George Jacob Gershwin is probably best known for being the composer of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Swanee,” “I Got Rhythm,” and the hit “Summertime” from the opera Porgy and Bess.Born in 1898, Gershwin was just 20 when he wrote the score for “Swanee” which, when paired with Irving Caesar’s lyrics, became a national hit. The ongoing popularity and royalties from the song, including the sale of 1 million copies of the sheet music and 2 million records sold, enabled Gershwin to leave pop music composition behind him and focus on theater and film scores. The results, as jazz lovers know, would become famous. Gershwin often worked with his brother, Ira, whose talents as a witty and inventive lyricist received as much praise as did Gershwin’s catchy melodies.
The brief synopsis above does not deliver what we promised for this article, however. Jazz lovers, music lovers, and aficionados of the 1920s and 1930s are deeply familiar with the facts above. We promised you five surprising facts about Gershwin, so take a look at the list below and let us know how many of these items you knew already.
His middle name wasn’t Jacob.
When George Gershwin was born, his birth certificate was filled out to indicate the baby boy’s name would be “Jacob Gershwine,” after his grandfather. He did not have a middle name at all. He soon became known as “George,” however, and changed the spelling of Gershwine when he became a professional musician. His brothers, Ira and Arthur, and sister, Frances, ultimately changed their surname spelling as well.
He had chronic anxiety.
At the time, Gershwin’s compulsive chewing on cigars, pulling on his nose, and chronic gastrointestinal issues ranging from constipation to diarrhea were credited to his artistic temperament. The composer himself referred to his stomach troubles as “composer’s stomach.” Near the end of his life, he attempted to deal with stress in unusual ways, such as covering his entire body with chocolate. Today, Gershwin would likely have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, clinical anxiety, and possibly ADHD and depression. Today, he would also likely have survived the initial treatment for his final (and accurate) diagnosis, which you will learn about next.
Gershwin died after a failed brain surgery.
Many people familiar with Gershwin know he died at the age of 38 as a result of a malignant brain tumor. After all, his brother, Ira, dedicated the entire body of his own musical works to George following the composer’s untimely demise. What you may not realize, however, is that it was not the tumor that killed Gershwin; it was the treatment. Gershwin died immediately following a failed attempt to remove that malignant brain tumor.
Sadly, the surgery was unavoidable, as Gershwin was terribly affected by the tumor by the time he sought treatment. The composer had attempted to push his own driver out of a car, experienced recurring olfactory hallucinations that gave him the impression he smelled burning rubber, and suffered from blackouts even during public piano performances. He was initially diagnosed with hysteria. After Gershwin collapsed and fell into a coma, physicians revised their opinion and renowned brain surgeon of the day Walter Dandy performed an emergency removal of what may have been a glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer that even today has a positive outcome (in which a patient survives more than five years after diagnosis and treatment) of about 3 percent. Gershwin died immediately following the removal of the tumor.
He never wrote another hit like his first one.
Gershwin’s first hit, “Swanee,” was also his biggest hit. He never beat his sales volumes or profits after the release of that song. However, it is important to note that he never tried to do so. The revenue from “Swanee” enabled him to concentrate on theater work, film scores, and performances. The composer did wonder aloud occasionally “if people will still play my music in 100 years” and, in an effort to achieve this, tried to avoid being seen as a “genre artist.” This attempt led Gershwin to create his now-famous opera, Porgy and Bess, which debuted to an unpopular reception. This reception may well have been the result, at least in part, of the opera’s racially charged content, which reviewers and even some cast members complained portrayed African Americans in a negative light. Interestingly, the initial production was performed by a cast of classically trained African American singers, which was nearly unheard of at the time. Today, Porgy and Bessis one of the best-known and most-frequently performed English-language operas.
Gershwin got the nicest rejection letter of all time.
While living in Paris in the mid-1920s, Gershwin applied to study composition with a number of classical musicians living in the city. He was rejected by all of them, but at least they were nice about it! Maurice Ravel, one of the first composers to get involved in the recording industry, was among those who rejected the young musician. He allegedly wrote in response to Gershwin’s request, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”
You’ve Got Rhythm
One of the greatest things about Gershwin was that even when he was composing classical pieces, he (and often his brother) kept his music appealing, catchy, and beautiful to the ear. In a time when many composers favored creating such complicated scores that few musicians could play them, Gershwin prolifically wrote not just operas and classical scores but also dozens of some of the most beloved tunes in American music today. This is the main reason we keep that Gershwin sound strong in our own performances because, after all, everyone’s “got rhythm” if they just listen for it.