Jerome David Kern (January 27, 1885 ??? November 11, 1945) was an American composer of popular music. He wrote around 700 songs, including such classics as "Ol' Man River", "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "A Fine Romance", "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", "All the Things You Are", "The Way You Look Tonight", and "Who?", a 6-week number 1 hit for George Olsen & his Orchestra in 1925. His career spanned dozens of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films from 1902 until his death. Although Kern wrote almost exclusively for musical theatre and musical film, the harmonic richness of his compositions lends them well to the jazz idiom (which typically emphasizes improvisation based on a harmonic structure) and many Kern melodies have been adopted by jazz musicians to become standard tunes.
Early life and career
Jerome Kern was born in New York City to Fanny and Henry Kern, both German Jews. They named him Jerome because they lived near Jerome Park (named after Winston Churchill's grandfather, Leonard Jerome), a favorite place of theirs. Kern grew up on East 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan, where he attended public schools. The family then moved to Newark, New Jersey where Kern attended Newark (now Barringer) High School, but left during his senior year prior to graduation. Fanny Kern encouraged her son to take piano lessons. Henry Kern was a merchandiser and sold pianos among other items. Although Henry wanted his son to go into business with him, Jerome insisted on staying with music. While in high school Kern composed his first musical shows, one for the Ramblers organization at the high school; the second for the Newark Yacht Club. Some of these tunes were eventually recycled for the score of Showboat.
Kern studied at the New York College of Music and then briefly in 1904, in Heidelberg, Germany. From 1905 on, Kern spent large blocks of time in London, contributing songs to numerous London shows. In 1909 he took a boat trip on the River Thames with some friends, and when the boat stopped at Walton-on-Thames, Kern went to a pub and inn called the Swan to have a drink. The proprietor's daughter, Eva Leale, was working behind the bar, and on October 25, 1910, the two were married at St. Mary's in Walton.
In New York, he started working as a rehearsal pianist, initially contributing numbers for interpolation into other composers' scores. On May 1, 1915, Kern was supposed to accompany Charles Frohman to London on board the RMS Lusitania, but overslept after staying up late playing poker. Frohman died in the sinking of the ship.
At the end of 1915, Kern was contracted by producer George Kleine to supply the music for an early movie serial, Gloria's Romance from 1916. (One of the first starring vehicles for Billie Burke, this 16-part serial is now considered a lost film.) In the style of silent film music, he supplied a series of themes for basic characters and turns of plot.
Kern's biggest hit of his early career was the song "They Didn't Believe Me" (lyric by Herbert Reynolds) that was interpolated into the 1914 production The Girl from Utah.
The Princess Theatre musicals
Kern composed sixteen Broadway scores between 1915 and 1920, with the most notable being the shows he wrote for the Princess Theatre, a small (299-seat) house built by Ray Comstock. Comstock and agent Elizabeth Marbury joined forces to produce intimate, small-cast, low-budget musicals and hired Kern and librettist Guy Bolton. These shows were unique on Broadway not only for their small size, but their coherent plots, integrated scores and naturalistic acting. After a modest success adapting a London operetta (Nobody Home in 1915), the team created an original piece, Very Good Eddie. British lyricist-librettist P.G. Wodehouse joined the Princess team in 1917, adding his impeccable humor to the succeeding shows: Oh, Boy! (1917), Leave It To Jane (1917), Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918), and Oh, My Dear! (1918), the last of which had music by Louis Hirsch.
The 1920s were an extremely productive period in American musical theatre and Kern created at least one show per year for the entire decade.
In 1920, Kern wrote the entire score for the musical Sally, with book and lyrics by Otto Harbach. This popular show introduced the song "Look for the Silver Lining", performed by the rising Broadway star Marilyn Miller.
1925 was a major turning point in Kern's career when he met Oscar Hammerstein II with whom he would entertain a lifelong friendship and collaboration. Their first show (written together with Harbach) was Sunny, which featured the song "Who (Stole My Heart Away)?". The by-now renowned Marilyn Miller played the title role in Sunny, as she had in Sally.
In 1927, Kern and Hammerstein wrote Show Boat, which musical theatre historian Miles Kreuger has hailed as "the greatest single step forward in American musical theatre, enabling composers, lyricists and librettists to introduce more mature subject matter into their shows." Based on the the novel of the same name by Edna Ferber, the sprawling work featured an unusually serious plot highlighting racism and miscegenation. The score is, arguably, Kern's greatest and includes the well-known songs "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" as well as "Make Believe", "You Are Love", "Life Upon the Wicked Stage", "Why Do I Love You", and "Bill". Although Ferber's novel was filmed unsuccessfully as a part-talkie in 1929 (using few songs from the Kern score), the musical itself was filmed twice, in 1936, and, with Technicolor, in 1951. Both the 1936 and 1951 films were box-office successes; the 1936 film was especially acclaimed by critics.
While most Kern musicals have largely been forgotten except for their songs, Show Boat remains well-remembered and frequently seen. It is a staple of stock productions and has been revived numerous times on Broadway and in London. A 1946 revival integrated choreography into the show, in the manner of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, as did the 1993 Harold Prince revival. Several of the songs from Show Boat were arranged by Charles Miller into the orchestral work Scenario for Orchestra: Themes from Show Boat in 1941 and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodzi?ski, a unique honor for a Broadway musical.
Kern as book collector
In January 1929, at the height of the Jazz Age and with Show Boat still playing on Broadway, Kern sold at auction at New York's Anderson Galleries the splendid collection of English and American literature he had been forming for more than a decade. The collection, rich in inscribed first editions and manuscript material of eighteenth and nineteenth century authors, sold for a total of $1,729,462.50???a record for a single-owner sale which stood for over fifty years.
Kern in Hollywood
In 1930, Kern was placed under contract by Warner Brothers to produce a series of musicals. The first product of that contract was Men of the Sky which was released in 1931 but largely ignored due to public backlash against the early glut of film musicals that greeted the advent of film sound. Consequently, Warner Bros. bought out his contract and he returned to the stage.
In 1935, when musical films had become popular once again, Kern relocated to Hollywood, although he continued working on Broadway productions as well. This second phase of Kern's Hollywood career was greeted with considerably greater artistic and commercial success, including the 1936 film version of Show Boat. For Swing Time (starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire), he wrote "The Way You Look Tonight" (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields), which won the Academy Award in 1936 for the best song. Other songs in the film include "A Fine Romance", "Pick Yourself Up", and "Never Gonna Dance". In 1940, Kern and Hammerstein wrote "The Last Time I Saw Paris", in homage to the French city just recently occupied by the Germans. Originally a hit for Tony Martin, the song was used in the film Lady Be Good (1941) and won another Oscar for Best Song - the only time a song not written for the film it appears in won the Oscar. (It would later inspire the title of the 1954 film The Last Time I Saw Paris.) In 1944, Kern teamed up with Ira Gershwin to write the songs for one of his best-remembered film musicals, Cover Girl, starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. It featured the classic song "Long Ago and Far Away", and an unusual instrumental musical number in which Kelly, through trick photography, danced with himself. That same year Kern also wrote the music for songs in Universal Pictures' Deanna Durbin musical comedy, Can't Help Singing.
Later Broadway work
Kern and Otto Harbach's The Cat and the Fiddle (1931), about a composer and an opera singer, featured the songs "She Didn't Say Yes" and "The Night Was Made for Love". Eddie Foy, Jr. played a role in it.
Music in the Air (1932) was another Kern-Hammerstein collaboration that is best remembered today for the song "The Song Is You". Another tune from the show, "In Egern on the Tegern See", is parodied by the song "In Izzenschnooken on the Lovely Essenzook Zee" in Rick Besoyan's satirical 1959 musical Little Mary Sunshine.
Roberta (1933) by Kern and Otto Harbach included the songs "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Yesterdays" and featured, among others, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, George Murphy and Sydney Greenstreet all in the early stages of their careers. The 1935 film adaptation of the show was another Astaire/Rogers vehicle that jettisoned much of the Broadway score but added "Lovely to Look At" and "I Won't Dance". A 1952 Technicolor remake, entitled "Lovely to Look At", included more of the score, including the two added numbers written for the 1935 film version, but was not as successful as the earlier one. Roberta is the only one of Kern's shows to have been adapted twice for television, both times especially as a vehicle for Bob Hope.
Kern's last Broadway show was the rather unsuccessful Very Warm for May (1939), although the score included another Kern/Hammerstein classic, "All The Things You Are". In 1985, the centenary of his birth, a rediscovered recording of a radio production featuring the original cast received a Grammy Nomination as Best Cast Show Album. "All the Things You Are" has been recorded countless times as a jazz standard, including a flamboyant 1949 version by high-note trumpeter Maynard Ferguson that enraged Kern's widow and was withdrawn from sale.
Kern suffered a heart attack in 1939 and was told by his doctors to concentrate on film scores - a less stressful task since Hollywood songwriters were not as deeply involved with the production of films as Broadway songwriters were with the production of stage musicals.
In the Fall of 1945, Kern returned to New York City to oversee auditions for a new revival of Show Boat, and began to work on the score for what would become the musical Annie Get Your Gun, to be produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein. On November 5, 1945, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while walking at the south west corner of Park Avenue and 57th street, apparently in search of a drugstore for the pills he depended on, but had forgotten to bring with him. Identifiable only by his ASCAP card, Kern was initially taken to the indigent ward at City Hospital, later being transferred to Doctors Hospital in Manhattan. Collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II was at his side when Kern's breathing stopped. Hammerstein hummed or sung the song "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" (a personal favorite of the composer's) into Kern's ear. Receiving no response, Hammerstein knew Kern had died.
Kern is interred at Ferncliff Cemetery in Westchester County, New York. Kern was survived by his wife Eva and a daughter, Betty. At the time of Kern's death, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was filming a fictionalized version of his life, Till the Clouds Roll By, which was released in 1946 starring Robert Walker as Kern. Rodgers and Hammerstein then assigned the task of writing the score for Annie Get Your Gun to veteran Broadway composer Irving Berlin, who proceeded to create an American masterpiece.
Academy Award Nominations and Wins
Jerome Kern was nominated 8 times for an Academy Award, and won twice:
he was nominated 7 times for Best Original Song; these included a posthumous nomination in each of 1945 and 1946
he was posthumously nominated in 1945 for Best Original Music Score.
Best Original Song
1935 - Nominated for "Lovely to Look at" (lyrics by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh) from Roberta
1936 - Won for "The Way You Look Tonight" (lyrics by Dorothy Fields) from Swing Time
1941 - Won for "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) from Lady Be Good
1942 - Nominated for "Dearly Beloved" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer) from You Were Never Lovelier. (The winner that year was Irving Berlin's White Christmas)
1944 - Nominated for "Long Ago and Far Away" (lyrics by Ira Gershwin) from Cover Girl
1945 - Posthumously nominated for "More and More" (lyrics by E Y Harburg) from Can't Help Singing
1946 - Posthumously nominated for "All Through the Day" (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II) from Centennial Summer.
Best Original Music Score
1945 - Posthumously nominated for Can't Help Singing (with H. J. Salter).
Complete work for Broadway
Note: All shows are musical comedies for which Kern was the sole composer unless otherwise specified.
During his first phase of work for Broadway theater (1904-11), Kern wrote songs that were featured in revues or other collaborative musicals and occasionally co-wrote comic musicals with one or two other composers. In some cases, the show had opened in London, and Kern contributed additional music for songs interpolated into the New York production. During visits to London in 1905-10 he also composed songs that were first performed in London shows.
Mr. Wix of Wickham (1904) - co-composer and co-lyricist
The Catch of the Season (1905) - contributing composer
The Earl and the Girl (1905) - featured songwriter
The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer (1906) - featured songwriter
The Dairymaids (1907) - featured songwriter
The Girls of Gottenberg (1908) - featured songwriter for "I Can't Say That You're The Only One"
Fluffy Ruffles (1908) - co-composer (for eight out of ten songs, including "Fluffly Ruffles")
Kitty Grey (1909) - featured composer for "If The Girl Wants You (Never Mind the Color of Her Eyes)" and "Just Good Friends"
King of Cadonia (1910) - co-composer
La Belle Paree (1911) - revue - co-composer
Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 (1911) - revue - featured composer for "I'm a Crazy Daffy-Dill (Daffydil)"
Beginning in 1912, the more-experienced Kern began to work on dramatically-concerned shows, including music for plays, and for the first time in his young career, he wrote musicals as the sole composer. His regular lyricist collaborators during this period were Guy Bolton, P. G. Wodehouse, Harry B. Smith, Anne Caldwell, and Howard Dietz.
The Girl from Montmartre (1912) - play - co-incidental music composer
The "Mind-the-Paint" Girl (1912) - play - incidental music composer
The Red Petticoat (1912)
Oh, I Say! (1913)
When Claudia Smiles (1914) - featured co-lyricist for "Ssh! You'll Waken Mr. Doyle"
The Girl from Utah (1914) - Added five songs to the American production of this Paul Rubens musical, including the classic "They Didn't Believe Me"
90 in the Shade (1915)
Nobody Home (1915)
Cousin Lucy (1915) - play - incidental music composer
Miss Information (1915) - play - incidental music composer
Very Good Eddie (1915)
Revived in 1975
Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 (1916) - revue - featured composer for "When the Lights Are Low", "My Lady of the Nile", and "Ain't It Funny What a Difference Just a Few Drinks Make?"
Have a Heart (1917)
Love o' Mike (1917)
Oh, Boy! (1917)
Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 (1917) - featured composer for "Because You Are Just You (Just Because You're You)"
Leave It to Jane (1917)
revived in 1958
Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918)
Rock-a-Bye Baby (1918)
Head Over Heels (1918)
She's a Good Fellow (1919)
The Night Boat (1920)
Hitchy-Koo of 1920 (1920) - revue
Revived in 1923, 1948
Good Morning Dearie (1921)
The Cabaret Girl (London 1922)
The Bunch and Judy (1922)
Stepping Stones (1923)
Sitting Pretty (1924)
Dear Sir (1924)
During the last phase of his life, Jerome Kern continued to work with his previous collaborators but also met Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach, with whom Kern wrote his most lasting, memorable, and well-known works.
The City Chap (1925) revised version of the UK The Cabaret Girl
Criss Cross (1926)
Lucky (1927) - co-composer
Show Boat (1927) - (2 out of 19 songs were written by others; the music for the song Bill was by Kern, but the lyric was co-written by P.G. Wodehouse)
Revived in 1932, 1946, 1954, 1961, 1966, 1976, 1983, 1994
Sweet Adeline (1929)
The Cat and the Fiddle (1931) - co-composer, co-lyricist, co-bookwriter, and outliner of orchestrations which were done by Robert Russell Bennett)
Music in the Air (1932) - composer and co-director
Revived in 1951
Mamba's Daughters (1939) - play - featured songwriter
Revived in 1940
Very Warm for May (1939)
In addition to revivals of his most popular shows, the music of Jerome Kern was posthumously featured in a variety of revues, musicals, and concerts on and off Broadway.
Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood (1986) - revue consisting solely of songs composed by Kern and with lyrics by twelve different writers
Big Deal (1986) - dance revue - featured composer for "Pick Yourself Up"
Something Wonderful (1995) - concert celebrating Oscar Hammerstein II's 100th birthday - featured composer
Paul Robeson (1995) - one-man play - featured composer for "Ol' Man River"
Dream (1997) - revue - featured composer for "You Were Never Lovelier", "I'm Old Fashioned", and "Dearly Beloved"
Swing! (1999) - dance revue - featured songwriter for "I Won't Dance"
Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2002) - one-woman show - featured songwriter for "All In Fun"
Never Gonna Dance (2003) - musical consisting solely of songs composed by Kern and with lyrics by nine different writers
Jerome Kern: All The Things You Are (2008) - biography of Jerome Kern featuring songs composed by Kern
Main article: List of Jerome Kern songs