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First Encounters
by Nancy Caldwell Sorel

THE GREAT WAR was over, and the whole country seemed addicted to song. Who better to supply the national need than the King of Ragtime, Irving Berlin? "Come on and hear (boom! boom!) Come on and hear (boom! boom!) Alexander's...." That early hit had sold a million copies in a few months. Now Berlin, back from the Army, stopped by the T. B. Harms Co., in Tin Pan Alley, to show the publisher Max Dreyfus his latest. "That Revolutionary Rag," Dreyfus read, "'Twas made across the sea/ By a tricky slicky/ Bolsheviki...." But the notes were a problem. Berlin's musical education had evolved from a battered piano in a Bowery saloon and remained forever locked in the key of F sharp. He needed someone to take the song down for him. Dreyfus said he had just the man -- only a kid really, but showing great promise.

Enter young George Gershwin, glad to oblige. Harms was a big step up from Remick's, where he had pounded a piano in a cubicle up to ten hours a day. He took down the song, made a lead sheet, and played it back to Berlin with extravagant improvisations that left it almost unrecognizable. Then, abruptly, he asked the composer for a job as his musical secretary. Berlin intimated he might be overqualified. What did he really want to do? Write songs, Gershwin said, tearing up the keyboard with his latest. "What the hell do you want to work for anyone else for?" Berlin asked. "Work for yourself!"
  • Return to "Misunderstanding Gershwin," by David Schiff (October, 1998)
    "The composer mixed popular and classical idoms like no one before or since, and performers are still baffled."

  • Gershwin took his advice, and within the year there was "Swanee." Then came "Stairway to Paradise." "Rhapsody in Blue" made him as famous -- and almost as wealthy -- as Berlin. They became friends -- two hustlers of Russian-Jewish parentage making it big in America.

    Gershwin was twenty that day they met in the Alley. Brash, confident, he seemed just at the beginning of his life, whereas in reality it was more than half over. Berlin, a more cautious thirty, would not have believed his own eventual longevity. Strike up the band, Alexander. Irving Berlin is 100!

    Nancy Sorel is a writer who lives in Manhattan. A
    collection of her "First Encounters," illustrated by her husband, Edward Sorel, was published in 1994.

    Copyright © 1988 by Nancy Sorel. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1988; First Encounters; Volume 261, No. 5; page 75.

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