Tuesday, February 12, 1974

50 years ago: George Gershwin performed “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time

First posted 2/12/2014; updated 3/19/2021.

Rhapsody in Blue

Paul Whiteman with George Gershwin

Writer(s): George Gershwin


First Performed: February 12, 1924


Recorded: June 10, 1924


First Charted: October 18, 1924


Peak: 3 US (Click for codes to singles charts.)


Sales (in millions): 1.0 US


Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 33.62 video, -- streaming

Awards: (Click on award for more details).

About the Song:

“This episodic and jazzy one-movement piano concerto” NPR was “highbrow pop music that became an instant pop standard.” CR It has been called George Gershwin’s “most identifiable masterpiece” and “one of the most enduring pieces of American music.” NPR “The sprawling fifteen-minute tune pulls together classical music and jazz.” CR It is a “landmark in popular music history” which “stands as an eternal symbol of the American ethos.” SS Gershwin himself called the work “a musical kaleidoscope of America.” WK In 1974, it was also one of the eight original inductees to the Grammy Hall of Fame. In How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elijah Wald called the piece “the Sgt. Pepper of the 1920s.“ SS

Gershwin left school at age 16 and five years later had “the biggest hit in the world” CR with Al Jolson’s “Swanee.” He was interested in taking his work beyond Tin Pan Alley and onto a concert stage. Paul Whiteman, “undisputed as America’s most popular bandleader,” SS-16 had similar ideas and asked Gershwin to write a piece for a jazz concerto. SS He sketched out the idea for a rhapsody which he composed in just a few weeks, although he reportedly told a friend at the time that everything he knew about harmony could be put on a three-cent stamp. SS His brother Ira suggested the name after a visit to a gallery exhibition featuring, among other works, the well-known “Whistler’s Mother.” WK Whiteman was so moved by the piece he wept. SS

On February 12, 1924, Gershwin and Whiteman’s Orchestra performed the piece for the first time to a full-capacity Aeolian Hall in New York. Among the crowd were legendary composers Igor Stravinsky, John Philip Sousa, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Most of the show was met with an indifferent response, but “Rhapsody” was greeted with enthusiastic applause. SS In The Nation, Henrietta Strauss declared that Whiteman and Gershwin had “added a new chapter to our musical history.” SS

Whiteman and Gershwin recorded the song that June and it reached #3 before year’s end. Three years later, a new electrically-recorded version hit #7. PM The Glenn Miller Orchestra went to #13 with its version in 1943. PM Woody Allen also used it in his film score for Manhattan.


Resources and Related Links:

  • DMDB Encyclopedia entry for George Gershwin
  • DMDB Encyclopedia entry for Paul Whiteman
  • CR Toby Creswell (2005). 1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time. Thunder’s Mouth Press: New York, NY. Pages 394.
  • NPR National Public Radio web site (1999). “The Most Important American Musical Works of the 20th Century
  • SS Steve Sullivan (2013). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (Volumes I & II). Scarecrow Press: Lanham, Maryland. Page 16.
  • PM Joel Whitburn (1986). Pop Memories 1890-1954. Menomonee Falls, WI; Record Research, Inc. Pages 172, 312.
  • WK Wikipedia

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