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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ira Gershwin, a writer of immortal songs and “an unshowy show-business professional”

Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), author of indelible songs that continue to permeate the airwaves, died twenty-seven years ago today. He began writing songs with his younger brother George (1898–1937) in 1917, but it was with Lady Be Good in 1924 that they scored their first Broadway hit. The show starred Fred and Adele Astaire and included the songs “Oh, Lady Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm,” still standards today. Over the next thirteen years the Gershwin brothers would write thousands of songs, including hits for more than a dozen musicals and four films. In 1932, Of Thee I Sing, the show they wrote with George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, became the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize.

WICN.org’s extensive post on the history of the Gershwin song, “Embraceable You,” captures how the brothers worked together:
The perennial question in songwriting of which came first, the words or the music, is easily answered in the case of the Gershwins. George’s music came first, followed by brother Ira’s lyrics. George explained, “I hit on a new tune and play it for Ira and he hums it all over the place for awhile till he gets an idea for a lyric. Then we work the thing out together.” Ira confirmed that the music was first, saying, “Since most of the lyrics … were arrived at by fitting words mosaically to music already composed, any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable.”
Ira could spend hours finding the one right word. As he described it to Robert Kimball, editor of Ira Gershwin: Selected Lyrics, he tried to “capture the way people spoke to each other—their slang, their clichés, their catchphrases.” Clichés were his gold mine. “The literary cliché is an integral part of lyric writing. The phrase that is trite and worn-out when appearing in print usually becomes, when heard fitted to an appropriate musical turn, revitalized, and seems somehow to revert to its original provocativeness.”

The brothers differed both in working styles and in temperament. As Brad Leithauser characterizes this difference in his New York Review of Books essay assessing several books about Ira:
Most of the writing about the Gershwins has, understandably, highlighted George, who brought genius to a partnership to which Ira contributed talent. In addition, George—the taller, handsomer, and more sociable of the two, the “ladies’ man” who had affairs with a French countess and Paulette Goddard—had a near-monopoly on glamour; no cocktail party was ever heated up by spicy speculations about what the bespectacled, square-headed, and very married Ira might be up to. Almost proudly self-effacing, Ira was somebody who took satisfaction in being an unshowy show-business professional. It’s an irony he would have appreciated: that so unromantic-looking a man did so much to mint the language of romance in his time.
While they were working on the movie The Goldwyn Follies, George collapsed into a coma from an undiagnosed brain tumor and died two days later. It would be three years before Ira wrote again. He would go on to create popular songs with Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen, including the Oscar-nominated “Long Ago and Far Away” (with Kern) and “The Man That Got Away” (with Arlen).

Leithauser notes that the last song George and Ira wrote together was “Love Is Here to Stay.”
As parting shots go, it’s pretty much unbeatable, both for the sweetness of its melody and the agile tenderness of its lyrics. The sentiments may be familiar:

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble
(They’re only made of clay),
But—our love is here to stay.

Yet if this looks like the usual outsize boasting of the Tin Pan Alley suitor, one need only substitute “music” for “love” in the last line in order to change hyperbole to understatement. The music of the brothers does more than endure. It ramifies.
More information about the Gershwins and many excellent recordings of their songs can be found at their official site.

Related LOA works: Ira Gershwin: Selected Lyrics; George S. Kaufman & Co.: Broadway Comedies


  1. Correction to the first paragraph: Fred Astaire's sister/dancing partner was named Adele, not Ethel.


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