BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Gershwins and Me’
THE GERSHWINS AND ME: A PERSONAL HISTORY IN TWELVE SONGS
By Michael Feinstein
Simon & Schuster, $45, 351 pages
This is not merely “another Gershwin book” about the music that has survived almost a full century. Many edifying accounts of the towering 20th-century iconic Gershwin brothers have been published in the 76 years since George (the composer) died at age 37. The Gershwin legacy also survived well beyond the ripe-old-age departure (decades later at age 86) of elder brother Ira (the lyricist). The melodious results of the Gershwins’ creativity retained a public approval that remained intact right through the rock ‘n’ roll era, and well into the 21st century.
As we approach the Gershwin music centennial at the end of this decade, music lovers the world over now have a detailed and thoroughly researched work on that distinctive epoch.
In “The Gershwins and Me: A Personal History in Twelve Songs,” Michael Feinstein has produced what, for many years, likely will be widely accepted as the ultimate authoritative reference work on George and Ira Gershwin.
The author (born in 1956, nearly two decades after George Gershwin’s death), researched the life of George before he met Ira, and became his archivist. The author modestly disclaims possession of “the last word” on all things Gershwin, but he probably knows as much about that stimulating history as anyone else alive. The book contains much new information.
It is with humility that the reviewer, long fascinated with the lives, the music and the sheer drive of the Gershwin brothers, attempts to do justice to a volume of 351 large (double-columned) pages, each chapter dedicated to the history of some of the most memorable Gershwin songs. Just for good measure, the author includes with the book a CD of his own piano and vocal renditions of each of the 12 standards.
Mr. Feinstein, a successful lyricist, pianist, vocalist and nightclub impresario in his own right, had studied music in general, and in particular, the phenomenon that became the Gershwin era since his youngest days.
George Gershwin was as versatile as any other composer in history. He was master of the ballad (“Embraceable You”), upbeat (“Fascinatin’ Rhythm”), the march (“Strike up the Band”), opera (“Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess”), classical/pops (“Rhapsody in Blue”) and jazz (as applied to many of his standards, which were adaptable to that genre).
“Rhapsody in Blue,” one of the most performed pieces for piano and orchestra in the world, was composed in 1924 by George Gershwin within anywhere from 10 to 30 days. Some miscommunication between George and band leader Paul Whiteman leaves the precise time frame unclear, but he ended up putting it together far more quickly than one would expect of a masterpiece that resonates nearly 90 years later. Because that “breakthrough” touches so many musical bases, the book defines the rhapsody as “a genre in itself.”
As classical music, “Rhapsody in Blue” was not a “one-off” for George; among his others was the symphonic tone poem “An American in Paris,” composed in 1928 on commission from the New York Philharmonic. The gifted composer has been quoted as saying his purpose there was to portray an impression of the American who strolls the streets of Paris absorbing the taxi horns and other Parisian street noises of “the French atmosphere.”
George’s career began after he left school at age 15. His start occurred in Tin Pan Alley, so named because of a New York City block populated with musical talents whose simultaneous practice sessions produced a discordant cacophony in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, geniuses were at work, and George was comfortable among them.
Later, George and Ira produced the scores for such Broadway sellouts as “Oh, Kay,” “Lady Be Good,” “Funny Face” and “Of Thee I Sing.” Along the way, they worked with the likes of Al Jolson as well as the brother-sister team of Fred and Adele Astaire. Their Gershwin hit songs of those shows endure to this day. The thin plots of the plays themselves are long forgotten.
In the 1930s, as the Depression caused some theaters to go dark, the Gershwins’ success transferred to Hollywood, though they found studio control there far more confining than that exerted by New York’s legitimate theater.
George’s untimely death of a tumor brought the multifaceted venture to a halt. What might have been? “Plenty,” Mr. Feinstein says. Example: George was actively engaged in another opera; the 1943 Broadway hit “Oklahoma” might have been written by the Gershwins. George and Ira would have continued to change the face of music, the archivist/author says.
Wes Vernon is a broadcast journalist whose career included 25 years with CBS Radio. His column appears regularly at RenewAmerica.com.