Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KERN, Jerome

(b 27 January 1885, New York City; d there 11 November 1945) Songwriter; one of the greatest of all. He learned piano at an early age; studied at the New York College of Music, and went to England. His early song 'Mr Chamberlain' had a lyric by P. G. Wodehouse. Kern was successful in England in his work and in his personal life; he got married there. Back in New York he wrote around 100 songs for interpolation into various Broadway shows; his own first show was The Red Petticoat  in 1912. 'They Didn't Believe Me'  in 1914, with a lyric by Herbert Reynolds, for the imported British show The Girl From Utah, was perhaps Kern's first masterpiece, including a change of key and several innovations in construction, resulting in an unforgettable song that was still singable: the craft of the Tin Pan Alley hack reached for the level of art song, and the American musical show broke away from the European operetta style.

George Gershwin claimed to imitate Kern; young Richard Rodgers spent all his pocket money seeing Kern's shows over and over; one could say that Kern's innovations were as important as the emergence of jazz in the 20th-century success of American music. He wrote or contributed substantially to 37 Broadway shows, including the landmark Show Boat, first seen in December 1927: with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, hits 'Make Believe', 'Why Do I Love You?', 'Ol' Man River', 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' ('Bill' had been dropped from an earlier show, had words by Wodehouse). Show Boat also had a plot (based on an Edna Ferber novel); earlier musicals had been fluffy vehicles for songs.

Other shows included Sally '20 (lyrics by Buddy DeSylva: 'Look For The Silver Lining'); Sunny '25 (lyrics by Hammerstein, Otto Harbach, including 'Who?'). A critic wrote of Roberta '33, 'There's no tune you can whistle when you leave the theatre'; it was one of the biggest hits of the decade, with songs 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes', 'The Touch Of Your Hand' and 'Yesterdays' (lyrics by Harbach); the film version '35 added 'Lovely To Look At' and 'I Won't Dance'; it was filmed again '52 as Lovely To Look At. Kern himself worried that songs like 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' were too complicated for the public, but those were the days when the public got a chance to decide what it liked, and the public didn't do so badly. Very Warm For May '39 with Hammerstein included 'All The Things You Are'.

Apart from films of shows, original films included Swing Time '35 for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with the lovely instrumental 'Waltz In Swingtime', and with Dorothy Fields's lyrics, 'The Way You Look Tonight', 'Pick Yourself Up', 'Never Gonna Dance', 'A Fine Romance', 'Bojangles Of Harlem'. More films were High, Wide And Handsome and When You're In Love '37, Joy Of Living '38, One Night In The Tropics '40; Lady Be Good ('The Last Time I Saw Paris', lyrics by Hammerstein), You Were Never Lovelier '42, Song Of Russia '43 (instrumental music), Cover Girl '44 ('Long Ago And Far Away' etc, lyrics by Ira Gershwin), Can't Help Singing '44, Centennial Summer '46.

A show was once proposed on the subject of a best-selling book about Marco Polo, by an Irishman about an Italian in China; Kern was asked what kind of music he would write, and replied, 'Don't worry, it'll be good Jewish music.' He died in the street with no identification in his pockets; it was hours before America discovered what it had lost. Books include Jerome Kern: His Life And Music '80 by Gerald Bordman; the monograph Jerome Kern In Edwardian London '85 by Andrew Lamb is valuable: much of the groundwork for the 20th-century musical theatre was done there.