Ira Gershwin (6 December 1896 – 17 August 1983) was an American lyricist who collaborated with his younger brother, composer George Gershwin, to create some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century.
The success the brothers had with their collaborative works has often overshadowed the creative role that Ira played. However, his mastery of songwriting continued after the early death of George; and he wrote further hit songs with composers Jerome Kern ("Long Ago (and Far Away)"), Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen.
His critically-acclaimed book Lyrics on Several Occasions of 1959, an amalgam of autobiography and annotated anthology, is an important source for studying the art of the lyricist in the golden age of American popular song.
It wasn’t until 1924 that Ira and George teamed up to write the music for their first Broadway hit, Lady, Be Good! Once the brothers joined together, their combined talents became one of the most influential forces in the history of American Musical Theatre. Together, they wrote the music for over twelve shows and four films. Some of their more famous works include "The Man I Love", "Fascinating Rhythm", "Someone to Watch Over Me", "I Got Rhythm" "Summertime" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me". Their partnership continued up until George's sudden death from a brain tumor in 1937.
Following his brother's death, Ira waited nearly three years before writing again. After this interlude, he teamed up with such accomplished composers as Jerome Kern (Cover Girl), Kurt Weill (Where Do We Go from Here?, Lady in the Dark), and Harold Arlen (A Star Is Born). Over the next fourteen years, Ira continued to write the lyrics for many film scores and a few Broadway shows. But the failure of Park Avenue in 1946, a 'smart' show about divorce, co-written with composer Arthur Schwartz, was his farewell to Broadway As he wrote at the time, "Am reading a couple of stories for possible musicalization (if there is such a word) but I hope I don't like them as I think I deserve a long rest."
Ira died on August 17, 1983 and is now interred in the Westchester Hills Cemetery, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Together, the Gershwin siblings left behind a legacy that would help shape American musical theatre. Ira alone played a huge part in bringing about a new type of song lyric: a smart, witty, vernacular style that the common man could relate to and enjoy.
American singer, pianist, musical historian Michael Feinstein worked for Ira in the lyricist's latter years, helping him with his archive. Several lost musical treasures were unearthed during this period and Feinstein performed some of the material.
The music of George and Ira Gershwin runs deep in the American consciousness. The opening clarinet glissando from Rhapsody in Blue, the taxi horn theme from An American in Paris and the songs – "I Got Rhythm", "Embraceable You", "The Man I Love", "Someone to Watch Over Me", "Fascinating Rhythm", and many others – are instantly recognizable.
Ira Gershwin was a joyous listener to the sounds of the modern world. He noted in a diary: "Heard in a day: An elevator's purr, telephone's ring, telephone's buzz, a baby's moans, a shout of delight, a screech from a 'flat wheel', hoarse honks, a hoarse voice, a tinkle, a match scratch on sandpaper, a deep resounding boom of dynamiting in the impending subway, iron hooks on the gutter."
In 1987, Ira's widow, Lenore Gershwin, established the Ira Gershwin Literacy Center. Lenore Gershwin provided $10,000 to establish this literacy center for primarily Hispanic and Chinese Americans at University Settlement, a century-old institution at 185 Eldridge Street on the Lower East Side, where the Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist and his younger brother George, the composer, spent many after-school hours.
In 2007, The Library of Congress named their Prize for Popular Song after him and his brother George. Recognizing the profound and positive effect of popular music on the world's culture, the prize will be given annually to a composer or performer whose lifetime contributions exemplify the standard of excellence associated with the Gershwins. On March 1, 2007, Paul Simon, one of America's most respected songwriters and musicians, was announced to be the recipient of the first annual Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.