Jerome David Kern (January 27, 1885 – November 11, 1945) is regarded as one of the key composers at the beginning of the American popular song era. Because his career was still in the early stages when Irving Berlin revolutionized the music scene with Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Kern quickly adapted to the changing styles. And while Irving Berlin may have invented American pop, Jerome Kern was the man who defined and refined it, shaping its direction for the next half century.
Like Berlin, Kern was a German Jew who grew up in New York City. At the turn of the century he studied at the New York College of Music, then later in Germany. In 1905 he moved to London, where he played piano and began contributing to stage scores. Over the next decade he worked on numerous Broadway shows, again paying the bills as a rehearsal pianist, while steadily increasing his songwriting and reputation.
He started receiving credit as a composer and lyricist as early as 1904, was a featured ongwriter by 1905, and had something of a minor hit in 1908 with “I Can’t Say That You’re The Only One” from The Girls of Gottenberg. By 1911 Kern was working on the Ziegfeld revue; 1912 saw the emergence of the first musical in which Kern was listed as the sole composer. During this period he worked with lyricists Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, Harry B. Smith, Anne Caldwell, and Howard Dietz. Despite a rapidly growing reputation, Kern didn’t land his first hit until 1914, when he composed the classic “They Didn’t Believe Me” with lyricist Edward Laska for an updated production of The Girl From Utah. The song quickly became a standard, and was still charting 30 years later for artists like Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra.
Kern was living a charmed life at this time; he was scheduled to sail for London on May 1, 1915 aboard the RMS Lusitania. Legend has it that Kern stayed out late tickling the ivories at an all-night party, slept too late and missed the voyage.
More hits followed in 1916 with “When the Lights Are Low” and “My Lady of the Nile” from the Ziegfeld show. Between 1915 and 1920 Kern played a role in 18 musical productions, including Very Good Eddie in 1915, and Oh, Lady! Lady! in 1918. Another hit song was “Because You Are Just You (Just Because You’re You)” from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1917. Although Kern composed the majority of his songs for his own shows, it was unquestionably the Ziegfeld contributions that had the greatest impact during this period.
1920 saw the opening of Sally, a musical for which Kern penned the entire score. The show was a huge success, riding a wave with rising star Marilyn Miller. “Look For the Silver Lining” was a massive hit in 1921; six different recordings hit the charts. The best known versions were recorded by Marion Harris, Elsie Baker, and Isham Jones. The song scored again in 1949 for Judy Garland, and has since been recorded by artists ranging from Petula Clark to Dave Brubeck.
Marilyn Miller would play the lead in Kern’s 1925 hit Sunny, his first collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II. The pair worked with Otto Harbach to create the story; this triumvirate would prove to be the longest-lasting and most successful team of Kern’s career. Top song from Sunny was “Who (Stole My Heart Away).” This too would be revived on celluloid, and today most people associate the classic “Who…” with Judy Garland.
Kern and Hammerstein next collaborated on Show Boat in 1927, which features the well-known songs “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Because Show Boat touched on a number of taboo subjects such as racism, it is frequently pointed to as the most important work in the history of American musical theatre. It broke new ground, enabling future shows to cover more mature subject matter.
Success followed success; Sweet Adeline (1929) and Roberta (1933) are the most memorable. Roberta yielded a song called “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” one of the all-time classics of American pop. Incidentally, that musical showcased the talents of two young unknowns: Bob Hope and Fred MacMurray, as well as Sydney Greenstreet. His last Broadway show came in 1939, called Very Warm for May. The show tanked, but the score featured yet another Kern–Hammerstein classic, “All The Things You Are”. Kern suffered a heart attack during 1939, and doctors urged him to leave the stress of Broadway behind.
Hollywood was a natural move, as Kern had already tasted success in 1936 with a Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire classic called Swing Time. That movie yielded “The Way You Look Tonight,” with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and won an Oscar for best song. Originally sung by Fred Astaire, it has since been covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Rod Stewart, Andy Williams, and a duet between Bing and Dixie Lee Crosby. The most successful cover was a 1961 release by The Lettermen, which reached the Billboard Top 20 Pop, and hit #3 on the adult contemporary charts.
More Hollywood hits followed. A 1941 collaboration with Hammerstein yielded “The Last Time I Saw Paris” and won another Oscar for Kern. In 1944, he teamed up with Ira Gershwin to write the songs for one of his best-remembered film musicals, Cover Girl, a Gene Kelly vehicle that featured Rita Hayworth as the “cover girl.” The hit song from this film, “Long Ago (And Far Away)” didn’t score an Oscar, but it did manage to put four different recordings in the Billboard Top 10. The most successful version was a duet by Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, which reached #2. Bing Crosby reached #5, Jo Stafford hit #6, and Perry Como put his rendition at #8. A year later, Kern would be gone.
Like most of his songs, this mega-hit was quintessential Kern. He was neither formulaic like a Cole Porter, nor did he compose clever tunes like an Irving Berlin. He simply composed wonderful melodies, a few of which have transcended time. It may be next year or next decade, but make no mistake: A Jerome Kern composition will again rule the charts.
Legend has it that he was slated to compose the score for Annie Get Your Gun. Although it is hard to comprehend anyone surpassing the job Berlin did in his stead, it is easy to imagine a few soaring love songs emerging from a Jerome Kern version.