When The Library of Congress established a Prize for Popular Song in 2007, one name was affixed to it: Gershwin. With no disrespect to Messrs. Berlin, Porter, Rodgers and company, George and Ira’s surname is synonymous with the gold standard in American popular song. The recipients of the award to date – Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King and Billy Joel – have all followed in the Gershwins’ footsteps of marrying smart, sophisticated and incisive lyrics to unabashedly melodic, sweeping musical statements. Starbucks’ recent compilation celebrates the songwriting siblings’ legacy. Fascinating Gershwin, with its cover artwork seemingly inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, features 16 tracks written by composer George and lyricist Ira. All but three have been drawn from the Universal Music catalogue.
Distilling the Gershwin oeuvre to 16 tracks is no easy task, but Fascinating Gershwin does it commendably, touching on artists from the pop, jazz and classical realms. (The set does, however, emphasize Porgy and Bess, with no fewer than five songs from the 1935 folk opera which blurred the lines between Broadway and classical. DuBose Heyward shares the co-lyricist credit with Ira on the Porgy compositions.) Glancing at the familiar songs heard here, it’s hardly a surprise that Gershwin compositions are still recorded – nearly eighty years after George’s tragic death in 1937 at 38 years old and over thirty after Ira’s passing in 1983 at 86 – with regularity. These timeless songs are, simply, sui generis.
Two tracks here feature original-cast performers, both revisiting their triumphs at later record dates. Fred Astaire probably introduced more American standards than any other singer – which still surprises many who think of him as a dancer first. Here, he’s heard on his 1952 recording of “Fascinating Rhythm” featuring the trio of Oscar Peterson on piano, Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Brown on bass. He and his sister Adele introduced the tune on Broadway in 1924 in the musical Lady, Be Good (about to be revived in New York as part of City Center’s Encores! series of musicals in concert). Six years after Lady, Be Good, Ethel Merman made her debut on the Great White Way in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy. The musical comedy also made a star of Astaire’s partner-to-be Ginger Rogers, but The Merm’s volcanic rendition of “I Got Rhythm” simply couldn’t be eclipsed. (Let it be noted that she was backed by an opening night pit orchestra including such jazz and big band luminaries as Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden!) With her vocal power largely undiminished, Merman recorded the version of “Rhythm” presented here in 1972 in London, with conductor Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus.
The chord progression of “I Got Rhythm” has inspired jazz improvisers for decades, serving as a springboard for their own compositions. But the Gershwin songbook proper has been much-mined in the jazz genre by instrumentalists and vocalists. Ella Fitzgerald pops up three times here. Her “Someone to Watch Over Me,” with solo piano accompaniment courtesy Ellis Larkins, is elegantly restrained as it captures the longing in Ira’s words. She then appears on two duets with Louis Armstrong, who also is represented three times. Satchmo and Ella must have relished the lighthearted verbal joust of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” as well as Porgy and Bess’ “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’,” which kicks off with a brash horn solo from Armstrong. Oscar Peterson serves as Louis’ foil on a typically relaxed “I Was Doing All Right,” which he certainly was! Perhaps the other most influential trumpeter in jazz – Miles Davis – is here, too, but on flugelhorn for another Porgy tune. On his evocative treatment of “Bess, You is My Woman Now,” first issued in 1959, he’s backed by Gil Evans’ incomparable orchestra.
Also from the landmark score of Porgy and Bess, Nina Simone offers her smoky, understated 1964 live performance of “I Loves You, Porgy” (the same song which Brian Wilson emotionally delivered on his own 2010 Gershwin tribute, with no genders or pronouns changed). Before she was the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin was imbuing grit, sass and gospel fervor to standards like “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” from 1961. Another unquestionable R&B legend, Sam Cooke, also paid tribute to Gershwin. He recorded the lullaby “Summertime” twice, including the 1957 version here. (This compilation avoids rock-era covers of Gershwin such as Janis Joplin’s reinvention of “Summertime.”)
Clearly vocalists of every stripe have been inspired by the Gershwin songbook. Billie Holiday’s 1955 “Nice Work if You Can Get It” shows off the jazz chanteuse’s unquestionable mastery of phrasing as she bends George’s notes and playfully swings Ira’s lyrics. Sarah Vaughan’s brassy “They All Laughed,” from 1957, mines the tune’s wit and wisdom. Nat “King” Cole, jazz leader turned smooth pop crooner, turns in a satiny, romantic “Love is Here to Stay,” aided immeasurably by Nelson Riddle’s remarkable orchestration. Another of Riddle’s most frequent collaborators, Frank Sinatra, is one of the key absences here. He recorded (and in some cases, re-recorded) Gershwin songs throughout his long career; his 1962 Neal Hefti-accompanied recording of the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” may well be the definitive version of that song, or at least one of the definitive versions!
Leonard Bernstein’s roughly 17-minute long 1982 recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of George’s 1924 Rhapsody in Blue is the concluding track on this set, reminding listeners of the scope of Gershwin’s ambition. Its blend of jazz and classical inspired the great Bernstein, who made his own mark on Broadway incorporating unmistakable, intricate yet accessible jazz-inflected rhythms into his own landmark scores like On the Town and West Side Story.
Fascinating Gershwin is packaged with customary care by Starbucks and producer Timothy Jones. It’s housed in a digipak and includes a thick 16-page booklet with an introductory essay and fine track-by-track liner notes from Steven Stolder…even if it seems rather questionable to use “schmaltzy” to describe the rhapsodically romantic “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” performed on this set by blues queen Dinah Washington.
In 2015, the Age of Gershwin is still in full swing. A Broadway adaptation of the movie musical based on George’s 1928 composition An American in Paris is scheduled to open at the fabled Palace Theatre in New York in March. Whether in the coffeehouse or at home, Fascinating Gershwin is a delightful tribute to two titans of American song.
Unfortunately, Fascinating Gershwin doesn’t appear to be available for order online. You can look for it at your local Starbucks.
Various Artists, Fascinating Gershwin (Starbucks B0022226-02, 2015)
- Someone to Watch Over Me – Ella Fitzgerald
- Fascinating Rhythm – Fred Astaire
- I Got Rhythm – Ethel Merman
- Bess, You is My Woman Now – Miles Davis with the Gil Evans Orchestra
- I Was Doing All Right – Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson
- I’ve Got a Crush on You – Dinah Washington
- I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ – Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
- I Loves You, Porgy – Nina Simone
- Isn’t it a Pity? – Shirley Horn
- It Ain’t Necessarily So – Aretha Franklin
- Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
- Love is Here to Stay – Nat “King” Cole
- Nice Work if You Can Get It – Billie Holiday
- They All Laughed – Sarah Vaughan
- Summertime – Sam Cooke
- Rhapsody in Blue – The Los Angeles Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor