Ira Gershwin was born on December 6, 1896 in New York City, the oldest of four children of Moishe and Rose Gershovitz, who were Russian Jews, born in St Petersburg, and emigrated to the US in 1891. Shy in his youth, Ira spent much of his time at home reading, but from grammar school through college he played a prominent part in several school newspapers and magazines. Graduating in 1914 from Townsend Harris High School where he had met Yip Harburg, they enjoyed a lifelong friendship and a love of Gilbert and Sullivan. He went on to attend City College of New York but dropped out.
His brother George began composing and plugging in Tin Pan Alley from the age of 18, while Ira worked as a cashier in his father’s Turkish baths. It was not until 1921 that Ira became involved in the music business when Alex Aarons signed Ira to write the songs for his next show, Two Little Girls in Blue. Not to appear to trade off George’s growing reputation, he wrote under the pseudonym Arthur Francis, after his youngest two siblings. His lyrics were well received, allowing him successfully to enter the show-business world with just one show.
Later the same year, the Gershwins collaborated for the first time on a score of A Dangerous Maid, which played in Atlantic City and on tour. 1924 saw Ira officially teaming with George to write the music for what became their first Broadway hit Lady, Be Good. Once the brothers joined forces, their combined talents became one of the most influential forces in the history of American Musical Theatre. Together, they wrote the music for more than 12 shows and four films.
Their partnership continued until George’s sudden death from a brain tumor in 1937 and he waited nearly three years before writing again. Returning from this hiatus, Ira teamed up with composers Jerome Kern, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen among others. Over the next 14 years, Ira gave his farewell to Broadway with the failure of Park Avenue in 1946. In 1947, he took 11 songs George had written but never used, added lyrics, and incorporated them into the film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim.
For the next four decades he would continue to write lyrics leaving such memorable classics as Embraceable You, I Can’t Get Started, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, My Ship and They Can’t Take That Away from Me, among numerous others. Lyricist Ira Gershwin passed away on August 17, 1983 at the age of 86 in Beverly Hills, California.
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