Of Thee We Sing! Happy 112th, George!

One hundred twelve years ago on September 26th, Jacob Gershwine entered the world (the family name morphed around the turn of the century from “Gershovitz”, to “Gershvin”, to “Gershwin”; “Gershwine” was likely just an alternate spelling of “Gershvin”). This boy, raised in New York City with his three siblings by Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, would grow up to become one of America’s most cherished composers and leave his mark on the world under a new name – George Gershwin.

Gershwin is celebrated in the world of music for his highly acclaimed classical works such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, as well as for his musicals which have contributed numerous songs to the repertoire of American pop and jazz standards. Despite the different audiences and venues for which he may have been composing, his musical output shares roots in jazz and thus identifies Gershwin’s sound as distinctly American. What I find phenomenal is the variety of artists who have been and continually are drawn back to Gershwin’s timeless tunes. Brian Wilson, co-founder of The Beach Boys, provides his personal interpretation of Gershwin’s most celebrated works on his recording, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin, released just last month. Wilson includes an a cappella version of Rhapsody in Blue that is supported by the masterful vocal harmonies for which Wilson has been known since his Beach Boys days. Intriguing additions to the album are two original songs Wilson based on unpublished Gershwin fragments.

Highlights from Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s successful opera which has been performed by classically trained opera singers over the past 75 years, include “I Loves You Porgy”, popularized in 1958 by Nina Simone, and the ever popular “Summertime”, recorded by countless musicians from Billy Holiday in 1936 to Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968, and also performed in 2009 by Tori Amos. Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” has also enjoyed a long, active life now with Ella Fitzgerald’s famous version and the myriad of covers since its creation (including a performance by Lady Gaga earlier this summer on The Today Show!).

The list of performers and artists who have been influenced by Gershwin is endless. His music is and will continue to be kept alive and fresh by country artists, jazz musicians, pop stars and beyond. It’s no wonder the George and Ira Gershwin Collection is one of the most heavily used collections here in the Music Division.

There are surely other favorite recordings and renditions out there, so let us hear what they are!

While Gershwin’s music continues to be re-imagined almost three quarters of a century after his death, it seems fitting to conclude this post by returning to a performance by the composer himself; as we remember George Gershwin and his contributions to music, take a minute to listen to this clip of Of Thee I Sing available on the Performing Arts Encyclopedia, featuring Gershwin himself on the piano in 1934. Happy Birthday, George!

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