first encounters; When Irving Berlin met George Gershwin

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Great War was over, and the whole country seemed addicted to song. Who better to supply the national need than the King of Ragtime, Irving Berlin? "Come on and hear (boom! boom!), come on and hear (boom! boom!) Alexander's Ragtime Band." That early hit had sold a million copies in a few months. Now Berlin, back from the Army, stopped by the TB Harms Co, in Tin Pan Alley, to show the publisher Max Dreyfus his latest. "That Revolutionary Rag", Dreyfus read, "'Twas made across the sea/By a tricky slicky/Bolsheviki..." But the notes were a problem. Berlin's musical education had evolved from a battered piano in a Bowery saloon and remained forever locked in the key of F sharp. He needed someone to take down the song for him. Dreyfus said he had just the man - only a kid, really, but showing great promise.

Enter young George Gershwin, glad to oblige. Harms was a big step up from Remick, where he had pounded a piano in a cubicle as many as ten hours a day. He took down the song, made a lead sheet, and played it back to Berlin with extravagant improvisations that left it almost unrecognisable. Then, abruptly, he asked the composer for a job as his musical secretary. Berlin intimated he might be overqualified. What did he really want to do? Write songs, Gershwin said, tearing up the keyboard with his latest. "What the hell do you want to work for anyone else for?" Berlin asked. "Work for yourself!"

Gershwin took his advice, and within the year there was "Swanee". Then came "Stairway to Paradise". "Rhapsody in Blue" made him as famous, and almost as wealthy, as Berlin. They became friends - two hustlers of Russian- Jewish parentage making it big in America.

Gershwin was 20 that day they met in the Alley. Brash, confident, he seemed just at the beginning of his life, whereas in reality it was more than half over. Berlin, a more cautious 30, would not have believed his own eventual longevity. Surely Alexander did strike up the band the day Irving Berlin reached one hundred!

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