04 February, 2009
Jerome David Kern was an American composer of popular music. He wrote around 700 songs, including such classics as "Ol' Man River", "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "A Fine Romance", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", "All the Things You Are", "The Way You Look Tonight", and "Who?", a 6-week #1 hit for George Olsen & his Orchestra in 1925. His career spanned dozens of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films from 1902 until his death. Although Kern wrote almost exclusively for musical theatre and musical film, the harmonic richness of his compositions lends them well to the jazz idiom (which typically emphasizes improvisation based on a harmonic structure) and many Kern melodies have been adopted by jazz musicians to become standard tunes.
Jerome Kern was born in New York City to Fanny and Henry Kern, both German Jews. They named him Jerome because they lived near Jerome Park, a favorite place of theirs. (Jerome Park was named after Leonard Jerome, who was the father of Jennie Jerome, mother of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.) Kern grew up on East 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan, where he attended public schools. Fanny Kern encouraged her son to take piano lessons. Henry Kern was a merchandiser and sold pianos among other items. Although Henry wanted his son to go into business with him, Jerome insisted on staying with music.
Kern studied at the New York College of Music and then briefly in 1904, in Heidelberg, Germany. From 1905 on, Kern spent large blocks of time in London, contributing songs to numerous London shows and marrying Eva Leale in Walton-on-Thames in 1910. In New York, he started working as a rehearsal pianist, initially contributing numbers for interpolation into other composers' scores. On May 1, 1915, Kern was supposed to accompany Charles Frohman to London on board the RMS Lusitania, but overslept after being kept up late playing requests at a party. Frohman died in the sinking of the ship.
At the end of 1915, Kern was contracted by producer George Kleine to supply the music for an early movie serial, Gloria's Romance from 1916. (One of the first starring vehicles for Billie Burke, this 16-part serial is now considered a lost film.) In the style of silent film music, he supplied a series of themes for basic characters and turns of plot.
Kern's biggest hit of his early career was the song "They Didn't Believe Me" (lyric by Edward Laska) that was interpolated into the 1914 production The Girl from Utah.
Kern composed sixteen Broadway scores between 1915 and 1920, with the most notable being the shows he wrote for the Princess Theatre, a small (299-seat) house built by Ray Comstock. Comstock and agent Elizabeth Marbury joined forces to produce intimate, small-cast, low-budget musicals and hired Kern and librettist Guy Bolton. These shows were unique on Broadway not only for their small size, but their coherent plots, integrated scores and naturalistic acting. After a modest success adapting a London operetta (Nobody Home in 1915), the team created an original piece, Very Good Eddie. British lyricist-librettist P.G. Wodehouse joined the Princess team in 1917, adding his impeccable humor to the succeeding shows: Oh, Boy! (1917), Leave It To Jane (1917), Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918), and Oh, My Dear! (1918), the last of which had music by Louis Hirsch.
The 1920s were an extremely productive period in American Musical Theatre and Kern created at least one show per year for the entire decade.
In 1920, Kern wrote the entire score for the musical Sally, with book and lyrics by Otto Harbach. This popular show introduced song "Look for the Silver Lining", performed by the rising Broadway star Marilyn Miller.
1925 was a major turning point in Kern's career when he met Oscar Hammerstein II with whom he would entertain a lifelong friendship and collaboration. Their first show (written together with Harbach) was Sunny, which featured the song "Who (Stole My Heart Away)?". The by-now renowned Marilyn Miller played the title role in Sunny, as she had in Sally.
In 1927, Kern and Hammerstein wrote Show Boat, which musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger has hailed as, "the greatest single step forward in American musical theatre, enabling composers, lyricists and librettists to introduce more mature subject matter into their shows." Based on the book of the same name by Edna Ferber, the sprawling work featured an unusually serious plot highlighting racism and miscegenation. The score is, arguably, Kern's greatest and includes the well-known songs "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" as well as "Make Believe", "You Are Love", "Life Upon the Wicked Stage", "Why Do I Love You", and "Bill". Although Ferber's novel was filmed unsuccessfully as a part-talkie in 1929 (using few songs from the Kern score), the musical itself was filmed twice, in 1936, and, with Technicolor, in 1951. Both the 1936 and 1951 films were box-office successes ; the 1936 film was especially acclaimed by critics.
While most Kern musicals have largely been forgotten except for their songs, Show Boat remains well-remembered and frequently seen. It is a staple of stock productions and has been revived numerous times on Broadway and in London. A 1946 revival integrated choreography into the show, in the manner of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, as did the 1993 Harold Prince revival. Several of the songs from Show Boat were arranged by Charles Miller into the orchestral work Scenario for Orchestra: Themes from Show Boat in 1941 and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodziński, a unique honor for a Broadway show.
In January 1929, at the height of the Jazz Age and with Show Boat still playing on Broadway, Kern sold at auction at New York's Anderson Galleries the splendid collection of English and American literature he had been forming for more than a decade. The collection, rich in inscribed first editions and manuscript material of eighteenth and nineteenth century authors, sold for a total of $1,729,462.50 -- a record for a single - owner sale which stood for over fifty years.
In 1930, Kern was placed under contract by Warner Brothers to produce a series of musicals. The first product of that contract was Men of the Sky which was released in 1931 but largely ignored due to public backlash against the early glut of film musicals that greeted the advent of film sound. Consequently, Warner Bros. bought out his contract and he returned to the stage.
In 1935, when musical films had become popular once again, Kern relocated to Hollywood, although he continued working on Broadway productions as well. This second phase of Kern's Hollywood career was greeted with considerably greater artistic and commercial success. For Swing Time (starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire), he wrote "The Way You Look Tonight" (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields), which won the Academy Award in 1936 for the best song. Other songs in the film include "A Fine Romance", "Pick Yourself Up", and "Never Gonna Dance". In 1941, Kern and Hammerstein wrote "The Last Time I Saw Paris", in homage to the French city just recently occupied by the Germans. The song was used in the film Lady Be Good and won another Oscar for Best Song - the only time a song not written for the film it appears in won the Oscar. In 1944, Kern teamed up with Ira Gershwin to write the songs for one of his best-remembered film musicals, Cover Girl, starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. It featured the classic song "Long Ago and Far Away", and an unusual instrumental musical number in which Kelly, through trick photography, danced with himself. That same year Kern also wrote the music for songs in Universal Pictures' Deanna Durbin musical comedy, Can't Help Singing.
Kern and Otto Harbach's The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), about a composer and an opera singer, featured the songs "She Didn't Say Yes" and "The Night Was Made for Love". Eddie Foy, Jr. played a role in it.
Music in the Air (1932) was another Kern-Hammerstein collaboration that is best remembered today for the song "The Song Is You". Another tune from the show, "In Egern on the Tegern See", is parodied by the song "In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essenzook Zee" in Rick Besoyan's satirical 1959 musical Little Mary Sunshine.
Roberta (1933) by Kern and Otto Harbach included the songs "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Yesterdays" and featured, among others, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, George Murphy and Sydney Greenstreet all in the early stages of their careers. The 1935 film adaptation of the show was another Astaire/Rogers vehicle that jettisoned much of the Broadway score but added "Lovely to Look At" and "I Won't Dance". A 1952 Technicolor remake, entitled "Lovely to Look At", included more of the score, including the two added numbers written for the 1935 film version, but was not as successful as the earlier one. Roberta is the only one of Kern's shows to have been adapted twice for television, both times especially as a vehicle for Bob Hope.
Kern's last Broadway show was the rather unsuccessful Very Warm for May (1939), although the score included another Kern/Hammerstein classic, "All The Things You Are". In 1985, the centenary of his birth, a rediscovered recording of a radio production featuring the original cast received a Grammy Nomination as Best Cast Show Album. "All the Things You Are" has been recorded countless times as a jazz standard, including a flamboyant 1949 version by high-note trumpeter Maynard Ferguson that enraged Kern's widow and was withdrawn from sale.
Kern suffered a heart attack in 1939 and was told by his doctors to concentrate on film scores - a less stressful task since Hollywood songwriters were not as deeply involved with the production of films as Broadway songwriters were with the production of stage musicals.
In the Fall of 1945, Kern returned to New York City to oversee auditions for a new revival of Show Boat, and begin work on the score for what would become the musical Annie Get Your Gun. On November 5, 1945, Jerome Kern suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking at the south west corner of Park Avenue and 57th street. Identifiable only by his ASCAP card, Kern was initially taken to the indigent ward at City Hospital, later being transferred to Doctors Hospital in Manhattan. Collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II was at his side when Kern's breathing stopped and when Hammerstein hummed "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" (a personal favorite of the composer's) into Kern's ear but received no response, Hammerstein knew Kern was gone.
Kern is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. At the time of Kern's death, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was filming a fictionalized version of his life, Till the Clouds Roll By, which was released in 1946 starring Robert Walker as Kern.