Legendary American composer Jerome Kern (b. New York, NY, 27 January 1885; d. New York, NY, 11 November 1945) left a legacy of over seven hundred songs, presented over four decades in more than one hundred stage productions and Hollywood films. His best-known work, Show Boat, with adaptation and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, broke new ground in 1927 with its realistic characters, controversial subject matter, and dramatically integrated songs, and against all expectations became one of the American musical theatre’s greatest classics, the only pre-1943 musical to be repeatedly revived throughout the twentieth century (five times on Broadway after Kern’s death). Kern is noted for having successfully blended the European operetta tradition with the more down-to-earth American style. Collaborating with leading lyricists like Hammerstein, E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy McHugh, and Dorothy Fields, he was the recipient of two Academy Awards® (Swing Time 1936, Lady Be Good 1941) and six additional nominations, plus many other awards both before and after his death.
Jerome David Kern was born to Jewish parents Henry and Fannie Kern, who moved from New York to Newark, NJ, in 1897. His mother taught him to play the piano and organ at an early age. He attended Newark High School, where he first tried his hand at composing, turning out songs for school musicals and adapting Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a performance at the Newark Yacht Club in 1902.
In spite of his obvious talent and passion for music, his father tried to force him into business, but it was soon apparent that his talent did not extend into that world. In 1902 his father allowed him to study piano and harmony at the New York College of Music, and in 1903 he went to Heidelberg, Germany, to study under private tutors. Upon his return to New York, he began to contribute songs to Broadway shows, mostly imported European operettas (The Catch of the Season 1905, The Earl and the Girl 1905, The Little Cherub 1906, The Lady’s Maid 1906). His first complete Broadway score was for The Red Petticoat (1912), one of the earliest musical Westerns, but solid success did not come his way until 1915, when he contributed “They Didn’t Believe Me” to The Girl from Utah. Since 1904 he had already written songs for over thirty operettas or revues.
Meanwhile, in 1910 he had met and married an Englishwoman, Eva Leale. Enchanted with all things English, Kern teamed up with British writers Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse to write what were called the “Princess Theatre” musicals – Very Good, Eddie (1915), Leave It To Jane (1917), Oh, My Dear! (1918), Sitting Pretty (1924) – whose plots were generally just as silly as those of any operetta, but whose characters were everyday Americans. Musicals like Sally (“Look for the Silver Lining”, 1920) and Sunny (Kern’s first collaboration with Hammerstein, 1925) were loaded with stars, spectacle, and song hits, but little emotion. Ultimately Kern decided, with Hammerstein, to adapt Edna Ferber’s popular novel Show Boat as a musical; associates in show business thought he was crazy.
Nothing like the opening scene of Show Boat (1927) (black stevedores working on the river) had ever been seen on Broadway, nor had the social issues of miscegenation, wife desertion, alcoholism, or gambling been dealt with in a musical show. Yet these very things, as well as the songs “Old Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “You Are Love,” and “Why Do I Love You?” assured its immortality. Kern, however, never experimented with such challenging material again: many songs from his later shows are fixtures in the “American Songbook,” but the shows themselves are almost never revived.
After four more hits on Broadway, two with Hammerstein (Sweet Adeline 1929 and Music in the Air 1932 –“The Song Is You”) and two with co-composer Otto Harbach (The Cat and the Fiddle 1931, Roberta 1933 – “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”), Kern ventured out to Hollywood to compose scores for film musicals, the first of which were adaptations of his recent Broadway hits. After winning the 1936 Oscar for Best Song (with Dorothy Fields, “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time), Kern spent most of the rest of his life working in film.
In 1939, however, Jerome Kern returned briefly to Broadway with his last full show, Very Warm for May. Although it lasted for only 59 performances, it featured a lasting Hammerstein-Kern classic, “All The Things You Are.”
Kern suffered a heart attack in 1939 and returned to the West Coast, but in the last year of his life he was in New York again to supervise auditions for a revival of Show Boat. He began work also on what was to be a production of Annie Get Your Gun, but was unable to proceed when in early November 1945 he was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage. His long-time friend Oscar Hammerstein II remained at his side until his death six days later, all the while humming one of Kern’s favorite songs they had written together, “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star” from the film version of Music in the Air. Kern’s wife Eva and their daughter Betty Jane survived him.
Jerome Kern was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and was honored with his portrait on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985. His life story was told in a Hollywood film, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
– EB / LEC
Photos courtesy of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization