Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" -- A Brief History

Nov 29, 2019

In the 1920s, when George Gershwin completed the musical components of a new song, he'd pass the music along to his brother, Ira, for the lyrics. One particular song, though, was giving Ira fits. The rhymes he'd come up with didn't suit the music. Ira eventually decided on a prose approach, with interior rhymes that matched the bounce of the song more closely. That song , "I Got Rhythm" -- in a slower version -- became part of a musical called "Treasure Girl". The song was then adapted for 1930's "Girl Crazy" in the faster version known today.

The nearly pentatonic first half of the melody -- combined with the song's recognizable chord progressions -- became a template for later jazz musicians to riff on. The "rhythm changes" are now a standard 32-bar progression in jazz. (One of the earliest incorporations of these "rhythm changes" comes from a 1932 recording made by the New Orleans-born musician Sidney Bechet.)

Gershwin would later adapt his own song into a piano-and-orchestra concertpiece, the "I Got Rhythm"  Variations.

Here are some notable appearances of "I Got Rhythm" in popular culture... Enjoy!

Gene Kelly / An American In Paris (1951)

Sidney Bechet (1952)

Ethel Merman (1979; Disco Version)

Gregory Hines / Kennedy Center Honors: Tribute to Gene Kelly (1982)

Fazil Say & New York Philharmonic (1999)

James Arey • Classical 104.9 FM • New Orleans Public Radio