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George Gershwin was a composer, songwriter, and pianist who, along with his lyricist brother Ira, crafted some of the world’s most memorable songs.
Born Jacob Gershwin (09/26/1898 – 07/11, 1937) in Brooklyn,New York, his prodigious gift for music was evident early on.
His first serious teacher, Charles Hambitzer refused payment for lessons, saying that the boy was a genius destined for greatness.
His words proved true.
In his short life, George Gershwin wrote and orchestrated classical works, overtures, works for solo piano, and, songs for some of the most famous Broadway theater musicals ever created.
Here are ten of George Gershwin’s most beloved works. Enjoy!
From the 1935 broadway musical, Porgy and Bess.
Probably his most famous composition. It is from the musical Porgy and Bess, Summertime is one THE most recorded songs of all time. It was the first song written for the show and set as a lullaby sung from mother to daughter.
It has been released in just about every musical setting you can imagine, from swing to reggae, to funk, and choral versions.
Recommended artists to listen to: Miles Davis and George Benson.
From the 1935 show Porgy and Bess
Gershwin’s melodies are without parallel.
I Loves You Porgy is as one might glean from the title, Bess’s declaration of love for her man.
The A sections consist of four phrases, each one broken down into two parts; sort of question and answer-like.
The B section modulates through two minor keys before returning to the original Major key for the final recap of the A section.
It’s a perfect song.
Listen to these artists’ takes on the song: George Gershwin and Miles Davis.
Gershwin wrote I Got Rhythm for the musical Girl Crazy in 1930. Its thirty-two bar, AABA form became a harmonic blueprint for hundreds of other songs. Bebop themes based on the chord structure of I Got Rhythm include, Oleo, Moose The Mooche, and Anthropology.
The B Section provides a welcome change to the ears with the prominent III7 chord leading around the cycle of fourths before returning to the Tonic(I) chord for the last A section.
Jazz musicians and composers continue to use I Got Rhythm as a template for new themes and as a framework for improvisation.
Recommended artists to listen to: George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Charlie Parker.
One of the most recognizable ballads of all time, Someone To Watch Over Me is a near-perfect marriage of melody to lyric.
Written in 1926 for the musical Oh Kay, Someone to Watch Over Me is another of Gershwin’s major scale melodies showcasing his skills as a hit songwriter.
Give these artists’ takes on it a listen: Amy Winehouse and Ella Fitzgerald.
Written for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band and piano, Rhapsody In Blue was first performed in a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” in February 1924.
It combines jazz and classical music elements and established Gershwin as a serious composer.
Its opening glissando on clarinet is a motif as instantly recognizable as almost any in the classical repertoire. It is still performed regularly by soloists and orchestras worldwide.
Give it a listen here.
The brothers Gershwin wrote some of the greatest ballads of all time. This is one of them
Embraceable You was published in 1930 for the Broadway musical Girl Crazy, where it was performed by Ginger Rogers and choreographed by Fred Astaire.
Famous recordings, both instrumental and vocal, include versions by Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan.
The 1944 Billie Holiday recording was inducted into the Grammy Recording Hall Of Fame in 2005.
Listen to it here: Sarah Vaughan, Charlie Parker, and Nat King Cole.
The Billie Holiday version of The Man I Love is as near to casting perfection as any other song tied to an artist. It fit her like a bespoke evening dress. Ella handles it as only Ella could.
And the Herbie Hancock version featuring Joni Mitchell is a more contemporary setting to the song, demonstrating one important characteristic of great songs. They can be played solo or with bands or set to symphony orchestras and always translate well.
Another AABA song form, this time going to the relative minor key for the B section, before returning to the last A section in E flat major.
Listen to these artists sing it: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Herbie Hancock.
While it would be easy to dismiss this one, the genius here lies in the narrative.
Written in 1937 for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film entitled Shall We Dance, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off is a duet on roller skates.
A playful take on the difficulties of relationships exemplified by differences in British and American English pronunciation.
“To may toh- To-Mah toh, Po Tay To, Po Tah Toh”
Recommended viewing in this case here.
And listen to these artists sing it: Ella Fitzgerald and Seamus Blake.
Written for Fred Astaire in 1924 for the Broadway musical Lady Be Good, Fascinating Rhythm shows off more of Gershwin’s compositional chops (a word for technical ability).
The 1926 recording was entered into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry “for culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings.
Listen to these artists’ takes on it: Fred Astaire, Tony Bennett, and Jacob Collier.
They’re writing songs of love but not for me!
From the 1930s musical Girl Crazy, But Not For Me was popularized by none other than Judy Garland.
The 1960 Grammy for best female vocal performance went to Ella Fitzgerald for her recording of the song.
The fact that Elton John, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick jr, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Ahmad Jamal recorded this song should tell you something; That a great song can be adapted to anyone’s voice, and any musical setting.
But Not For Me is an American standard.
Listen to these artists give it a spin: Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, and The Ahmad Jamal Trio.
George Gershwin is a member of a very select few composers who made their mark on Broadway between 1930 and 1960.
Along with Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, and Oscar Hammerstein, George, along with his brother Ira, wrote the soundtrack through America’s greatest years.
Generations of jazz musicians, songwriters, and composers continue to discover and use many of the song forms, devices, and harmonic progressions that he introduced into the language of modern pop songwriting.
Joshua Lebofsky is a musician, writer, composer and observer of popular and not so popular music.
He’s played cello, saxophones, piano and keyboards, and toured internationally . His World Music CD Play A little Prayer garnered international attention. He’s busy with several new music productions slated for release in 2022.