George Gershwin is one of the Twentieth Century’s most revered composers. Despite his premature death at 38 his output is outstanding. By 1913 he was working as a pianist and became a staff composer for a publishing firm in 1917. His first hit was “Swanee” (1918) which became a huge success for Al Jolson when it was added to the show Sinbad in 1919.
There were many “firsts” for Gershwin: the first to combine serious and popular music in his jazz concerto, “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924); the first to score a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, Of Thee I Sing (1931), which was one of the Gershwin brothers’ “serious” musicals employing social satire; and the first to write an American opera, Porgy and Bess (1935), further distinguished by its all-black cast, its roots in African culture, and hits such as “Summertime.” In 1926 his “Clap Yo’ Hands” encouraged other composers to create feel-good religious songs in their musicals, and “American in Paris” (1928) stands alone as an orchestral work.
Gershwin wrote for several of George White’s Scandals, an annual variety show which introduced songs such as “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Somebody Loves Me.”
George and his lyricist brother Ira produced many hit musicals: Lady Be Good (1924), starring the Astaires and the song “Fascinatin’ Rhythm”; Oh, Kay! (1926) in which Gertrude Lawrence introduced “Someone to Watch Over Me”; Funny Face (1927) with its hit “S’Wonderful”; Strike Up the Band (1930) with “I’ve Got a Crush on You”; and Girl Crazy (1930), which introduced “But Not for Me,” “Embraceable You,” and “I Got Rhythm.”
The Gershwins moved to Hollywood where they wrote for several films, foremost among them the Astaire/Rogers classic, Shall We Dance? (1937). Gershwin was pictured on a commemorative postage stamp in 1973.