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I Got Rhythm (1930)

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Origin and Chart Information
“Among jazz instrumentalists, ‘I Got Rhythm’ is hands-down the most common Gershwin song.”

- C. Andre Barbera

AKAI've Got Rhythm
Rank 73
Music George Gershwin
Lyrics Ira Gershwin

Not only did Ethel Merman introduce “I Got Rhythm” in the Broadway musical, Girl Cray, but Girl Crazy introducedEthel Merman to Broadway. The show opened on October 14, 1930, at the Alvin Theatre and ran for 272 performances. Ginger Rogers was the co-star of the show, but in her debut as a leading lady she lost the limelight to Ethel Merman.

Girl Crazy was originally written as a vehicle for Bert Lahr, but when he turned down the part for legal reasons, Willie Howard was brought in to take his place. The orchestra was the Red Nichols Band, including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. This star-studded orchestra thrilled the audiences with jam sessions during the intermissions. George Gershwin conducted the music at the premier, but after that Earl Busby took over the baton.

A short time later, in 1930, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies with vocalist Dick Robertson took “I Got Rhythm” onto the recording charts, rising to number five. In 1931 Ethel Waters’ rendition peaked at seventeen, and in 1932 a Louis Armstrong version also rose to seventeen. Later on, in 1967, The Happenings (yes, the Happenings) recorded a rock version of “I Got Rhythm” which sold over a million copies and, according to The Happenings Official Web Site, placed number one on the charts.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

In 1930 Ethel Merman had left her secretarial position and was just breaking into show business. An oft-repeated story was of her audition for Girl Crazy with George and Ira Gershwin. Merman was nervously lost in thought as to how she might phrase one of the songs by these songwriting masters who were seated before her. George Gershwin mistakenly thought Ethel Merman was tentative about his compositions. He offered to change anything she didn’t like in the songs. Surprised, she blurted out, “They will do very nicely, Mr. Gershwin.” The Gershwins were impressed by what they took as self-assurance, a quality for which Merman would later become well known. Her sensational performance in Girl Crazy was the beginning of a five-decade career; her last New York performance was at Carnegie Hall in 1982.


More on George Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

More on Ira Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

Other songs in the Girl Crazy score include:

  • “Bidin’ My Time”
  • Embraceable You
  • “Sam and Delilah”
  • But Not for Me
  • “Treat Me Rough!”
  • “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”

A 1932 RKO film adaptation of Girl Crazy, starring Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, relied on sophomoric comedy and not the original Gershwin score, retaining only “Bidin’ My Time,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me.” Variety called it “a weak sister” of the Broadway production.

A 1943 release of the film fared much better. MGM’s Girl Crazy was the eighth Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film and was generally well reviewed. The original story and score were left almost intact and all of the songs were included along with “Fascinating Rhythm” from 1924’s Lady Be Good.

Girl Crazy was also the basis for the 1966, MGM film, When the Boys Meet the Girls, starring Connie Francis and Harve Presnell. Suffice it to say that the best thing about this musical was its songs.

And finally, Girl Crazy was used as the basis for the 1992 Broadway hit, Crazy for You, which openedFebruary 19, 1992, and ran for 1622 performances. Seven of the songs from Girl Crazy were included in the score along with 13 other Gershwin songs.

“I Got Rhythm” was George Gershwin’s favorite among the songs he composed for Broadway musicals. An indication of this affection was the dedication to his brother Ira of his last concert work, The “I Got Rhythm” Variations, which was written expressly for a 1934 concert tour with the thirty-piece Leo Reisman Orchestra, conducted by Charles Previn. The 12,000-mile tour was a self-financed affair to celebrate the tenth anniversary of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(The author devotes 30 pages to ”I Got Rhythm” including its significance in history, analyses of the lyric and music, information on the songwriters, performers, and recordings. Eleven other great American songs are examined in depth in the book.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

In Wayne Schneider’s The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, contributor C. Andre Barbera says, “Among jazz instrumentalists, ‘I Got Rhythm’ is hands-down the most common Gershwin song.” He goes on to say that the reason for its popularity is its regularity and simplicity which afford space for invention and also the fact that it was published in the “jazz-friendly” key of B-flat major.

Jazz musicians are familiar with the term “rhythm changes,” which is a phrase referring to the chord progressions of “I Got Rhythm.” In the first few decades of the 1900’s, record companies began encouraging musicians to reuse chord progressions of existing popular songs. In that way, they could borrow the harmonic formula of a successful song without running afoul of copyright laws. Although the “rhythm changes” are usually attributed to Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” their exact origin is not known; many of the well-known composers of jazz standards, including Gershwin, mined the early jazz clubs for their material.

Regardless of their origin, the “rhythm changes” have been used for hundreds of published songs. Some examples are, “Allen’s Alley,” “Don’t Be That Way,” “The Flintstones,” “The Jeep is Jumpin’,” “Lemon Drop,” “Lester Leaps In,” “Red Cross,” “Rhythm-a-ning,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Shaw Nuff,” and “Squatty Roo.”

Charlie Parker had a genius for writing songs based on the chord progressions of “I Got Rhythm.” Just a few of these inventions are “Kim,” “Dexterity,” “Ah-Leu-Cha,” “Crazeology,” “Anthropolgy” and “Moose the Mooch.”

Sometimes Ira Gershwin would write the lyrics to a song and George would add the music. In the case of “I Got Rhythm,” George wrote the music and only after several weeks and many discarded attempts did Ira come up with satisfactory lyrics. The slangy lyrics reflect the exaggerated jazz rhythm in George’s music and also the upbeat tempo. The lyric’s optimism seems to be escapist fare aimed squarely at a depression-weary audience. In the verse, the singer declares happiness, cheer, and no need of money and then asks, “How do I get that way?” The answer in the refrain is, of course, “I Got Rhythm,” but also, music, my man, daisies, green pastures, starlight, and sweet dreams. -JW

Musical analysis of “I Got Rhythm”

Original Key Bb major
Form A1 – A1 – B – A2 (with two measure extension; usually omitted today)
Tonality Major throughout
Movement “A” is pentatonic rising and falling starting on the fifth degree of the scale. “B” is note embellished by upper and lower neighbors that leap down a fifth; sequence repeats a step lower before returning to “A”

Comments     (assumed background)

The favorite harmonic progression of all time except for the blues. The first two measures correspond to the I – vi – ii7 –V7 of “Blue Moon” and “Heart And Soul,” etc. The next four measures–as penned by Gershwin–are iii – ct˚7 – ii7 – V7 (Dm7 - Db˚7 – Cm7 – F7 in the original), a nice variation. The final four measures consist of I –I7 (V7/IV) – IV – iv – I over an descending bass line. “B” is based on a circle of fifths from the III7 chord, but Gershwin surprises us just before V7 by inserting a Fr+6 (Gb7(b5) in the original key).
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

I doubt that George Gershwin could have foreseen that “I Got Rhythm” would be the basis for dozens of other jazz melodies employing his original changes. The melody is cute and endearing, but it’s the tempo and rapid progression that have made the tune a litmus test for jazz soloists for 70 years.

John Stowell, jazz guitarist

Yes, the grammar is wrong: lighten up. THE classic song for teaching basic syncopation. Also a classic chord structure --dozens of songs have these changes --so learn to improv this and you can improv others. Also excellent for teaching a non-gasping breath.

Marty Heresniak, Voice Teacher, Actor, Writer, Singer

Quoted from: Heresniak, Marty and Christopher Woitach, “Changing the Standards -- Alternative Teaching Materials.” Journal of Singing, vol. 58, no. 1, Sep./Oct. 2001.

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Soundtrack information
“I Got Rhythm” was included in these films:
  • Girl Crazy (1932, Kitty Kelly)
  • Girl Crazy (1943, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Six Hits and a Miss, The Music Maids,
  • Rhapsody in Blue (1945, Hazel Scott)
  • An American in Paris (1951, Gene Kelly, Children)
  • Sincerely Yours (1955, Liberace)
  • When the Boys Meet the Girls (1965, Connie Francis, Harve Presnell, Louis Armstrong)
  • That’s Entertainment II (1976, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Chorus, Tommy Dorsey Orchestra,
  • American Pop (1981)
  • My Girl (1991, Ann Nelson)
  • Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
  • Celebrity (1998, Teddy Wilson Trio)
And on stage:
  • Girl Crazy (1930, Ethel Merman, The Foursome) Broadway musical
  • Who Cares? (1970, New York City Ballet) dance theater
  • Crazy for You (1992, Jodi Benson, The Company) Broadway musical
  • Ethel Merman’s Broadway (1992, Rita McKenzie) Off-Broadway
  • Minnelli on Minnelli (1999, Liza Minnelli) Broadway special
  • Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey (2000) Off-Broadway satirical revue
And on television:
  • The Muppet Show (1980, Fozzie, Rowlf) Season 4, Episode 120
  • Crazy for You (1999, Stacey Logan) PBS Great Performances
  • Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999, Halle Berry dubbed by Wendi Williams) HBO biopic
Reading and Research
Additional information for "I Got Rhythm" may be found in:

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

William G. Hyland
The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950
American Philological Association
Hardcover: 336 pages

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Wayne Schneider
The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin
Oxford University Press
Hardcover: 290 pages

(3 paragraphs including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Allen Forte
The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design
Princeton University Press
Hardcover: 336 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Joan Peyser
The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin
Watson-Guptill Publications; Reprint edition
Paperback: 319 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: history.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: summary.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(30 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis, performers, recordings and song writer discussion.)

Ira Gershwin
Lyrics on Several Occasions
Limelight Editions
Paperback: 424 pages

(3 pages including the following types of information: anecdotal, lyric analysis and song lyrics.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

Gerald Mast
Can't Help Singin'
Overlook Press; Rei edition
Paperback: 400 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: lyric analysis and music analysis.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

June 9, 1945, stands out in particular as a fascinating moment in jazz history. A concert held in New York’s Town Hall featured some of the top small jazz groups of the day. As a “filler,” there was a duet by Don Byas (tenor saxophone) and Slam Stewart (string bass)--an unheard of combination in jazz at that time.

Byas’ mentors were Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, yet he was working on 52nd Street with more harmonically advanced players like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, their work influencing his approach (in turn, Byas influenced players like Sonny Rollins). Slam Stewart created a sensation by his great bass playing and unusual bowed solos with which he vocalized. Together, their performance on “I Got Rhythm” not only stole the show but made it clear that jazz was changing.

Unbelievably, this performance is not currently available on CD. However there have been a number of LP issues on Mainstream, Atlantic and CBS Special Products Commodore reissue series.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “I Got Rhythm.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

There is something deceptive about exploring the definitive versions of “I Got Rhythm.” Its chord changes have been mined for countless other jazz tunes and there are classic performances of these other tunes, with solos that are completely applicable to “I Got Rhythm,” by virtually every major jazz artist from the swing and bop movements. Looking only at versions of “I Got Rhythm” itself, Benny Goodman’s live quartet version from his famous Carnegie Hall concert (Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert) is both historically significant and brilliant. Also brilliant is Nat “King” Cole’s 1946 trio version (Transcriptions), which shows him bridging the gap between swing and bop. Among vocal versions, Ella Fitzgerald’s 1959 recording (Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best of the Gershwin Songbook) is a good place to start, as the performance is swinging and faithful to the song.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Quintet of the Hot Club Of France
Swing from Paris
Emarcy Import
Original recording 1935
This recording documents the rise to prominence of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, featuring guitarist Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli. Both soloists are on fire on this spirited performance.
Count Basie & His Orchestra
America's #1 Band
Original Recording 1950
This dynamic live recording shows the Basie band in its prime. Featured soloists on this tune include Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone and Lester Young on tenor saxophone.
Benny Goodman
Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert
Sony 65143
Original recording 1938
A tour-de-force quartet performance of “I Got Rhythm” was a highlight of this groundbreaking concert. Clarinetist Goodman, pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Gene Krupa and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton are all in peak form and meld beautifully.
Ella Fitzgerald
Oh, Lady, Be Good! Best of the Gershwin Songbook
1996 Polygram 529581
Original Recording 1959
Nelson Riddle’s orchestra begins with a slow, string-heavy reading of the verse. Once the main part of the tune enters, though, it’s vintage, swinging Fitzgerald, complete with some restrained but masterful scatting.
Nat King Cole Trio
Blue Note Records
Original recording 1949
Pianist Cole’s classic trio with guitarist Oscar Moore and bassist Johnny Miller is heard in peak form on this virtuosic up-tempo instrumental performance.
Art Tatum
Art Tatum's Finest Hour
Polygram Records
Original Recording 1940
Pianist Tatum is heard here in his trio with bassist Slam Stewart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. The bright tempo and challenging harmonies of the tune sound like toys in Tatum’s hands as he slashes his way through the tune.
Hampton Hawes
Hampton Hawes Trio, Vol. 1
1991 Original Jazz Classics 316

Pianist Hawes always struck a natural balance between the traditional and the modern. His energetic and soulful trio performance of “I Got Rhythm” is one of the prime examples of this.

- Noah Baerman

Mark Murphy
Crazy Rhythm and His Debut Recordings
1999 GRP Records 670
Original recordings 1956-1957
Vocalist Murphy sounds as great today as he did in this composite of early recordings. He’s always taken liberties with every aspect of a song to make it his own. In the mid-section of “I Got Rhythm”’ the backup musicians go crazy while he holds a deliberate pace. He also includes the seldom heard verse.
King & Moore
Potato Radio
1993, Justice Records 802

Vocalist Nancy King and bassist Glen Moore set a new rhythmic pattern for “I Got Rhythm” before Nancy scats it to Mars and back, settling back in to end with a giggle.

- Sandra Burlingame

Charlie Parker
Polygram Records 517173
This twelve-minute rendition is from a live no-net performance of Jazz at the Philharmonic. It’s a virtual wall of jazz sound and excitement.
Zoot Sims
Zoot Sims and the Gershwin Brothers
1991, Original Jazz Classics 444
Original recording, 1975
This recording has a crackerjack line-up, including Oscar Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; George Mraz, bass; and Grady Tate, drums. Zoot is in fine form and finds plenty of meat in this timeless standard.

- Jon Luthro

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

Year Rank Title
1924 18 The Man I Love
1924 22 Oh, Lady Be Good!
1930 24 Embraceable You
1930 54 But Not for Me
1938 57 Love Is Here to Stay
1930 73 I Got Rhythm
1926 77 Someone to Watch Over Me
1937 86 They Can't Take That Away from Me
1937 88 A Foggy Day
1927 98 'S Wonderful!
1937 158 Nice Work If You Can Get It
1937 201 Love Walked In
1927 213 How Long Has This Been Going On?
1929 320 Strike Up the Band
1924 329 Fascinating Rhythm
1929 381 Soon
1931 419 Who Cares? (So Long As You Care for Me)
1935 420 It Ain't Necessarily So
1930 487 I've Got a Crush on You
1936 766 Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
1936 927 They All Laughed
1926 983 Maybe

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward

Year Rank Title
1935 270 I Loves You Porgy
1935 539 Bess, You Is My Woman Now

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn

Year Rank Title
1929 189 Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)

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