We'll be releasing our second album, “Retrophonic Gershwin,” this summer so I’ll be writing a series of posts about some of the songs we recorded, beginning with “I Got Rhythm.”
Ethel Merman’s singing of this soon-to-be iconic song on the opening night of Girl Crazy in 1930 was by all accounts show-stopping. No recordings, however, exist from that original production and she didn’t record the tune for the first time until several years after the show had closed.
When I set out to arrange it for our show Gershwin On the Air, scored for singer and duo-pianists, I used the verse and two choruses of Ethel’s first recording as a jumping-off point. I did a duo-piano reduction of that orchestration for the verse and unusual ending, but also drew on other material from a 1931 Victor Arden and Adam Carroll Ampico piano roll , and even included a segment from the 1943 Girl Crazy film recording on Decca that featured Judy Garland and duo-pianists Ivan Ditmars and Calvin Jackson with the Georgie Stoll Orchestra. Yes, it’s a bit later, but I like to think that something like this could have been played in the ‘30s because Roger Edens, who would become Judy’s principal mentor and musical collaborator and also was “music adaptor” for the 1943 film, played in the pit for the original Broadway production.
Incidentally, this was one of the Gershwin shows that didn’t employ the services of well-known duo-pianists Phil Ohman and Victor Arden, but the orchestra must, nonetheless, have rocked the house, since it included such jazz luminaries as Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, Red Nichols and Jack Teagarden.
After performing the tune live in both Ethel’s and Judy’s keys, I ended up preferring Judy’s, which is down a half-step. Back in the day, it also wasn’t unusual for songs to be recorded or sung on radio in lower keys than the original Broadway get-it-to-the-back-row keys, so I felt it had some precedent.
Here are a few video clips of our rendition (the duo-piano ivory incinerators are Jason Aquila & Jodie Ricci), from the first rehearsal...
...to the recording session at Oberlin’s Clonick Studio...
....to the first live performance in Gershwin On the Air (actually, back then, the show was called Syncopated City...but more on that in a later post!).