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How Long Has This Been Going On? (1927)

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In the bridge, against the backdrop of George’s exotic chords, ”Ira gives us his all, with the erotic lyric ‘Oh, I feel that I could melt; into heaven I’m hurled’--erotic for that time, that is.”

- Allen Forte

Rank 213
Music George Gershwin
Lyrics Ira Gershwin

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” was originally written as a duet by George and Ira Gershwin for a Broadway show called Smarty. It was a song for Adele Astaire and Jack Buchanan on the occasion of their first kiss. According to lyricist Ira Gershwin in his book Lyrics on Several Occasions, the musical received a lukewarm reception at the Philadelphia preview. Two weeks later the song was dropped from the show and replaced by “He Loves and She Loves” (“not as good a song as the former,” says Gershwin, “but one that managed to get over.”) In his book Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist Philip Furia says the song was dropped because it was not in the vocal range of Allen Kearns (mistakenly referred to as “Alex” in Furia’s book) who replaced Stanley Ridges in the starring role.

 

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After many changes in the book, the music, and the cast, Smarty became Funny Face, which featured both Adele and Fred Astaire. The show opened for a successful run of 244 performances on November 27, 1927, but without “How Long Has This Been Going On?” However, Ira credits the origin of the song to Funny Face in his book. Other hits from the show included the title cut, “S’Wonderful,” “My One and Only,” and “High Hat,” which featured Fred Astaire wearing top hat and tails in a solo tap dance. “This would become his trade mark, especially in the movies,” says William G. Hyland in The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950.

Thirty years later Fred Astaire starred with Audrey Hepburn in a film version of Funny Face in which “How Long Has This Been Going On?” is sung by Hepburn and also appears as an instrumental. In the Broadway show brother and sister each fall in love with someone quite different from themselves. But in the movie Astaire is a fashion photographer who discovers a bookish waif whom he turns into a top model, and they fall in love despite an apparent age difference.

After being dropped from Smarty, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” quickly found a home. “Two months later,” says Ira, “the eliminated song, because [Florenz] Ziegfeld liked it, found itself in Rosalie. There being no spot in the show for it as a duet, it became--with a few line changes--a solo for the soubrette, played by Bobbe Arnst.” Operetta composer Sigmund Romberg and lyricist P.G. Wodehouse were in the process of scoring the Broadway production. According to David Ewen in Complete Book of the American Musical Theater, “Ziegfeld demanded the full score in three weeks, a deadline Romberg could not meet; Romberg suggested to Zeigfeld that George Gershwin be recruited for half the score.” So both of the Gershwins, Romberg, and Wodehouse contributed songs to the show.

Rosalie, starring Marilyn Miller, opened on January 10, 1928, with a book by Guy Bolton and William Anthony McGuire. The plot revolved around a princess from a mythical kingdom who comes to school in America and falls in love with a West Point cadet. The show enjoyed an extended run of 335 performances. The only song to become famous was the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?” In 1937 when Rosalie was filmed in Hollywood, Cole Porter wrote new music and lyrics for the film which used none of the songs from the original Broadway production.

“How Long Has This Been Going On?” didn’t catch on with the public until after the show closed when Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman. Lee Wiley also recorded a fine version. In The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin editor Wayne Schneider suggests that the tenor of times may have reflected on the song’s popularity since many people in the 1920s still considered jazz “the devil’s music.” Many whites feared the infiltration of black culture into otherwise “white” music. “In this context, the blue thirds of ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ were sufficient to contaminate the entire piece in the ears of some listeners. From today’s perspective, one can see and hear those blue thirds as attractive reflections of black music encapsulated within the thirty-two-measure American popular song.”

In his book The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950: A Study in Musical Design Allen Forte attributes the “charm and vitality” of the song to “its innovative and strategically placed harmonies” which he describes in detail. In Listening to Classic American Popular Songs Forte devotes eight pages of to an in-depth analysis of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” a song which expresses the delight experienced with a first kiss. He praises the song’s integration of lyrics, rhythm, and harmony as an example of the best songs of the period and points out George’s use of the pentatonic scale which relates back to the folk and religious music of black Americans.

As an example of Ira’s unique talent as a lyricist he cites the third line of the lyric--“Little wow, tell me now”--which introduces the end rhyme for the first word of the title, “How.” In the bridge, against the backdrop of George’s exotic chords, says Forte, “Ira gives us his all, with the erotic lyric ‘Oh, I feel that I could melt; into heaven I’m hurled’--erotic for that time, that is. Contemporary listeners did not need to call Dr. Freud to tell them what those lines implied.”

Forte concludes with this observation: “I would be remiss if I neglected to mention Ira’s two ‘learned’ references in the verse of ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’: the first to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy,’ the second to Poe’s ‘The Raven’ (‘Nevermore’). He seemed to take great pleasure in these and in other ways mixing high-class and low-class elements.”

Sarah Vaughan recorded a definitive version in 1978, and both Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass recorded it several times. The song’s continuing popularity is affirmed by artists who have recorded it at the turn of the century: pianists Brad Mehldau (in 2001 and 2004), Bill Charlap (2005), and Ralph Sharon (2001); vocalists Kelley Johnson (1998), Janis Siegel (1999), and Karrin Allyson (2004); trumpeter Till Bronner (1996); and guitarist Frank Vignola in his 2007 Gershwin tribute.

More information on this tune...

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages


(Author/educator Forte devotes ten pages to the song, including its history and his analyses of both the lyric and music. The book includes the printed lyric and a companion CD.)

- Sandra Burlingame

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Reading and Research
Additional information for "How Long Has This Been Going On?" may be found in:

Allen Forte
Listening to Classic American Popular Songs
Yale University Press; Book & CD edition
Hardcover: 219 pages


(10 pages including the following types of information: history, lyric analysis, music analysis and song lyrics. (Book includes CD).)

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


(2 paragraphs 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


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

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages


(4 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


(5 pages including the following types of information: history and music analysis.)

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


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

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


(4 pages including the following types of information: anecdotal and song lyrics.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Pantheon
Hardcover: 736 pages


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

Randy Halberstadt (Author)
Metaphors for the Musician: Perspectives from a Jazz Pianist
Sheer Music Co
Spiral-bound


(4 pages including the following types of information: music analysis and sheet music.)
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Jazz History Notes

Lee Wiley was the first vocalist to record a series of themed composer albums in the early 1940s. Arguably the best of these is her Gershwin tribute, which produced a touching version of this tune. Lee’s accompanying group, assembled by guitarist/raconteur Eddie Condon, included Bud Freeman (tenor sax) and Joe Bushkin (piano/celeste).

Pianist/big band leader Stan Kenton was rarely heard in smaller settings. A marvelous duet session in May, 1955, paired him with vocalist June Christy (a veteran of his band). Christy’s smoky voice is nicely accompanied by Kenton’s orchestral keyboard work.

Ex-Kenton trombonist Frank Rosolino, along with former Kenton chums Stan Levey (drums) and Richie Kamuca (tenor sax), made a formidable session with pianist Vince Guaraldi and bassist Monte Budwig in 1957. Rosolino, the proto-bebop trombonist, and Kamuca, a tenor saxophonist of the Lester Young school, do Gershwin’s tune a good turn.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian


Lee Wiley
Completists' Ultimate Collection, Vol. 3
Devil's Music

Stan Kenton/June Christy
Duet
Blue Note Records 89285
Original recording 1955
iTunes
Frank Rosolino
Frank Rosolino Quartet
VSOP Records 16

iTunes
CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Kai Winding/J.J. Johnson/Bennie Green
With Strings
1989 Original Jazz Classics 1727
Original recording 1954
At a lazy, almost funereal tempo, the trombones of Winding, Johnson, and Green languidly weave in and out of each other’s solos, transplanting phrases and finishing each other’s thoughts.
Rene Thomas Quintet
Guitar Groove
1993 Original Jazz Classics 1725
Original recording 1960
The quintet is pared down to a trio as lyrical guitarist Thomas, drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, and bassist Ted Kotick shuffle through a delicate rendition of the Gershwin tune.
Bill Charlap
Plays George Gershwin: The American Soul
2005 Blue Note 60669
Original recording 2005
A sophisticated, laid-back arrangement and understated play create a flawless performance of the song that features Frank Wess’ saxophone in all its breathy romance.
iTunes
Chet Baker
Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen to You
Ojc
Original recording 1958
Baker’s vocal on this tune is delicious, even though he misses a word and loses the rhyme in one spot. The CD as a whole is a good representation of his vocal talent. He is sensitively accompanied by Kenny Drew on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Danny Richmond on drums.
iTunes

- Ben Maycock

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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