Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Jeweler

Today, December 6th, is the birthday of Ira Gershwin. Ira was two years older than George. Where George had been something of a delinquent, Ira was quiet, studious, and downright bookish. George quit school when he was a teenager - he was already making an attractive sum as a song plugger for the music publishers of Tin Pan Alley. Ira stayed in a prestigious New York City High School where he formed a life long friendship with fellow student Yip Harburg, the guy who wrote the lyrics for songs like "Buddy Can You Spare a Dime", and "Over the Rainbow". George began writing music for popular songs, and became internationally famous at the age of 21. Ira, who had worked a variety of jobs including one in the Turkish baths his father managed at the time, began writing song lyrics. He refused to cash in on the family name, and worked under the pseudonym 'Arthur Francis', a bit of Ira's humor; those were first names of his youngest brother and sister.

Ira Gershwin
George, who had encouraged Ira's writing, suggested they try creating songs together. After a show done in (I think) Atlantic City, the brothers created their first Broadway show; "Lady, Be Good" which starred Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. Aside from the title tune, the score also featured "Fascinating Rhythm'.

(left to right) Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin
With that show, and the shows which followed, George Gershwin changed American music. Ira always made sure the spotlight shone on his brother. Perhaps it is because he shunned the limelight, perhaps it is because his lyrics so perfectly fit George's music that they seemed effortless, but Ira rarely gets his due. He changed what was possible in a song lyric. Where Irving Berlin's songs were written to be easily understood by immigrants with little knowledge of English, Ira's lyrics reveled in sly puns, "sound alike" rhymes, and slang. "Life can be delish, with a sunny disposish." A lyric might mention Beatrice Fairfax (an advice columnist), have an introduction composed of other song titles, or contain the names of Russian composers. Ira once spent three days fussing over one word. Other Broadway lyric writers called him "The Jeweler".

The Gershwin brothers, George on the left, Ira on the right.

The brothers' songs became the soundtrack to the Roaring Twenties and provided the sass to fight off the Great Depression. It was an era when the songs composed for Broadway and Hollywood were the popular songs of the day. Songs like "Embraceable You", "A Foggy Day", "I Got Rhythm", "Someone to Watch Over Me", "They Can't Take That Away From Me", "But Not For Me", and the last song George wrote before his untimely death at 38, "Love Is Here To Stay". Ira wrote the lyric for it, and left the business. When he was coaxed back to work  three years later, he wrote lyrics for the likes of Jerome Kern ("Long Ago and Far Away"), Kurt Weil, Vernon Duke, and Harold Arlen ("The Man Who Got Away"). After the last named song, Ira retired and spent the remainder of his years gathering together, and preserving, his brother's manuscripts and memory. Thankfully, that project preserved his own works.  It's time Ira got his due.

This week's radio show was devoted to the lyrics of Ira Gershwin. A lot of lesser known songs were included at the expense of some of the most famous numbers in the American songbook. As always, I hope any listeners enjoy the show.  

p.s. Ira was the business manager for the brother's works. An interviewer once asked him, "Which comes first, the words, or the music?". Ira replied, "The contract."

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