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Archivist and Biographer: A Conversation with Michael Owen

Michael Owen has spent the majority of his career working closely with the archival materials of George and Ira Gershwin, with an emphasis on the life and work of the lyricist side of the songwriting team. He is currently writing what he hopes will be a landmark biography of the eldest Gershwin brother. In this interview, Michael describes his journey from archivist to biographer and talks about his upcoming book. By Rachel Fernandes A few months ago, I had the incredible opportunity to interview Michael Owen, the consulting historian and archivist for the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts, located in […]

‘What Makes a Hit?!’: A Conclusion to the Series

Over the past two years, Rachel Fernandes, one of the Gershwin Initiative’s undergraduate assistants, explored some of George and Ira Gershwins’ most successful Broadway songs and a handful of near-misses. In the final post of the “What Makes a Hit” series, Rachel summarizes her findings and shares her views on what makes a hit! By Rachel Fernandes George and Ira Gershwin are two of the most celebrated figures in American music, but not all of their songs were major hits in the 1920s and ’30s, and even fewer are still being listened to today. Over the past two years, I […]

I Got Lyrics: Ira’s Unique Writing Process

“I Got Rhythm,” an enduring Gershwin classic, is from the musical Girl Crazy, which premiered on October 14, 1930. Despite having some initial trouble with the text, Ira was able to write one of the most memorable lyrics in musical theater history while enhancing George’s syncopated melody. By Rachel Fernandes Before “I Got Rhythm” became the up-tempo song we know and love, it was a slow ballad for an unfinished Gershwin musical. When revising the song for Girl Crazy in 1930, George ultimately gave it a jazzy feeling (discussed in this earlier post) that inspired Ira to write his iconic […]

“I Got Rhythm”: Who Could Ask for a Better Hit?

“I Got Rhythm” is a favorite Gershwin song from the musical Girl Crazy. After some initial work on the tempo, this hit standard figured prominently in a jazz revolution.   By Rachel Fernandes “I Got Rhythm,” a hit song from the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, is a much-loved Gershwin tune. External factors—such as featuring the song on George’s radio show—played a role in establishing the work’s popularity, but the song’s enduring impact on the jazz world has made it a classic. George originally wrote the melody of “I Got Rhythm” as a slow ballad for an unfinished musical. When revising […]

A Set Change: The Prickly History of “Cactus Time in Arizona”

“Cactus Time in Arizona” is one of George and Ira’s lesser-known songs. Today’s post explores the factors—including a set change—that figured in this flop. By Rachel Fernandes “Cactus Time in Arizona,” one of the Gershwin brothers’ relatively unknown songs, was composed for the musical Girl Crazy in 1930 and sung by Ginger Rogers, the show’s romantic lead. “Cactus Time” didn’t receive much attention from the media when it first came out, though it has since been hailed as “infectious” by the Chicago Tribune (1999). The charming song features many of the same musical qualities of other Gershwin hits, such as […]

The Lukewarm Reception of ‘Funny Face’

“Funny Face” was the title song of the 1927 Gershwin musical Funny Face, which also included the hit song “’S Wonderful” (discussed in the previous post of the “What Makes a Hit” series). “Funny Face” has been so closely associated with Fred Astaire—the original performer of both tunes—that subsequent artists have rarely recorded the work. By Rachel Fernandes “Funny Face,” the title song of the 1927 musical Funny Face, was neither a hit nor a miss. It never became a standard and has rarely been recorded by successive artists, an aspect by which a song’s success is often measured. Instead, […]

Ira and His ‘S Marvelous Lyrics

George and Ira Gershwin wrote countless songs, but few are quite as iconic as “’S Wonderful.” In today’s installment of “What Makes a Hit,” we will explore how Ira’s use of American slang ensured this tune’s enduring popularity. By Rachel Fernandes “’S Wonderful” made its debut in the musical Funny Face, which opened at the Alvin Theater on Broadway on November 22, 1927, and ran for 244 performances. The successful show was actually based on a failed Gershwin musical titled Smarty, which opened in out-of-town previews in 1927 and was promptly canceled due to bad reviews. Both Smarty and Funny […]

A Matter of Timing: The Gershwins’ Place in History

Cultural events can shape the way a song is received, and the Gershwins’ tunes are no exception. In this second post of the “What Makes a Hit” series, we will focus on how the advancement of radio astronomy and the Great Depression played a role in George and Ira’s success. And if you haven’t read the introductory post, head here to learn more about this 8-part series! By Rachel Fernandes It’s impossible to separate a popular song from the moment in which it was written. An understanding of a work’s historical context can give us particular insight into the public’s […]

What Makes a Hit?!

Welcome to our newest series, “What Makes a Hit”! Over the past two years, Rachel Fernandes, one of the Gershwin Initiative’s undergraduate assistants, explored some of George and Ira Gershwin’s most popular Broadway songs—and a handful of near-misses—in order to answer the question: what makes a hit? In this introduction to the series, Rachel examines some characteristics that feature prominently in the Gershwin brothers’ most successful songs. Ready to learn more? Read on! By Rachel Fernandes What is a “hit” song? The Webster-Merriam Dictionary defines a “hit” as “something that is very successful”—typically measured by the profit generated by, or […]

Tin Pan Alley’s “Hawaiian Craze” of 1916

In 1916, during Tin Pan Alley’s “Hawaiian Craze”, Mele Kalikimaka was indeed the thing to say!  George Gershwin spent his teenage years, from 1914-1917, cutting his teeth as a song plugger for the publisher Jerome H. Remick & Co. in Tin Pan Alley.  In the early twentieth century, Tin Pan Alley was the hotbed of American popular song composition, churning out hit after hit by composers Gershwin admired. Many successful composers, like Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, had similarly begun their careers as song pluggers or house pianists. Tin Pan Alley songs are notorious for their use and appropriation of […]

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