BEHIND THE SONG: “The Man I Love”

Certain songs, it seems, are destined to become hits, even if everything possible is done in advance to help them fail. Undoubtedly, few songs have been given more opportunities not to succeed than “The Man I Love,” the Gershwin brothers’ now-classic portrayal of romantic longing.

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Certain songs, it seems, are destined to become hits, even if everything possible is done in advance to help them fail. Undoubtedly, few songs have been given more opportunities not to succeed than “The Man I Love,” the Gershwin brothers’ now-classic portrayal of romantic longing.

behindthesong

“The Man I Love”

Written by George and Ira Gershwin

Certain songs, it seems, are destined to become hits, even if everything possible is done in advance to help them fail. Undoubtedly, few songs have been given more opportunities not to succeed than “The Man I Love,” the Gershwin brothers’ now-classic portrayal of romantic longing. Through its many incarnations over the decades, “The Man I Love” is one of those time-honored pieces that always seems to have been there, but, in truth, its early chances for long-term survival were anything but guaranteed.

The song was originally slated for inclusion in the Gershwins’ 1924 production, Lady Be Good, with music by George and lyrics by Ira; indeed, when the first version of the soon-to-be-hit show opened “out of town” in Philadelphia during the fall of 1924, “The Man I Love” was included.  But according to Charles Schwartz in his expansive 1973 biography of George Gershwin, “The Man I Love” was soon dropped from the production. The show was already a bit too lengthy, a yearning ballad number undercut the speedy effervescence of the pacing, and producers—always jittery when a show is in its tryout period—evidently decided cuts needed to be made. Or perhaps the song was removed at the suggestion of Ira Gershwin himself, who (according to another biographer, William Hyland), wrote in a letter that the Philadelphia version of the show needed a “lot of fixing.”

In any case, by the time Lady Be Good opened at New York’s Liberty Theater on 42nd Street in December of 1924, “The Man I Love” had been scrapped altogether. Later, George Gershwin decided to earmark it for inclusion in his 1927 show, Strike Up the Band, but, unfortunately, the production closed out of town, never making it to Broadway (a new version arrived there, to much success but without “The Man I Love,” in 1930). By 1928 Gershwin had determined that it might be an ideal vehicle for Marilyn Miller, one of the era’s reigning musical stage stars, but for whatever reason the capricious Miller turned it down. Rosalie, a revue starring Miller with music by Gershwin, opened at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater in January 1928; it featured a great song in “How Long Has This Been Going On,” but, alas, not “The Man I Love.”

But then things started to turn around for the song.  Lady Mountbatten, the English heiress who glittered during the Roaring Twenties’ era of high society and glamour, had already become a fan, encouraging its performance by one of her favorite dance orchestras in England. In this way “The Man I Love” began to pick up momentum, as more bands in Europe and the U.S. added it to their repertoires. Discerning the number’s potential, Max Dreyfus (Gershwin’s publisher) initiated in 1928 a far-reaching promotional campaign, defraying costs for the venture with the assistance of the Gershwins themselves, who agreed to cut their sheet-music royalties for “The Man I Love” from three to two cents. Within six months of the plan’s inception, according to biographer Schwartz, 100,000 copies had been sold.

Helen Morgan, born into a rural Illinois family in 1900, grew into one of the most romanticized artistic figures of the 1920s; her trademark performance style—she would often sing atop a piano—epitomized “torch singing” in all its tearful dramatics.  Arguably it is she, more than any other singer, who popularized “The Man I Love,” ushering it into the American musical canon by making it a staple of her act. Although Morgan died young (at the age of 41), she inspired many vocalists; as a result, by the middle of the 20th century, “The Man I Love” had become a standard of emotive balladry, performed by everyone from Lena Horne to Dorothy Lamour. In 2004 it was even recorded, in a brilliant rendition, by Brazilian music legend Caetano Veloso—a transformation proving that, despite its initial failure, “The Man I Love” has become truly inextinguishable.

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  1. Thanks for posting the interesting history of this song. Another fact about the song is that it was the theme song of George Gershwin’s 1934 radio program, “Music By Gershwin.”

    Also, publisher and raconteur Bennett Cerf, who was a friend of the Gershwins, claims to have overheard this exchange between the brothers when they were playing golf: George out of the blue asked Ira if he knew why “The Man I Love” was not selling well. Ira said “No. Why?” and George replied that it was because “the lyrics stink.” Ira shrugged the insult off, saying, “All right. The lyrics stink. Come on and play golf.”

  2. Dear Folks,

    Given your passion for songwriting, it occurs to me that you and your readers might be interested in my daily tweets from @RocksourceTweet.

    The reason is that around midnight every night I post a song title as SONG OF THE DAY, with a link to an item on my website about the historical event that inspired the song.

    Today’s song of the day is Mr. Bojangles, because Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson died on this day in 1949.

    Tomorrow’s song will be The Hucklebuck by Paul Williams, because the Charlie Parker song on which it was based was recorded on November 26, 1945.

    I hope you will seek it out and enjoy it.

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