One of the most important composers in the history of American popular music, Kern was taught to play the piano by his mother, and proved to be a gifted musician with a remarkable ear. While still at junior school he was dabbling with composition, and by his mid-teens was simultaneously studying classical music and writing songs in the popular vein. He became a song plugger in New York's Tin Pan Alley and occasionally accompanied leading entertainers of the day. Some of his early songs were picked up by producers of Broadway shows and were also used in London, a city Kern visited first in 1902/3 and thereafter held in great affection. During the next few years Kern became a familiar figure at theatres in London and New York, working on scores and acting as a rehearsal pianist. He had his first hit in 1905 with 'How'd You Like To Spoon With Me"' (lyric: Edward Laska), which was interpolated in the score for The Earl And The Girl.
Throughout this period, Kern continued to contribute songs to various shows, and in 1912 wrote his first complete score, with lyrics by Paul West, for The Red Petticoat. Two years later, his most accomplished work so far, The Girl From Utah, contained the delightful 'They Didn't Believe Me' (lyric: Herbert Reynolds), and in 1915 Kern had his second song hit, 'Babes In The Wood' (lyric: Kern and Schuyler Greene), from Very Good Eddie. In 1916, Kern contributed a few songs to Miss Springtime, an operetta, with lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse, and a book by Guy Bolton. This marked the beginning of the partnership which, with its witty books and lyrics, and songs cleverly integrated, into the story, is credited with helping to create America's own indigenous musical comedy format, as opposed to the imported European operetta. Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse's first complete show together, Have A Heart (January 1917), ran for only 76 performances, but Oh, Boy! (February 1917), the first and most successful of their renowned Princess Theatre Musicals, stayed at the tiny 299-seater house for more than a year. It's charming score included 'Words Are Not Needed', 'An Old Fashioned Wife', 'A Pal Like You', 'You Never Knew About Me,' 'Nesting Time In Flatbush', and 'Till The Clouds Roll By' (lyric: Kern and Wodehouse). The latter song was a tremendous hit for Anna Wheaton, one of the stars of the show, and James Harrod.
The success of Oh, Boy! meant that the trio's Leave It To Jane ('The Crickets Are Calling', 'The Siren's Song', 'Wait Till Tomorrow', 'Leave It To Jane', 'Cleopatterer'), which opened in August 1917, had to be accommodated in the much larger Longacre Theatre. After Oh Lady! Lady!! ('Do Look At Him', 'Before I Met You', 'Not Yet', 'It's A Hard, Hard World For A Man'), which made its debut at the Princess Theatre in February 1918, Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse, went their separate ways, reuniting briefly in 1924 for the disappointing Sitting Pretty. During the early 20s Kern was perhaps the most prolific composer on Broadway, with numerous show scores to his credit. These included The Night Boat (1920), Sally (1920, 'Look For The Silver Lining', lyric: Buddy De Sylva), The Cabaret Girl (London 1921), Good Morning Dearie (1921), The Beauty Prize (London 1923), The Stepping Stones (1923,'Raggedy Ann', lyric: Anne Caldwell), and Sunny (1925, 'Who"', lyric: Oscar Hammerstein II). In 1927, Kern composed his masterpiece, Show Boat, which ran on Broadway for 575 performances. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics for the magnificent score which included 'Ol' Man River', 'Make Believe', 'Why Do I Love You"', and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'. Also present was 'Bill' (lyric: Wodehouse), which had been cut from Oh Lady! Lady!! nearly 10 years previously.
Naturally enough, Kern's subsequent Broadway shows were unable to match the enormous success of Show Boat, but fine songs were invariably found in the scores for most of them, such as Sweet Adeline (1929,'Why Was I Born"', lyric: Hammerstein), The Cat And The Fiddle (1931, 'She Didn't Say "Yes'", lyric: Otto Harbach), Music In The Air (1932, 'I've Told Ev'ry Little Star', 'The Song Is You', lyrics: Hammerstein), Roberta (1933, 'The Touch Of Your Hand', Yesterdays', 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes', lyrics: Harbach), and Very Warm For May (1939, the exquisite 'All The Things You Are' [lyric: Hammerstein]). Four years before the latter show drew a line under Kern's prolific and distinguished Broadway career, the composer had begun to compose the music for a number of extremely popular film musicals. These included Roberta (1935), for which 'Lovely To Look At' (lyric: Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh) and 'I Won't Dance' (lyric: Harbach and Hammerstein) were added to the original stage score), Swing Time (1936, 'The Way You Look Tonight', [Academy Award], 'A Fine Romance', 'Pick Yourself Up', 'Bojangles Of Harlem', lyrics: Fields), High, Wide And Handsome (1937, 'The Folks Who Live On The Hill', 'Can I Forget You"', lyrics: Hammerstein), Joy Of Living (1938, 'You Couldn't Be Cuter', 'Just Let Me Look At You', lyrics: Fields), One Night In The Tropics (1940, 'Remind Me', lyric: Fields), Lady Be Good (1941, 'The Last Time I Saw Paris' [Academy Award], lyric: Hammerstein), You Were Never Lovelier (1942, 'Dearly Beloved', 'I'm Old Fashioned', 'You Were Never Lovelier', lyrics: Johnny Mercer), Cover Girl (1944, 'Long Ago And Far Away', lyric: Ira Gershwin), Can't Help Singing (1944, 'Cali-for-ni-ay', 'More And More', 'Any Moment Now', 'Can't Help Singing', lyrics: E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg), and Centennial Summer (1946, 'In Love In Vain','The Right Romance', lyrics: Leo Robin).
Kern and Hammerstein also wrote some new numbers, including 'I Have The Room Above Her' and 'Ah Still Suits Me', for the 1936 film version of Show Boat. That show, along with many of Kern's other marvellous songs, was showcased in the 1946 biopic Till The Clouds Roll By, in which the composer was portrayed by Robert Walker. Having conquered Broadway and Hollywood, Kern turned to writing music for the concert platform, composing a classical suite based upon his music for Show Boat, and another suite entitled 'Mark Twain: A Portrait For Orchestra'. He had agreed to write the music, with Hammerstein's lyrics, for a new Broadway show entitled Annie Get Your Gun, when he collapsed and died in November 1945. An outstanding songwriter with an ability to find beautiful, lilting and emotional melodies with deceptive ease while At the same time incorporating elements of ragtime and syncopation into his lively dance tunes, Kern's work has remained popular with singers and jazz musicians. More than half a century after his last great songs were written, the music remains fresh and undated. In 1994, a highly acclaimed revival of Show Boat, directed by Harold Prince, opened on Broadway and won five Tony Awards. Several leading artists such as Ella Fitzgerald have recorded albums in tribute to him, and there are compilations of Kern's music including Capitol Sings Jerome Kern (1992), currently available.
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