06 February, 2009
Ira Gershwin was an American lyricist who collaborated with his younger brother, composer George Gershwin, to create some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century.
With George he wrote more than a dozen Broadway shows, featuring songs such as "I Got Rhythm", "Embraceable You", "The Man I Love" and "Someone to Watch Over Me", and the opera Porgy and Bess.
The success the brothers had with their collaborative works has often overshadowed the creative role that Ira played. However, his mastery of songwriting continued after the early death of George. He wrote additional hit songs with composers Jerome Kern ("Long Ago (and Far Away)"), Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen.
His critically acclaimed book Lyrics on Several Occasions of 1959, an amalgam of autobiography and annotated anthology, is an important source for studying the art of the lyricist in the golden age of American popular song.
Gershwin was born Israel Gershowitz in New York City to Morris and Rose Gershovitz. Shy in his youth, he spent much of his time at home reading, but from grammar school through college, he played a prominent part in several school newspapers and magazines. He graduated from Townsend Harris High School where he met Yip Harburg. He graduated from City College of New York.
While his younger brother began composing and "plugging" in Tin Pan Alley from the age of eighteen, Ira worked as a cashier in his father's Turkish baths. It was not until 1921 that Ira became involved in the music business. Alex Aarons signed Ira to write the music for his next show (Two Little Girls in Blue, ultimately produced by Abraham Erlanger), with co-composers Vincent Youmans and Paul Lannin. Gershwin's lyrics were well received and allowed him to successfully enter the theatre world with just one show.
It was not until 1924 that Ira and George Gershwin teamed up to write the music for their first Broadway hit Lady, Be Good!. Once the brothers joined together, their combined talents became one of the most influential forces in the history of American Musical Theatre. Together, they wrote the music for more than twelve shows and four films. Some of their more famous works include "The Man I Love", "Fascinating Rhythm", "Someone to Watch Over Me", "I Got Rhythm", "Summertime", and "They Can't Take That Away from Me". Their partnership continued until George's sudden death from a brain tumor in 1937.
Following his brother's death, Ira waited nearly three years before writing again. After this interlude, he teamed up with such accomplished composers as Jerome Kern (Cover Girl); Kurt Weill (Where Do We Go from Here? and Lady in the Dark)'; and Harold Arlen (A Star Is Born). Over the next fourteen years, Gershwin continued to write the lyrics for many film scores and a few Broadway shows. But the failure of Park Avenue in 1946, a 'smart' show about divorce, co-written with composer Arthur Schwartz, was his farewell to Broadway. As he wrote at the time, "Am reading a couple of stories for possible musicalization (if there is such a word) but I hope I don't like them as I think I deserve a long rest."
American singer, pianist, musical historian Michael Feinstein worked for Gershwin in the lyricist's latter years, helping him with his archive. Several lost musical treasures were unearthed during this period, and Feinstein performed some of the material.
Gershwin died in Beverly Hills, and is interred at Westchester Hills Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.