has become one of his best known and most popular -- Rhapsody in Blue.
The first full-scale collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin as composer/lyricist began in 1924 with the musical Lady Be Good!, which featured songs such as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Oh, Lady, be Good," among others. Other musicals created by George and Ira include Tip-Toes (1925), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), Strike Up the Band (1930) and Of Thee I Sing (1931). Memorable songs from these musicals include "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," "Love Walked In," "Soon," and "'S Wonderful."
In addition to Rhapsody in Blue and his numerous Broadway works, George Gershwin also composed several pieces for piano and orchestra, including Concerto in F (1925), and piano solos, including Preludes for Piano (1926). An American in Paris (1928) is a tone poem which transports the listener to the streets of Paris during the 1920's.
Gershwin's talents also extended to the silver screen. With brother Ira, he composed numerous scores and songs for musical films, including short pieces for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as well as the music for The King of Jazz. In addition, many of the Gershwins' Broadway musicals were adapted to the cinema.
Gershwin's last major work was Porgy & Bess, which opened in 1935. The opera, which deals with the poverty of the ghettos and was one of the first efforts to reflect a minority culture in American life, closed shortly after opening because of poor ticket sales. It has since, however, become the most successful opera ever written by an American composer.
George Gershwin died in Hollywood on July 11, 1937.
Library >> Music >> Biography: Composers and Songwriters
This page was last updated on 09/26/2017.