By Philip Furia
Today marks the 116th anniversary of the birth of Ira Gershwin, lyricist and brother to composer George Gershwin. There are many fascinating details about Ira, ten of which are collected here.
1. When Ira was growing up, he held a lot of odd jobs, one of which was shipping clerk at the B. Altman department store housed in the same building where today Oxford University Press has its offices.
2. Ira loved to play Scrabble. In one game he triumphed by using all seven of his letters to spell out CHOPSUEY. I don’t know which letter was already on the board that he built upon.
3. One of Ira’s neighbors on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills was Angie Dickinson, then at the height of her success with television’s “Police Woman.” Angie was a good poker player and frequently joined the poker games at Ira’s house with the likes of Harold Arlen (“Over the Rainbow”), Arthur Freed (“Singin’ in the Rain”), and other prominent songwriters. At the time, she said, she didn’t realize what august company she was in — still, she frequently cleaned the old boys out. She also learned what a stickler Ira was for grammar. After he had lost a lot of money to her, she said, “Ira, I feel badly that you lost so much.” Ira snapped, “Would you feel ‘goodly’ if I had won?”
4. Ira was also a stickler for proper pronunciation. It annoyed him if someone said “Ca-RIB-be-an” instead of “CA-rib-BE-an.”
5. So it annoyed him when singers took upon themselves to “correct” his deliberate grammatical and pronunciation errors — singing “I’ve Got Rhythm” instead of “I Got Rhythm,” “It’s Wonderful” instead of “‘S Wonderful,” “The Man Who Got Away” instead of “The Man That Got Away.”
6. Ira admired Dorothy Fields as a lyricist, the one woman among that tight-knit group of male songwriters, but he thought it was unforgivable that she playfully distorted the proper accent of “RO-mance” in “A Fine Ro-mance (my friend this is, a fine Ro-mance with no kisses…)”
7. Ira loved all sorts of verbal play. He once built an entire lyric out of “spoonerisms,” named after a British clergyman who loved the reversal of syllables that produces “The Lord is a shoving leopard” instead of “The Lord is a loving shepherd.” Technically such reversals are termed “metathesis” (which can be “spoonered” into “methasetis”). In The Firebrand of Florence Ira concocted such hilarious spoonerisms as “I know where there’s a nosy cook (instead of “cozy nook”)… where we can kill and boo (instead of “bill and coo”)… I love your sturgeon vile (instead of “I love your virgin style”).
8. Three of Ira Gershin’s lyrics were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” and “The Man That Got Away.” All three lost. Ira decided it was because he had used the word “away” in the title and vowed “Away with ‘Away’!”
9. In London, he attended a rehearsal for a revue of Gershwin songs. Backstage, one of the English singers said she simply did not understand his lyric for “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” When Ira asked what the problem was, she sang, “You say eye-ther and I say eye-ther, you say nye-ther and I say nye-ther…” then said “I just don’t get it, Mr. Gershwin.”
10. He had friends over for cocktails one afternoon and someone suggested they all go for dinner at a prominent restaurant in Beverly Hills. Ira offered to call and see if he could get a table for all of them. He came back to say he could not get a reservation because the restaurant was booked. One of his friends asked to use his phone and came to say he had gotten a table for the entire group that would be ready in a few minutes. When Ira asked how he was able to do that, the friend said, “I used your name.”
Philip Furia is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of The Songs of Hollywood (with Laurie Patterson), Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, and The Poets of Tin Pan Alley.
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By Philip Furia
Next to George and Ira Gershwin, the only major fraternal songwriting team in the history of American popular music has been Robert and Richard Sherman. Together, the Sherman brothers wrote songs for such film musicals as Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Tom Sawyer, The Jungle Book, and The Aristocats. Richard Sherman composed the music for their songs, and both he and Robert wrote the lyrics.
Growing up in New York and then California, the boys were encouraged in their literary and artistic activities by their father, Al Sherman, a songwriter who had written such hits as “You Gotta Be a Football Hero.” The Sherman brothers had their first major success in 1960 with a rock ’n’ roll song, “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine),” which Ringo Starr revived in 1974.
Walt Disney put them under contract to write songs for his studio’s films; the Sherman brothers were among the last songwriters in Hollywood to work exclusively for a single studio. Their most successful Disney film was Mary Poppins, which won an Oscar for best musical score and another for Best Song (“Chim Chim Cher—ee”). The most famous song from the film, however, is “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which exhibited the brothers’ verbal inventiveness.
Walt Disney, a great storyteller himself, admired the Sherman brothers work because they wrote songs that were integrally tied to the story and characters of a musical. Their most famous song, however, was written as an independent number for the 1964 New York World’s Fair — “It’s a small world (after all).”
Robert Bernard Sherman was born in New York City on December 19, 1925. He spent his last years in London, where he died, at the age of eighty-six, on March 6, 2012.
Philip Furia is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is the author of The Songs of Hollywood with Laurie Patterson, Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist, and The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America’s Great Lyricists.
In honor of Lena Horne, who passed away last Sunday at the age of 92, Philip Furia has reflected on her legacy. Furia is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the author with Laurie Patterson of The Songs of Hollywood.
I would never pretend to be an expert on Lena Horne, but my research prompts me to make a few observations on her career as a singer of popular songs. Perhaps the most striking thing about her stellar career is that Lena Horne, alone among the great singers of her era, never introduced a hit song. The songs she is associated with are the “standards” of what’s been termed The Great American Song Book. In the television obituaries, for example, she was heard singing the classic songs of Cole Porter, Ira and George Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. Even her signature song, “Stormy Weather,” was originally written by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen for Ethel Waters in the 1933 Cotton Club Revue. (Waters, supposedly, always resented the fact that Lena Horne had co-opted “her” song).
One reason why Lena Horne’s song repertory was confined to the great standards is that for most of her career she worked in Hollywood films. In a few of these films, such as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather (both 1943), she had a leading role, but in most of her other films she had cameo roles where she sang songs as “performances” in night clubs and other settings. Rather than have her render new, untried songs, Hollywood studios took the safer route of having her sing tried and tested standards. Hollywood’s practice of recycling old songs, in fact, is one reason these songs became “standards” instead of simply fading away as most popular songs do after their heyday. (It didn’t hurt, too, that the studios often owned these old songs and stood to profit from their renewed popularity.)
Lena Horne’s greatest opportunity to introduce new hit songs came in 1946 when she was offered the lead in the Broadway musical St. Louis Woman, where she would have introduced such songs as “Come Rain or Come Shine” by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. Horne, however, refused the lead because she felt that the show caricatured blacks—even though the book was written by two African-American playwrights. Without Horne, St. Louis Woman quickly folded, and the singer lost one of her few chances to introduce hit songs.