"Genius dies young."
Never has this old saying been more true than in the case of George Gershwin, one of America's most famous and prolific musicians and composers. 75 years ago George died in the prime of his creative career at the age of 38. According to one biographical profile, at the time of his death George had planned "a string quartet, a ballet and another opera, but these pieces were never written." America and the world are poorer for it.
I am not going to attempt to describe Gershwin's contribution and importance to American music. Better writers than I have done so over the years. Good sources for this material can be found in Wikipedia and in the archives of the New York Times. Readers can find a comprehensive list of his musical compositions here, and a list of his contributions to the American song book here. The breadth and depth of his talent is absolutely awe inspiring.
Gershwin was born a year or two shy of the turn of the century. He grew up in an America far different from the country we know today. Freedom and liberty were not merely words then; Americans experienced them firsthand in their rawest and most exciting form. Yes, the seeds of the coming American welfare state had already been planted, but the age George grew up in inherited its vigor and vitality from an earlier era when ambition, talent, hard work and perseverance were honored and encouraged.
When George was at his prime, America was a country that put the individual on a pedestal. Men and women didn't look to government for their livelihood, safety and security. They lived life in the moment, took risks and some, like George, achieved greatness of a kind we will probably never again experience and enjoy.
Ken Bloom, in his book "The American Songbook," describes the times in which George and his lyricist brother, Ira, grew up:
Of course, George and Ira didn't arrive as full-blown expert songwriters. However, they were born in an era of opportunity, when live theater was the popular entertainment of choice. The brothers started out, in humble fashion, supplying a song here and there to be interpolated into a wide range of early musicals and operettas... ...George and Ira seemed destined to become merely adequate composers who created minor songs for minor musicals.
The operative word is "opportunity." George and Ira knew that success never comes easy. They knew that reward never comes without risk, hardship and pluck. According to an excellent movie biography made in 1945, "Rhapsody in Blue," Morris Gershwin, George's father, owned and operated a series of small businesses, everything from a grocery store to a steam parlor. Apparently, he earned enough to make a modest living. Morris, has been described as "a somewhat unsuccessful entrepreneur, and the family had moved twenty-eight times by the time George was eighteen." Unfortunately, "the family went bankrupt in 1914 and moved to Coney Island."
Yet, his family prodded by his mother insisted that the family was able to afford a piano. She bought one when George was 12 and the rest is history.
Neither was George held back by the good intentions of truancy and child labor laws. He dropped out of school at age 15 and briefly played piano in a burlesque show. He then "went to work for Jerome H. Remick & Co., a music publishing firm on Tin Pan Alley, for a salary of $15.00 per week, while he continued living with his parents and his brother Ira." Until he was 18 George worked for Remick "as a song plugger: a salesman who promoted the firm's songs by playing and singing them for performers. As a result of many hours each day spent at the keyboard, his playing improved greatly, and he cut his first piano rolls in 1915" at the age of 16.
Read all about Gershwin's fascinating young life here.
The result of Gershwin's rough and tumble, hardscrabble life growing up in the streets of New York's East Side is this:
I've spent a lifetime enjoying the fruits of Gershwin's genius and labor. I won't try to recount them all. Music -- all good music -- is emotional and personal. By God Gershwin's is that, and more. I love all he created, but here are a few of my absolute favorites. Thank God and America for George Gershwin. May he never be forgotten! May America return to the great nation that fostered his genius! And, yes, even Bob Dylan is indebted to Mr. Gershwin!