Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Gershwin, rhythm and constipation
Insert your favorite toilet joke here.
I tried. I considered dozens of poop puns, then finally decided nothing could top reality. So here it is:
In the 1930s, George Gershwin – already a huge star – hosted a radio show on which he played piano between laxative commercials.
It's funny, really, when you hear it. And yet it doesn't detract from the music, which is sensational. Actually, the Feen-A-Mint ads are kind of charming.
You can hear it yourself on a CD called “Gershwin Performs Gershwin: Rare Recordings 1931-1935.” It's not easy to find. The CD came out in 1991 and it's currently out of print, although there are used copies available on Amazon for around $18.
Gershwin's tunes are absolutely everywhere, and performed by absolutely everyone. I'm sure Elmo and Big Bird will record “Summertime” any day now. So it's easy to forget that Gershwin started as a piano player. He was a “song plugger” on Tin Pan Alley in New York, plinking away on the 88s to promote new tunes by his musical publisher, Jerome Remnick Music Co.
You can hear Gershwin playing his own songs – sort of – on a pair of CDs called “Gershwin Plays Gershwin.” I say “sort of” because these aren't actual recordings. These are piano rolls created by Gershwin himself. So the listener, in effect, is hearing Gershwin play his own music. But it's not a direct thing. You can't actually hear Gershwin's voice. You can't really feel his personality in the piano rolls.
But “Gershwin Performs Gershwin” is something else. These are actual recordings from the 1930s. The quality is awful, as you'd expect. The first 16 tracks are from three radio shows. One includes an 8-minute “Variations on I Got Rhythm,” in which Gershwin not only plays the piano but explains the variations. It positively brings Gershwin to life. In another, he jokes with Rudy Vallee after playing “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Liza” and “Second Prelude” on piano. (The jokes are corny and they sound scripted, but so what?)
And that's just the start.
On Track 17, Gershwin personally leads a 1931 rehearsal of his underrated “Second Rhapsody.” It's a 14-minute treat. And on Tracks 18 to 22, Gershwin leads a 1935 rehearsal of “Porgy and Bess” – before it was ever performed publicly. This is history. You can hear him talking to the performers before each song. It's like watching the outtakes of “Gone With The Wind” or “Casablanca.” It is electrifying.
And, of course, there are those laxative commercials. One touts Feen-A-Mint as a great advancement in the field of medicine. Another is a 90-second melodrama in which two traveling salesmen discuss constipation and the benefits of a certain chewable laxative.
OK, it's laughable. But it's also a snapshot of an era – as true to its time as George Gershwin on the keyboard and at the microphone, chatting about his latest Broadway show. Like the rhythm in the song, it's fascinating.