On this day: George Gershwin is born

September 26 1898: birth of a great composer

By Jennifer Lipman, September 26, 2010

The composer made just five dollars from his first song but later became an American musical legend.

Turned down for a job by Irving Berlin when he was 20, George Gershwin was told: “You’re meant for big things.” The prophecy came true.

The son of immigrants from Russia, Jacob Gershowitz left school at 15 and began writing popular tunes for Broadway musicals, concert hall shows and operas. In 1927 Fred Astaire took to the stage in Funny Face, a musical Gershwin wrote in collaboration with his elder brother Ira. It was one of several successes they had together.

But Gershwin’s other love was jazz, and Rhapsody in Blue premiered when the composer was 25. It baffled some critics at the time, but remains loved today.

In 1935 his folk opera “Porgy and Bess” was performed for the first time, drawing accusations of racism. Shall We Dance, a hit for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, was released two yaers later, featuring the classic songs Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off and They Can’t Take That Away From Me.

Two months later Gershwin, who never had children, died of brain tumour.

What the JC said: Gershwin drew together the sounds that burst out of the black and Jewish ghettoes and mixed them with the European musical theatre inheritance. The result flowered into more than one of the great American art forms.

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Last updated: 11:45am, October 12 2010