Show: FRESH AIR
Date: SEPTEMBER 24, 1998
Head: Gershwin's 100th Centenary
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross.
Saturday is the 100th Anniversary of George Gershwin's birth. Who knows what American music would have been like without him. He gave us some of the best known film and theater songs of the '20s and '30s, like "Lady Be Good," "The Man I Love," "S'Wonderful," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "I've Got a Crush on You," "Embraceable You," and "Love is Here to Stay."
His songs became the standards that jazz musicians played. He wrote one of the greatest American operas, "Porgy and Bess," and one of the most popular concert pieces, "Rhapsody in Blue."
George Gershwin died in 1937. To celebrate his centennial we invited two Gershwin scholars to join us. Robert Kimball is the author of "The Gershwins," and editor of the book "The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin." He's also the artistic adviser to Ira Gershwin's estate.
Edward Jablonski is the author of "Gershwin Years: George and Ira," and "Gershwin: A Biography," which have both just been published in new editions.
Kimball and Jablonski have brought some of their favorite Gershwin recordings to play for us.
Edward Jablonski, Robert Kimball, welcome to both of you to Fresh Air.
EDWARD JABLONSKI, AUTHOR, "GEORGE AND IRA," "GERSHWIN: A BIOGRAPHY": Thank you, Terry.
ROBERT KIMBALL, AUTHOR, "THE GERSHWINS": Thank you.
GROSS: I asked you each to bring what you thought of as career-making recordings for George Gershwin. Ed Jablonski, let's start with your pick and that was the song "Swanee." Tell us why you brought this and how this song changed Gershwin's life.
JABLONSKI: Well, what it did, it took him literally out of Tin Pan Alley and put him into Broadway. And from there he even went further. But before that he was a pianist and a songwriter who had trouble getting songs published or getting them put into shows.
And Al Jolson discovered the song I think it was weeks -- months after it was actually written and -- at a party and put it into "Sinbad," a show he had just brought back to New York. And it became a smash hit in terms of sheet music, recordings. I don't think he ever had another song that sold that much.
KIMBALL: This was George Gershwin's greatest hit his whole life. I -- and it was the Jolson recording, it just was a stupendous success.
GROSS: And help me out here, I mean, I think I probably speak for many people when I say that "Swanee" is hardly my favorite Gershwin song.
JABLONSKI: Mine, too.
GROSS: What made this so great in its time?
JABLONSKI: Well, I would suppose a performance by Jolson. It's a good fun song, but it's not certainly...
KIMBALL: Well it's -- Irving Caesar said, he said: "I don't know if George and I had been south of 14th Street when we wrote about the Swanee River, but..." Caesar said there had been a hit...
GROSS: He wrote the lyrics, Irving Caesar?
KIMBALL: Yes, well, yes, that's what he said. Increasingly as he got older he began to be...
JABLONSKI: Shorter time.
KIMBALL: Shorter time, they did it in two minutes and then basically: "the tune was my idea" -- he used to say -- "and George was a good pianist and he took it down for me."
But it was all Jolson and throughout his life George was indebted to Jolson.
And actually there's a wonderful story that Todd Duncan tells: at the funeral, he's coming out of Temple Emmanuel -- George died so young and so tragically -- and he sees Jolson walking down the white line of Fifth Avenue with his head bowed. And it's a very poignant moment I think.
JABLONSKI: Rather stagy, too.
KIMBALL: That's Jolson, as he typically was, yes.
GROSS: Well let's hear "Swanee" performed by Al Jolson. Now we're not going to hear the original recording in 1920; this is a recording from the 1940's, and it comes from the soundtrack of the bio-pic about George Gershwin that Jolson performed in. So let's hear Al Jolson singing George Gershwin's -- what, biggest hit? -- "Swanee."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- AL JOLSON PERFORMING "SWANEE")
I've been away from you a long time
I never thought I'd miss you so
Somehow I feel your love is real
Near you I want to be
The birds are singing, it is song time
The banjos strumming soft and low
I know that you
Yearn for me too
Swanee, you're calling me.
Swanee, how I love ya
How I love ya
My dear old Swanee
I'd give the world to be among the folks in (unintelligible)
I even know my mamie's waiting for me
Praying for me
Down by the Swanee
The folks up North won't see me no more
When I get to that Swanee shore
GROSS: That's Al Jolson singing George Gershwin's "Swanee" with a lyric by Irving Caesar.
So OK, Edward Jablonski, Robert Kimball, you say this is the song that really put Gershwin on the map, it's the song that made him a star composer because it sold so well. And it took him out of his work in Tin Pan Alley. What was he doing in Tin Pan Alley?
Tin Pan Alley at the time was a lot of office buildings in which composers worked away in little cubicles writing out their songs. What was Gershwin's job?
KIMBALL: Well, he was a song demonstrator, he worked for the publishing company and he tried to make their songs as appealing as possible to the Vaudeville performers so they would take them out on the circuit. And he was considered to be the best song demonstrator on Tin Pan Alley.
JABLONSKI: "Piano pounder," I think he called it.
GROSS: Well, what about after "Swanee?" How did -- where did he move after that, to musicals?
KIMBALL: He went right to writing for the "George White Scandals."
George White hired him to be the sort of staff composer for the annual reviews that he presented. And for five years, from 1920 to 1924, he turned out a lot of wonderful songs including "Somebody Loves Me" and "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."
GROSS: Now, I'd asked each of you to bring a career-making recording, and Robert Kimball, you brought with you "Rhapsody in Blue." Why is "Rhapsody in Blue" so important in George Gershwin's life?
KIMBALL: Well "Rhapsody in Blue" and the famous performance of it by the Whiteman Band with George Gershwin, February 12th, 1924 -- actually we're getting to the 75th Anniversary -- was a moment for music comparable in some ways as to Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, which occurred a few years later.
It made it clear to anyone who's followed him that you could write a kind of music which was a blend of European sophistication, the world of Tchaikovsky and Lzist, and the jazz and ragtime-oriented strains of America.
He somehow magically fused them and said it was possible to have this new music. And I think of it in some ways as a kind of 20th Century counterpart to Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" in extending the possibility of what could be expressed.
GROSS: There was a huge gap, I think, at the time between the world of serious music, classical music, and the world of pop music, which Gershwin had been writing. How important was it to Gershwin to be writing "serious music" and taken seriously as a composer?
JABLONSKI: Well, he started early, he was actually -- when he began he was planning to be a concert pianist. But he also studied harmony and orchestration with Edward Chilany (ph) and began very early to write what he called "novelettes for piano."
In 1918 or '19, he wrote a string quartet called "Lullaby," so he was pretty well -- pretty serious very early. But I -- for him, I don't believe there was any great difference between what he did for the theater and what he did for the concert hall. He was just as serious doing one as the other.
Also one of the things that I think he accomplished as no one ever did: he made Carnegie Hall safe for the American composer. Usually they were kept out. And in that period, especially -- and I've used this before but I always liked it -- that in order to get it performed by an important American orchestra, you had to be either European or dead, preferably both. And he was neither.
JABLONSKI: So that it was very important to all of American music.
GROSS: Serious music was still something that European composers did?
KIMBALL: The other thing that he did was that he really brought down the barriers that existed between art music and popular vernacular music. There were -- there have always been these lines -- they still exist -- but George Gershwin said it was possible for them not to exist and he established something that has effected so many composers, Leonard Bernstein and so many, Duke Ellington and others who followed.
GROSS: Robert Kimball, I believe the recording you're going to play for us is the very first recording of "Rhapsody in Blue."
KIMBALL: Yes, it is. It's 1924, in the days when recordings were done acoustically, so the sound is a little primitive. But this is as close to what we know it sounded like in February of 1924 with George Gershwin playing the solo part.
GROSS: So Gershwin's at the piano, Paul Whiteman, I think, is conducting?
GROSS: And the clarinetist is Russ Gorman (ph)? Was he -- he was the first clarinetist to play that famous clarinet part in the opening?
KIMBALL: At the time, I think he was the only one who played it.
GROSS: OK, let's hear it..."Rhapsody in Blue."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- FIRST RECORDING OF GEORGE GERSHWIN'S "RHAPSODY IN BLUE," FEBRUARY, 1924)
GROSS: The first recording of "Rhapsody in Blue." We heard George Gershwin at the piano with Paul Whiteman conducting.
And my guests are Robert Kimball, artistic adviser to the Ira Gershwin estate and author of "The Gershwins;" and Edward Jablonski, author of a biography called "Gershwin" that's just been published in a new edition.
There's a couple of stories about "Rhapsody in Blue's" early performances that -- I'm not sure if there apocryphal or not -- I read that in the very first performance of "Rhapsody in Blue," Paul Whiteman, the conductor, was so nervous that he started to kind of break down and weep in the middle and kind of wept for 11 pages of the score. Is that true of apocryphal?
JABLONSKI: Well, it appeared in the book called "Jazz," which allegedly is his biography, or autobiography. It was actually written by somebody else. But he said that, and who's to know? But I somehow doubt it frankly.
GROSS: OK. What about the story that George Gershwin played so hard at the piano, he left blood on the keys?
JABLONSKI: Nonsense. I don't believe that at all.
GROSS: I kept thinking...
JABLONSKI: That was Chopin in the movie.
GROSS: Right. OK.
KIMBALL: He was a pretty gentle player sometimes. He was crisp, but he was not roughshod, he was quite delicate.
GROSS: We'll talk more about George Gershwin and hear more music after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're celebrating the centennial of George Gershwin's birth. And with us are Robert Kimball, artistic adviser to the Ira Gershwin estate and author of the book "The Gershwins," and author of: "The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin" -- or editor, I should say -- Ira wrote the lyrics.
And Edward Jablonski is with us. He's the author of "Gershwin: A Biography," which has just been published in a new edition.
Well, I asked you each both to bring recordings that are personal favorites. Ed Jablonski, let's start with you. You brought a recording of "Bess, You is My Woman Now." Tell us about the recording that you're going to play for us. And I believe this is a rehearsal recording.
JABLONSKI: Oh, yeah, well, that was discovered in Ira Gershwin's record room many many years ago. There's a little story if you want it.
JABLONSKI: We were listening to a recording and he asked -- and he had a turntable and a whole library just off of what might be called a living room. And he asked me to go in and turn the record over -- I think we were playing Frankie Gershwin's album as an LP, but I'm not certain.
And as I got in there, I started looking around and I saw large 16 inch transcription discs. And I read them and it says "Porgy" -- it didn't say "Porgy and Bess," but "Porgy." And Abbey Mitchell (ph) and Ann Brown (ph) -- I said: "my God, this must be the rehearsal of 'Porgy and Bess' that I heard about and Ira said didn't exist."
And I brought it out and I says: "Ira, what's this?"
And he says: "I don't know."
I said: "This is a rehearsal of 'Porgy and Bess' and you said it didn't exist."
He said: "Well, George didn't tell me."
So luckily because they didn't have a big turntable they didn't play these things too much so that they wore out. Unfortunately, it doesn't go on for too long. But the nice thing is you have -- this was recorded a few weeks before Gershwin even finished the opera. And he apparently was testing orchestrations, because he is conducting and -- you have the original chorus, Ann Brown and Todd Duncan singing "Bess, You is My Woman."
GROSS: That's great. And this is one of your favorite songs, as well. Tell us why.
JABLONSKI: I love it. I mean, it's a beautiful song.
GROSS: It sure is.
JABLONSKI: And it's hard to say why, you know, you just do. Not too many songs I don't like, actually.
GROSS: Well I'm glad you discovered this rehearsal recording. From 1935, "Bess, You is My Woman Now," with Gershwin conducting, yes?
GROSS: And Todd Duncan and Ann Brown singing.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF GEORGE GERSHWIN'S "BESS, YOU IS MY WOMAN NOW")
Bess, you is my woman now
You is, you is
And you must laugh and sing and dance for two
(unintelligible) is alone
You brought (unintelligible)
Because the sorrow of the (unintelligible)
Oh, Bess, (unintelligible) are real happiness (unintelligible?)
Morning time and evening time
And summer time and winter time
GROSS: That's a really wonderful recording. You know, what I found really funny? And I think, Ed Jablonski, I think this is in your biography of Gershwin -- that Al Jolson when he found out about "Porgy and Bess" wanted to star in it. I thought that was such a scream.
JABLONSKI: Yeah, I would have screamed if he had done it. But it was a problem for awhile, because Dubose Heyward was broke. At some point, Gershwin and Dubose Heyward were considering turning his novel and play "Porgy" into an opera.
So Heyward especially needed the money because he was rather broke, and George had his radio program. But somewhere in the middle, I can't remember the date or anything, Heyward's agent was approached by Al Jolson.
And Jolson said he wanted to make a musical -- it couldn't have been an opera -- and he would play "Porgy" in black face; and that he hoped to get Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein to write the music.
And so Heyward, who had been waiting for many many months before Gershwin ever got around to doing the actual composition, wrote George and said: I have a chance here -- after all, Jolson was still a big man in those days and popular -- so that he said: I hate to have to do it, but I think I would like to or I have to.
And Gershwin very kindly said: go ahead, no matter what Jolson does, if he does it, it's not going to effect what we're going to do.
And so luckily, because Kern and Hammerstein were really not available at the time, Jolson just gave up and "Porgy and Bess" then grew out of all that.
GROSS: Lucky break, I have to say.
JABLONSKI: It really would have been strange.
GROSS: It would have been really odd to have Jolson in black face doing "Porgy and Bess."
JABLONSKI: Talk about getting picketed.
GROSS: We'll continue our remembrance of George Gershwin with Edward Jablonski and Robert Kimball in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with more of our remembrance of George Gershwin. Saturday is the centennial of his birth.
My guests are two of America's leading Gershwin experts. They're playing some of their favorite Gershwin recordings for us.
Robert Kimball is the artistic adviser to the Ira Gershwin estate. He's also the author of "The Gershwins" and editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin."
Edward Jablonski is the author of the biography "Gershwin," and a book about George and Ira called "The Gershwin Years."
Robert Kimball, I asked you to bring a Gershwin song that was a personal favorite. What did you bring?
KIMBALL: "They Can't Take That Away from Me." A song written during the last year of George's life for a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie "Shall We Dance." And there's lots to say about it, and I can either tell you now or after you play it.
GROSS: Why don't you tell us now and then we'll give it a spin.
KIMBALL: Many years afterwards in the early '70s when I was working with Al Simon on the book "The Gershwins," we were visiting Johnny Green, who was the music director for this recording.
And he said to us: you guys have come out here to work on a book and you haven't gone to see Fred Astaire yet? Shame on you. So he picked up the phone and arranged for us to see him, and we had a wonderful visit with him and Johnny said that one of his most poignant memories of George Gershwin was the day he received the first, really, transcriptions, even before the discs were ready for general release of the songs from "Shall We Dance." And he went over to George's house to play them for him, and he saw George was already not in good shape. And when he played "They Can't Take That Away From Me," he said George broke down and cried.
His mother was there and he just cried when he heard it for the first time. This would have been probably in May of '37, he was dead two months later of the brain tumor. For Johnny that was a special memory.
It's a song that has such resonance for everyone, and of course, it goes without saying that these two men were friends from Fred's vaudeville days and George's piano pounding on the alley, and they loved each other very, very much. And this was a special song for both of them.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "THEY CAN'T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME")
Our romance won't end on a sorrowful note
Though by tomorrow you're gone
The song has ended
But as the song writer wrote
The melody lingers on
They may take you from me
I'll miss your found caress
But though they take you from me
I'll still posses
The way you wear your hat
The way you sip you tea
The memory of all that
Oh, no, they can't take that away from me
The way your smile just beams
The way you sing off key
The way you haunt my dreams
No, no, they can't take that away from me
We may never, never meet again on the bumpy road to love
But I'll always always keep the memory of
The way you hold you knife
The way we dance till three
The way you changed my life
No, no, they can't take that away from me
No, they can't take that away from me.
GROSS: Fred Astaire singing "They Can't Take That Away From Me." And that's one of Robert Kimball's favorite recordings, which he's brought with him.
Music by George, lyric by Ira.
Was that written for Fred Astaire?
KIMBALL: Certainly was. It's actually one of about 20 songs the Gershwins wrote during the last year of George's life.
One time I was speaking to Mr. Berlin, who is a friend of Ed's, as well as mine, and he said to me he felt that I should remember a couple of things about George Gershwin. He said: you know, George was a composer; the rest of us, including myself, were song writers.
And the other thing he said really was about this song and about others that they wrote in the last year. He said he didn't think that anyone wrote better songs in this country than George and Ira during the last year of George's life.
GROSS: Fred Astaire is such a wonderful interpreter of Gershwin songs, and I'm wondering if you know what George and Ira liked most about writing for Astaire?
JABLONSKI: Well, for one thing you could hear the tune and you could hear every syllable of the lyric. I mean, supposedly a lot of people say he didn't have great voice, but I'd rather hear Fred Astaire sing than about 10 people I think of off the top of my head.
He would just so -- he sang the way he danced, in a sense, and that's one of the things that George and Ira liked about Astaire.
GROSS: Now, I think the first musical, the first full score that George and Ira wrote together was a musical that Fred and Adele Astaire starred in, "Lady Be Good."
How did George and Ira start working together? Or maybe I should I ask it the other way, how come they didn't always work together? How come George had other partners before Ira when Ira was so good?
JABLONSKI: Well, Ira didn't start writing lyrics until somewhat later. At -- you know he was -- he wrote light verse, and George was already more or less established on Tin Pan Alley, and he was working with an established lyricist. And if Ira didn't write a lyric that George felt was worth setting, he wouldn't have. I mean, they were true professionals.
And it was just one of the weirdest accidents I think of birth, that two of these great people were born of the same family.
But occasionally Ira would listen to George when he -- Buddy DaSilva (ph) would show up at Irvin Caesar's. He would listen to what they were doing, and then while he was working in his father's bath house or whatever, he would start jotting down lyrics. And then -- and one of them was called "A Real American Folk Song is a Rag." And again, I think George edited the lyric a little, and then they wrote it and managed to place it in the -- interpolation in the musical.
GROSS: Yeah, but I -- I think that that song was actually -- that Ira Gershwin actually used a pen name in that song, Arthur Frances?
KIMBALL: Well, actually, Danny didn't, Terry, he was still Ira, but for about four years, he took the names of his brother and sister as a sort of pseudonym pen name, became Arthur Frances.
GROSS: Oh, why did he feel that he needed a pen name?
KIMBALL: Oh, he was afraid to be cashing in on his brother's reputation.
The irony is that Ira, in some ways, achieved a success of writing songs for Broadway before George did, because he worked with Vincent Newmans in 1921, and they wrote "Two Little Girls in Blue," the song "Oh Me, Oh My, Oh You" is from it. So Ira was already really well launched under this name Arthur Frances.
But in 1924, which was a pivotal year for them both -- the year of "Rhapsody and Blues" we mentioned -- was also the year in which they began the partnership that lasted until George's death in 1937. And it took flight in an English musical called "Primrose," where they did several songs together, and then, of course, in "Lady Be Good."
GROSS: My guests are music theater historians Robert Kimball and Edward Jablonski.
More about George Gershwin after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guests, if you're just joining us are Edward Jablonski, who is the author, among other things, of the book, "Gershwin," a biography which has just been published in a new edition.
And Robert Kimball, who is, among other things, artistic adviser to the Ira Gershwin estate, author of the book "The Gershwins," and author of the book "The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin."
Well, I've asked you each to bring a couple of rarities, and, Edward Jablonski, what is the rarity that you've chosen to bring with you?
JABLONSKI: "Oh So Nice," a song which I actually years ago when I had a non-profit record company called Walden Records, with the help of Ira, we recorded several rarities. Some of them are no longer rarities and some of them were rarities only because we always used the versus. Ira said: George and I worked as hard on the verses we did on the chorus, so we always included the -- both.
Now, in this case where Louise Carlisle sings "Oh So Nice," and -- what was that from, Bob, you always remember.
KIMBALL: It's from "Treasure Grove."
JABLONSKI: "Treasure" -- a flop show.
JABLONSKI: Yeah. In -- George said one of the things that pleased him is that he wrote a waltz in four-four time, and when you hear it these little pauses and wonderful little changes from minor to major or visa versa.
GROSS: What do you mean by that? What do you mean by writing a waltz, which is a three-quarter time song in four-quarter time?
JABLONSKI: Well, he said that "you get the feel of a Viennese waltz" -- I'm quoting him now -- "in four-time." It'll sound waltz-like when you hear it.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it.
GROSS: This is Louise Carlisle singing...
JABLONSKI: Yeah, right.
GROSS: ... a kind of obscure Gershwin song called "Oh So Nice."
JABLONSKI: It shouldn't be but it -- well, a lot of the good songs on that show are obscure because the show was a failure.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "OH SO NICE," FROM TREASURE GROVE")
I was above love before
But now I love love because you're oh, oh, so nice
Awake or sleeping it seems
that you keep creeping in my dreams
And it's so nice when you are near me
oh my, oh dear, oh dear me
I just fly to paradise
I was above love before
but now I love love cause you're oh, oh, oh so nice
Never thought I'd ever meet a man...
GROSS: That's "Oh So Nice," a Gershwin obscurity sung by Louise Carlisle.
Maybe I can ask you both, Robert Kimball and Edward Jablonski, to just name a few songs that you wish were better known by George Gershwin.
KIMBALL: "Changing My Tune" from "The Shocking Miss Pilgrim." The wonderful song that isn't -- you have a lot of these songs you can't buy, but we're -- hopefully in a few weeks there will be a complete addition of all the published -- previously published songs of George and Ira.
But there are -- out of the 425 songs approximately that they wrote together, astonishingly more than 200 of them are still unpublished.
GROSS: When you say that these songs are going to be published, you mean in sheet music form of book?
KIMBALL: In a book. A bound book which will be including about 180 of the George and Ira collaborations. They will be in two volumes.
GROSS: That sounds great...
KIMBALL: So the -- so many songs like, oh, "I Must Be Home By 12 O'clock," "Feeling Sentimental" from "Show Girl;" it's a beautiful...
JABLONSKI: That's one of my favorites.
KIMBALL: Isn't that a great song?
JABLONSKI: A beautiful song.
KIMBALL: There's so many wonderful songs from "Pardon My English." And I must say this, Terry, that what Eddie -- Ed brought -- I'm glad he brought that album, because that album probably was the most important album in bringing the unfamiliar Gershwin to all of us. And I remember it so fondly, and I'm just so glad it's gonna to be available again.
GROSS: Well, Robert Kimball, I asked you to bring a rarity with you what did you decide to bring.
KIMBALL: Well, I wanted to bring something where people could hear George's speaking voice as well as his performance. And we were fortunate in among the material that Ed found in California for a number of -- where some transcriptions of the radio show that George did in 1934.
This is an extraordinary radio show, in that George not only presented his own music, but he made certain that the music of other composers, his contemporaries, the people like Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa and others who'd gone before him, and young writers like Johnny Green and Kay Swift and Morton Gould, and others, would perform. And it was extraordinarily generous and wonderful, but very typical of the kind of encouragement that he offered.
We have the very first of these shows from February 19th, 1934. I think it's very important just to hear not only George's speaking voice but to hear him play his music in that inimitable exciting way that he did; and actually from that particular performance, which was the first in the 1934 radio shows.
GROSS: Let's hear it.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- GEORGE GERSHWIN'S RADIO SHOW, FEBRUARY 19, 1934)
GEORGE GERSHWIN: I don't see any good reason why we should be concentrating on my tunes with the exclusion of all else. And on future programs, we're going to play some music of contemporary composers. For instance, on Friday, we'll play the prize-winning composition of "Ru Bloon Song of the Bayou."
But right now I want to play for you a composition of mine which brings up the pleasant of memories. It's "I Got Rhythm;" it's from the show called "Girl Crazy." Maybe you saw it a few seasons ago.
Again, I had the pleasure of working with my brother, Ira, who supplied the lyrics. Anyway, let's try it.
GERSHWIN PLAYING "I GOT RHYTHM"
GROSS: That's George Gershwin from his radio show recorded in 1934.
The thing I love about this radio show is that, among other things, is that it was sponsored by Fenamints (ph), the chewing gum laxative. And Don Wilson of the "Jack Benny Show" fame is the announcer on this show and he's always on there advertising those Fenamints.
This show actually helped George Gershwin keep going while he was writing "Porgy and Bess," I believe.
KIMBALL: Yes, it did, Terry. Well, everyone said: gee, it's typical of George, he had a composer stomach, that he would do a radio show sponsored by a laxative.
KIMBALL: And George would laugh at everybody else, and then he would say: don't forget, with out Fenamint there would have been no "Porgy and Bess." It gave him the income, and it was very wonderful income at the time, to enable him to complete the opera and orchestrate it.
GROSS: Did Gershwin like performing?
JABLONSKI: He loved it.
KIMBALL: It was natural for him. It was absolutely a part of his being.
GROSS: You know, I've had you swopping records, but I'd like you to swap a story for us. I'm gonna to ask each if you have a favorite George Gershwin story that you could share.
KIMBALL: Well, I'll tell one little story about him that Ira and Al Simon, I think, wanted me to remember. When one day I said to the both of them: what is it about George that people don't really get today? There is an image of him that he had a certain amount of ego and that he played piano all the time at parties.
And Ira said: well, he played because no one really could play as well as he did and that was -- everybody wanted him to play. It wasn't so much that he hogged the piano.
And they both said to me, and you can sort of hear this from his radio voice, that this was a much gentler more soft-spoken man than people customarily see him today. The notion of the fellow with the cigar in his mouth sort of striding through the American '20s like some sort of colossus is the image that we mostly have of him.
But he was a very sensitive man, and during the last year of his life a profoundly sad person, who was very uncomfortable in Hollywood, although successful in writing wonderful songs. He was cut off from the direct participation in his work that both Al, who was his rehearsal pianist on (unintelligible). And Ira said he just loved being a part of the show, and being there, playing rehearsals, conducting opening night and just doing everything. That was what he was like.
GROSS: My guests are music theater historians Robert Kimball and Edward Jablonski. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: We're celebrating the centennial of George Gershwin's birth. My guests are music theater historians Robert Kimball and Edward Jablonski.
George Gershwin died of a brain tumor. How long was he suffering before it was actually accurately diagnosed?
JABLONSKI: Barely a month, actually. It first showed itself, I think, in January of '37, or February, when he had trouble remembering this -- a passage from the "Concerto in F." But no one could find anything.
He wouldn't submit to a spinal tap, which probably would have been fatal any way, because he heard it was painful. Because there were some people who said he's acting as if he may have a brain tumor. But there were no other true symptoms until he started having severe headaches. He had light -- when light hit his eyes, he had problems and -- Harold Arlen (ph) told me once that before he and Yep Harvard (ph) came to New York to do a musical, they went to see George and he couldn't believe the man he saw.
He said: he's quite almost literally green.
And they -- S.M. Berman (ph), too, noticed that this was man who was sick and, you know, he looked ill.
He had -- why the doctors didn't grab him and put him in a hospital. But he went to the hospital, I think, a couple of times and made these various test they made, and nothing showed, certainly no brain tumor until he collapsed and...
KIMBALL: It was only like days before he died that they knew what the illness was. But I -- Oscar Levant told me something that Ed just referred to. This performance of the "Concerto in F" that he was present at. And he said: I sat there and there in the simplest scale passage of the second movement, George had a black out.
He literally forgot to come in. And it was such a -- the easiest passage in the piece. And he went back stage afterwards and George didn't really know what had happened. And Oscar said: I wanted to joke with him -- did I scare you, because I was in the audience or something -- but he realized that it was something more.
But there was not diagnoses made until just before his death, and then it really was too late.
And even today, and Ed knows more about this than I, the doctors consensus is that, yes, he might have lived for a time, but the tumor was so invasive that his creative years were probably at an end.
JABLONSKI: They just couldn't get it all for one thing and he would have been paralyzed from -- and so they -- but I would like to say a little something about George and Ira. There was no sibling rivalry. I noticed through all the period that I knew Ira, and I first wrote him when I was a kid in high school in three-ring notebook paper, by the way, and -- because I had been doing all -- this little personal research at the library on Gershwin.
And I found Ira's address and I wrote to him and generally while it was a kind of fan letter to Ira -- because by then I'd learned a lot about him also -- it was a fan letter to George, actually. And the interesting thing is I got a handwritten letter from Ira from -- he was in Boston then with "Lady in the Dark," and he said -- the thing that he said he liked about my letter and encouraged me to keep writing to him was that it touched him. About -- you know the things that I said about George in the letters touched him so much he felt -- he -- we had to sort of keep in touch. And we did.
And true, as Bob said, he was the keeper of the keys. He looked after George's work, I mean -- when we were doing our Gershwin rarities he would suggest songs that I hadn't heard of; and gathering all that material that went into the Library of Congress.
He -- I think, you know, he felt George was a genius and he sort of went along for the ride...
KIMBALL: Yes. And I wanted to just add something. The first night that I was with him -- maybe it was the second night, now as I remember. He took me inside into the living room of the home. He and Leanora (ph) lived in the house right next door to the house were George and Ira and Lea had lived in 1936 and '37. And he said: I know you've come out here to work on a book about my brother and myself -- he said -- I've one thing I'd like to suggest, I hope you won't take this the wrong way -- he said: would you please just make the book about my brother, and not include me in it in any major way in the book?
And I don't know how I had the courage -- I was stunned by his request. But I said: no, Ira I was really sorry but we wanted to do a book about both of you.
But that was what he was like. He was always thinking about George and always putting himself back and sort of in the side of the room admiring what his brother had achieved.
It -- at times it -- those of us who were close to him, you know, we're really quite sad at this, because we felt here was one of the greatest of all lyricist, extraordinarily intelligent man, so sensitive, so shy, and really just the way he was and part of what made him such a lovable and wonderful man.
GROSS: Well, it's been a real pleasure to celebrate the centennial of George Gershwin's birth with two of the leading Gershwin scholars in America. Thank you both so much for being with us. I've really enjoyed it.
KIMBALL: Thank you, Terry.
JABLONSKI: Thank you for having us.
GROSS: Robert Kimball is the author of "The Gershwins," editor or "The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin," and artistic adviser to the Ira Gershwin estate.
Edward Jablonski's books "Gershwin" and "The Gershwin Years" have just been published in new editions.
Here's Ella Fitzgerald with pianist Ellis Larkin performing the George and Ira Gershwin song "Soon."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- ELLA FITZGERALD SINGING "SOON")
Soon the lonely nights will be ended
Soon two hearts as one will be blended
I found the happiness I've waited for
The only boy that I was fated for
Oh, soon a little cottage will find us
Safe with all our cares far behind us.
The day you're mine, this world will be in tune
Let's make the day come soon
Soon, soon, soon, my dear, you'll never be lonely
Soon you'll find I live for you only
When I'm with you, who cares what time it is
Or what the place or what the club it is
Oh, soon our little ship will come sailing
Oh, through every storm, never failing
The day you're mine this world will be in tune
Let's make that day come soon
Let's make that day come soon
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Dateline: Terry Gross
Guest: Robert Kinball, Ira Gershwin
High: In celebration of the centennial of George Gershwin's birth this upcoming September 26th, a talk with two Gershwin experts: Robert Kinball, artistic adviser to the Gershwin estate, and author of "The Gershwins," and editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin; and Edward Jablonski, author of "Gershwin: With a New Critical Discography."
Spec: George Gershwin; Music Industry; Entertainment
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Gershwin's 100th Centenary
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.