by Mark Nadler
Upon the publication of his book, Lyrics on Several Occasions, one of his idols, P.G. Wodehouse, sent Ira Gershwin a note wherein he stated: “I’ve always considered you the best of the whole bunch.” What made Ira Gershwin, if not the best lyricist of the 20th century, certainly one of the top three or four? Whether writing with his brother, George, or with myriad other songwriters, Ira Gershwin matched words to melody so seamlessly that it’s impossible to know “which came first.” He could be endlessly inventive with the English language as in “‘S Wonderful,” “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians),” or “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (is there a better rhyme ANYWHERE than “He made his home in that fish’s abdomen”?!). He could also be breathtakingly simple, as in “Long Ago and Far Away,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” or “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
As a craftsman, Ira knew so much about lyric writing that he not only knew when to use rhymes and inner-rhymes, he also knew when to use no rhymes at all. When setting a lyric to the melody George came up with for “I Got Rhythm,” Ira kept stripping it of rhymes (as they made the song too sing-songy) until he came up with a lyric that has only two rhymes (once the chorus begins)—both in the bridge.
Although Ira is best known for writing with his younger brother, he collaborated with more than two dozen other composers including Vincent Youmans, Sigmund Romberg, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Harry Warren, Johnny Green, Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill, Arthur Schwartz, Burton Lane and even Aaron Copland. Nonetheless, when George passed away in 1937, (when Ira was only forty and still had more than twenty years of writing to do), the depth of Ira’s knowledge of loss made his songs even richer. “The night is bitter, the stars have lost their glitter.” That opening phrase of “The Man That Got Away” sums up the entire experience of deeply felt loss in ten words. It is so profound and yet so simple.
Ira prided himself in being able to write lyrics that were colloquial. His lyrics are the way we speak. Maybe that’s why so many of his lyrics have entered the vernacular. Just try saying the phrases “Who could ask for anything more?” or “But not for me” or “Good riddance. Goodbye!” without hearing in your mind’s ear the music that’s attached to them. You can’t. Maybe that’s why his songs are timeless. Cabaret singing is, more than anything, about the reading of the lyric, so it would be absurd to have a Cabaret Hall of Fame that doesn’t include Ira Gershwin. He truly believed that his songs would not last; he felt that his brother was writing for posterity and he was just writing popular songs that would be forgotten as soon as the next one took its place. Well, Ira, “who’s got the last laugh now?”
Category: Hall of Fame