From Flop to Top: The Story of “I’ve Got a Crush On You”
George and Ira Gershwin’s song “I’ve Got a Crush on You” is arguably one of their most famous creations. However, few people know that what made the song a hit was a change from a fast-tempo, Broadway dance piece into a leisurely, sentimental ballad.
By: Rachel Fernandes
“I’ve Got a Crush on You”
I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie
All the day and night time give me sigh
I never had the least notion that
I could fall with so much emotion
Could you coo, could you care?
For a cunning cottage we could share
The world will pardon my mush
‘Cause I have got a crush my baby on you
George and Ira Gershwin penned some truly memorable songs. One was “I’ve Got a Crush on You” from the Broadway musical Treasure Girl (1928), which was also featured in the Gershwins’ score for Strike Up the Band (1930). However, neither of these musicals fared well at the box office, and, as a result, “I’ve Got a Crush on You” didn’t get proper recognition until jazz artist Lee Wiley recorded it in 1939. The failure of these musicals was especially shocking for the Gershwins because Treasure Girl and Strike Up the Band were produced right on the heels of Lady, Be Good! (1924) and Oh, Kay! (1926), which were two of the Gershwins’ greatest hits.
Critics have wondered, and rightly so, why this song didn’t gain widespread popularity until Wiley performed it. Musicologists such as Walter Rimler have said that “Crush”’s failure was originally because Treasure Girl and Strike up the Band were received so poorly; however, others, such as Howard Pollack and Philip Furia, have said that Wiley’s version became so beloved because she turned the song into a ballad. Originally, the song was at a moderate tempo, and in Strike Up the Band it got to be, according to Ira, “the fastest 2/4 I ever heard” (Gershwin, 1959). In spite of that, Wiley decided to sing the song at a much slower pace, with a beautiful jazz piano arrangement by Fats Waller that added to the ballad feel. She also softly cooed the words, rather than punching them, as was the style in Treasure Girl and Strike Up the Band.
This arrangement was quite different from the one that George and Ira had originally composed. In fact, in his book, Lyrics on Several Occasions, Ira recounts the first time he heard Wiley’s arrangement:
…for many years I thought of this song as one exceedingly hot. Then one day I bought a then new Lee Wiley album which included the first recording of this number. I listened awhile, and wondered what the girl was up to. Fast and furious “Crush” had become slow, sentimental, and ballady. After a third playing, though, I liked the new interpretation. And apparently so did many others, because I have yet to hear since a rendition other than the slowed-up, sentimental one.
Despite drastically altering the tempo and instrumentation of this piece, Wiley did little with the lyrics. In fact, she only changed the first line from “How glad the many millions of Annabelles and Lillians” to “How glad the many millions of Tom and Dicks and Harrys.” The Gershwins would often keep their music, including the lyrics, “comically unsentimental” (Furia, 1996). In fact, Ira said that he used the term “sweetie pie” for the chorus because he “felt [it] wasn’t too diabetic a term.” However, Wiley was able to keep most of Ira’s lyrics and still make the piece feel more tender and emotional through her tempo and style changes alone—suggesting that Ira’s original lyrics were perhaps more sentimental than he originally believed.
Since Wiley debuted her version in 1939, many different artists such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, and Rod Stewart with Diana Ross have recorded this song as well. Most of them have stayed consistent with her sentimental interpretation, with the exceptions of Michael Buble, who jazzed it up, and Brian Wilson, who added a “Beach Boys” sound. Even Jennifer Aniston sang the chorus once while visiting the Ellen Show. All of these artists stayed fairly in line with Ira’s original lyrics, with the exception of the first couple of lines, changed by performers according to their gender.
Eventually, this piece, at George’s original tempo, was once again featured on Broadway in Nice Work if You Can Get It, a 2012 musical that featured solely-Gershwin music, starring Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara. Even though the song came under criticism for being “camped up” due in part to its quick tempo, most audiences enjoyed Nice Work if You Can Get It and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (Chicago Tribune, 25 April 2012). Although only the chorus was performed, listeners recognized the piece since the slowed-down version had become such a hit. The Broadway song that was originally a flop had finally come out on top.
For more recordings of this song, see the following links:
For Further Reading:
Furia, Philip. Ira Gershwin: the Art of the Lyricist. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Gershwin, Ira. Lyrics On Several Occasions. New York: Limelight Editions, 1959.
Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Life and Work. Berkeley And Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.
Rimler, Walter. George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait. University of Illinois Press Urbana and Chicago, 2009.
Rachel is an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan pursuing a major in Music, specializing in Piano. She started working with the Gershwin Initiative team in the spring of her freshman year.