Ira Gershwin was the first lyricist to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for the 1932 musical comedy Of Thee I Sing. George, the younger brother, was the composer. He was capable of composing for both symphony halls and jazz clubs, and his best-known works meld the jazz aesthetic with sophisticated classical composition.
George’s first song, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em” was published when he was 17 years old and working as a “song plugger” on Tin Pan Alley.
The tune earned George five dollars.
Ira started his career in music a few years after George, penning the lyrics for the Broadway show Two Little Girls in Blue (1921) under the pseudonym “Arthur Francis.” Ira’s work was well received, providing the elder Gershwin with a foot in the Broadway door.
George and Ira then teamed up for a number of successful Broadway revues, beginning with the musical comedy Lady Be Good (1924), and followed by Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930), Show Girl (1929) and Girl Crazy (1930)—from which one of the Gershwins’ most famous standards, “I Got Rhythm,” originated.
George and Ira’s grandest achievement, one might argue, is the astoundingly rich and complex music of Porgy and Bess. The score, in addition to generating many popular jazz standards (“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” among others), is full of sophisticated classical composition, including a fugue, a passacaglia, the use of atonality, polytonality, polyrhythm, and a tone row.
Just two years after the premiere of Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He died months later, on July 11, 1937, at the age of thirty-eight. He continued to work on Porgy and Bess until the end of his life.
Ira didn’t write any new material for three years after the death of his brother. Once he returned to the music world, Ira spent fourteen years writing lyrics for a wide range of theater and film musicals before retiring.
George received his first and only Academy Award nomination posthumously, in 1937, for a song he wrote with Ira for the film Shall We Dance. Watch Fred Astaire perform this classic love song.
In 2007, the Library of Congress named its Prize for Popular Song after the Gershwin brothers. The award recognizes “the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world’s culture;” the first three winners of the prize were Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.
Visit the Ira and George Gershwin Official Website (maintained by the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trust) for more on these legends of American music.