Music: The man who got rhythm

George Gershwin wrote some of the most beautiful songs you've ever heard. He has been brilliantly interpreted by all the greats, from Ella to Miles Davis. He was born 100 years ago today.

George Gershwin remains the archetypal American composer. Born into a modest, though hardly poverty-stricken, immigrant family, he began his musical education on the streets of New York in the early years of the century. It was a good time to be out there listening. The ethnic cultures converging on the city had all brought their music with them. Two predominated, and both were available to him, by birth or by affinity; he became the first Jewish composer - the first white composer - to work comfortably with black idioms. Jazz was imposing itself, and he used it; an indigenous musical theatre was developing, and by the time he reached his mid-20s, he was close to taking it over.

From these popular bases, he moved into the concert-hall, and if his original audience couldn't always be physically there with him, they were cheering him on from outside. He was doing a very American thing - demonstrating, in the teeth of academic snobbery, the unity of popular and official culture - and they must have felt that he was doing it for them, taking their music into grander settings. The gifts of melody and rhythm that made his concert works, from Rhapsody in Blue onwards, so attractive, were essentially those that had made his fortune on Broadway. When wedded to a growing sense of form and character, they produced Porgy and Bess whose intoxicating quality is that it is a true opera made out of show music.

Rhythm and melody. Rhythm - the feeling of 1920s jazz, adapted to the theatre - was what people loved about Gershwin and what he, quite consciously, was offering them. It was, both parties knew, the tempo of the times. In 1930, when a Gershwin song proclaimed "I Got Rhythm", it was an archetypal statement: so much so that seven years later, George and his lyricist brother Ira were able to quote it directly in another song, "Nice Work If You Can Get It".

Energy and drive were the Gershwin trademarks: his contract with his public. But "Nice Work" itself proclaims that there was more: it's a happy- sounding song with a sad edge. Gershwin himself was a fun-loving, gregarious, lonely, driven man. And melancholy - derived from the blues or the Hebrew liturgy, or both - is always likely to shade a Gershwin tune, though never to suffocate it.

Ira wrote playful, urbane, rather distanced lyrics. As has often been noted, his gentleness complements his brother's attack. Together, they created a world: a gallant one that laughs and yearns but prefers not to weep. (Porgy, one of the few tragic works of the 20th century, is a grand exception.) George's cruelly early death set the seal on his legendary status; he lived the American dream, and he died it.

Here, with some cheating, are my top 10 Gershwin songs and performances. The list is chronological by composition, and inevitably somewhat arbitrary. You may disagree with my choices; but then tomorrow, so may I.

1"Under a One-Man Top"

An early song, without Ira - but Buddy de Sylva's lyric, hymning the unpretentious joys of motoring the open road as a couple, is perfectly charming, as are the melody and unforcedly jaunty rhythm. Not trademark Gershwin, but the essence of 1924, when precociousness was all. Barbara Cook and Anthony Perkins (yes, he sang) capture it to shy perfection on George Gershwin Revisited (Painted Smiles).

2"Sweet and Low Down"

A relaxed rhythm tune, one of Gershwin's best, evoking New York nightlife in the speakeasy era: "There's a cabaret in this city..." Try Lee Wiley's 1940 recording - from one of the first ever composer albums, now available on Lee Wiley Sings George Gershwin and Cole Porter (Audiophile) - exuding, like all her work, veiled and smoky sexuality.

3 "Someone to Watch Over Me"

This was written as a fast dance tune, and the sensed presence of a beat accentuates the sweet and hopeful lyric it eventually received. "Although he [or I]/ may not be the man some/ Girls think of as handsome" makes everyone feel vulnerable or protective - and, most importantly, included. It's an irresistibly tender song. Every female singer has recorded it (plus a few brave men, including Sinatra). The palm may go to Dawn Upshaw, the new queen of crossover, who steadfastly irradiates it - and the rest of the score - on a complete recording of the source show, Oh Kay! (Nonesuch).

4 "Funny Face"

You can't go wrong with Fred Astaire singing Gershwin (or anything else, actually) - from the 1924 show Lady Be Good to the 1937 film A Damsel in Distress, plus all the subsequent recreations. He performed "Funny Face" twice - in the 1927 stage musical, trading affectionate insults with sister Adele, and the 1957 film (soundtrack on Verve), in which his singing is supremely warm and winning. It may not be a great Gershwin song but it's a defining Gershwin moment, brimming with wry confidence. The face serenaded in the film is that of Audrey Hepburn, who sings a divine "How Long Has This Been Going On": you'll love her funny voice.

5"Let's Kiss and Make Up"

From the same score, stage and screen, this pulsating, vivacious song is best preserved on the Ella Fitzgerald multi-disc, Gershwin Songbook; she especially revels in the urgent, playful extended ending. This is a not-quite-random choice from an essential collection, the crown of a great series. Another might be "They All Laughed", where the line: "They all laughed when Edison recorded sound," inspires a trumpet to pipe up in exact imitation of the legendary obligato of Harry "Sweets" Edison in, of course, recorded sound. Nelson Riddle's arrangements are elegantly swinging and endlessly resourceful. You want The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Songbooks (Verve: 16 CDs, and very dapper for a box-set), so get it.

6"How Long Has This Been Going On"

A long-lined, teasingly sensual ballad that begs for a slow swing, and gets it from Ella (Like Someone in Love, Verve). She sings it on the Songbook too, but this is better, including two full choruses of Ira's admirable lyric and the better of his two verses, rhyming "panties", "aunties", and "an inferno worse than Dante's."

7 "Embraceable You"

This can be cute when sung brisk and serious-comic (as it probably was in Girl Crazy) but for general consumption it's simply Gershwin's loveliest ballad, silken and languorous. Nobody has sung it more sumptuously or inventively than Sarah Vaughan with a trio led by pianist Jimmy Jones on Sarah Vaughan or The George Gershwin Songbook Vol. 2, (EmArcy). Beautiful tune and beautiful voice are mutually enhancing; even Vaughan sceptics, wary of her pyrotechnic excesses, will succumb. (This is the testimony of a convert.)

8"It Ain't Necessarily So"

The first near-complete recording of the opera Porgy and Bess appeared in 1951, and it's still the best (it's about to be reissued by Sony). Goddard Lieberson's production is enormously atmospheric, and the cast includes veterans of the 1935 original cast and the first major (1942) revival. Among the latter, is Avon Long, a gleeful and serpentine Sportin' Life whose mocking inflections have never been equalled. For a slow and soulful reading of this non-credo, hunt up Bobby Darin's version, tucked away in his first album of standards (the one that included "Mack the Knife"); it's haunting with witty, verbal variants ("Jonah resided in a whale"). The great instrumental Porgy is, of course, the Miles Davis- Gil Evans jazz suite, a masterpiece drawn from a masterpiece. "I Loves You Porgy" has received moving, emotionally naked jazz-pop performances from Nina Simone and from Billie Holiday who, had she possessed the voice and the acting ability, would have been the perfect Bess.

9"They Can't Take That Away From Me"

Gershwin's greatest song - a yearning but forbearing farewell - was written for Astaire, and his courteous elegance is written all over it. There are two great hip versions by Sinatra, but my choice is Ira's long-time neighbour, on Rosemary Clooney Sings the Lyrics of Ira Gershwin (Concord Jazz). Her reading is brisk and unsentimental, the facade subtly cracking only at the last fence: "the way you've changed my life..."

10 "Hi-Ho"

Written for the same film (Shall We Dance) and unused, though its strolling tempo and sunny wordplay would have been classic Astaire. And you feel his presence through the performances of other people. Tony Bennett does it well, and Bobby Short even better on a treasure-trove of an album, Bobby Short Is K-raz-y for Gershwin (Atlantic), that goes from rarities like this to a stirring revivification of "Love Is Here To Stay". This, appropriately enough, is prime cafe-society Gershwin. "Hi Ho" is a long song, but you don't want it to end.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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