Jerome Kern

On this date in 1885, songwriter Jerome David Kern was born in New York City to Fanny (Kakeles) and Henry Kern. His mother, of Bohemian heritage, was born in the U.S. and his father was born in Germany. Although they both had been raised Jewish, “[t]heir marriage at Temple Emanu-El was the last religious function in either of their lives,” wrote Kern biographer Michael Freedland. They gave their son no religious training.

Kern started playing the piano at a young age. He left high school after his junior year, studied at the New York College of Music, then at Heidelberg University in Germany. At the age of 20 in 1905, Kern composed his first hit song and in 1912 wrote his first Broadway score. The Broadway musical “Showboat” (1927) broke ground by integrating music with story.

Due to Kern’s remarkable musical influence, he became known as “father of the American musical theater.” Kern, a composer who worked with a variety of lyricists, eventually paired up with lyricist Dorothy Fields. They won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Song with “The Way You Look Tonight” from the movie “Swing Time.” In 1941 he and Oscar Hammerstein II won an Oscar for best song for “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” from the film “Lady Be Good.” Their last Broadway collaboration was in “Very Warm for May” (1939), a show that 9-year-old Stephen Sondheim watched enrapt.

He wrote close to 700 songs and more than 100 complete scores for both shows and films. Kern classics include “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Old Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” “Make Believe,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “I Won’t Dance,” “A Fine Romance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “All the Things You Are.”

While working on the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” a project initiated by Fields, Kern had a stroke and died a few days later at age 60 in 1945.

PHOTO: Kern in 1934.

Freedom From Religion Foundation