Click to return to Dave’s Music Database home page.

Genre: musical theater

Quotable: “One of the most important American theatre composers of the early 20th century.” –

Born: 1/27/1885

Where: New York City, NY

Died: 11/11/1945

Major Shows:

  • Mr. Wix of Wickham (1904)
  • The Catch of the Season (1905)
  • The Earl and the Girl (1905)
  • The Little Cherub (1906)
  • The Rich Mr. Hoggenheimer (1906)
  • The Beauty of Bath (1906)
  • The Orchid (1907)
  • The Girls of Gottenberg (1908)
  • Fluffy Ruffles (1908)
  • Our Miss Gibbs (1910)
  • La Belle Paree (1911)
  • The “Mind-the-Paint” Girl (1912)
  • The Red Petticoat (1912)
  • To-Night’s the Night (1914)
  • The Girl from Utah (1914)
  • Nobody Home (1915)
  • Very Good Eddie (1915)
  • Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 (1916)
  • Theodore & Co. (1916)
  • Miss Springtime (1917)
  • Oh, Boy! (1917)
  • Ziegfeld Follies of 1917 (1917)
  • Leave It to Jane (1917)
  • Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918)
  • Oh, My Dear (1918)
  • The Night Boat (1920)
  • Hitchy-Koo of 1920 (1920)
  • Sally (1920)
  • The Cabaret Girl (1922)
  • The Bunch and Judy (1922)
  • Stepping Stones (1923)
  • Sunny (1925)
  • Criss Cross (1926)
  • Show Boat (cast album: 1927; soundtrack: 1951)
  • Blue Eyes (1928)
  • Sweet Adeline (1929)
  • The Cat and the Fiddle (1931)
  • Music in the Air (1932)
  • Roberta (1933)
  • Three Sisters (1934)
  • Mamba’s Daughter (1939)
  • Very Warm for May (1939)

Key Tracks:

  • They Don't Believe Me (written with Herbert Reynolds; performed by Harry MacDonough with Olive Kline; #1 - 1915)
  • Look for the Silver Lining (written with Buddy DeSylva; performed by Marion Harris; #1 - 1921)
  • Who? (written with Otto Harbach; performed by George Olsen; #1 - 1926)
  • Bill (written with P.G. Wodehouse; performed by Helen Morgan; #4 - 1928)
  • Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Helen Morgan; #7 - 1928)
  • Why Do I Love You? (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Nat Shilkret; #9 - 1928)
  • Make Believe (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra; #7 - 1928)
  • Ol' Man River (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra with Bob Crosby; #1 - 1928)
  • Ol’ Man River (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Paul Robeson with Paul Whiteman; #7 - 1932)
  • The Song Is You (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Jack Denny; #12 - 1933)
  • Yesterdays (written with Otto Harbach; performed by Leo Reisman; #3 - 1933)
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (written with Otto Harbach; performed by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra; #1 - 1934)
  • I Won’t Dance (written with Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh; performed by Eddy Duchin - #1, 1935)
  • The Way You Look Tonight (written with Dorothy Fields; performed by Fred Astaire with Johnny Green & His Orchestra; #1 - 1936)
  • A Fine Romance (written with Dorothy Fields; performed by Fred Astaire with Johnny Green & His Orchestra; #1 - 1936)
  • All the Things You Are (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra with Jack Leonard; #1 - 1939)
  • The Last Time I Saw Paris (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Kate Smith; #8 - 1940)
  • Long Ago and Far Away (written with Ira Gershwin; performed by Helen Forrest with Dick Haymes; #2 - 1944)
  • My Funny Valentine (written with Oscar Hammerstein II; performed by Hal McIntyre; #16 - 1945)
  • All Through the Day (performed by Frank Sinatra, #7 - 1946)
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (written with Otto Harbach; performed by The Platters; #1 - 1958)



One of the Top 1000 Music Makers of All Time, according to Dave’s Music Database Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (through 2009 inductees)

Kern was “an American composer of musical theatre and popular music. One of the most important American theatre composers of the early 20th century, he wrote more than 700 songs, used in over 100 stage works.” WK “Kern created dozens of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films in a career that lasted for more than four decades.” WK

“In the course of his career, Kern’s style showed a remarkable evolution toward greater and greater sophistication and a more and more American style. He was in many ways a link between the European operetta tradition and the Broadway musical style.” SH “His musical innovations, such as 4/4 dance rhythms and the employment of syncopation and jazz progressions, built on, rather than rejected, earlier musical theatre tradition. He and his collaborators also employed his melodies to further the action or develop characterization to a greater extent than in the other musicals of his day, creating the model for later musicals. Although dozens of Kern’s musicals and musical films were hits, only Show Boat is now regularly revived. However, songs from his other shows are still frequently performed and adapted.” WK

Early Years (1885-1905)
Kern was born in New York City to Henry Kern, a Jewish German immigrant, and Fannie Kakeles, an American Jew of Bohemian parentage. WK He grew up in Manhattan where he attended public school and showed an early aptitude for music. His mother, an accomplished player and teacher, taught him how to play the piano and organ. WK

In 1897, the family moved to Newark, New Jersey, where Kern wrote songs for Newark High School’s first musical, a minstrel show, in 1901. Kern’s father made a failed attempt at getting his son to enter the business with him before relenting and allowing his son to enter the New York College of Music in 1902. WK From 1903 to 1905, he trained under private tutors in Heidelberg, Germany. WK

Early Years (1904-1911)
“During his first phase of work, Kern wrote songs for 22 Broadway productions, including songs interpolated into British musicals or featured in revues.” WK Among Kern’s first musical jobs were work as a rehearsal pianist in Broadway theatres and plugging songs for Tin Pan Alley music publishers. WK In 1904, while in London, he contracted to provide songs for Broadway versions of London shows. He even provided additional score to An English Daisy and Mr. Wix of Wickham. WK From 1905 on, he spent large chunks of time in London. George Grossmith Jr. and Seymour Hicks were the first to introduce Kern’s songs to the London stage. WK

Phase II (1912-1924)
“Kern began to work on dramatically concerned shows, including incidental music for plays, and, for the first time since his college show Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he wrote musicals as the sole composer.” WK 1912’s The Red Petticoat marked Kern’s first complete score. He had over a hundred songs used in thirty productions by World War I. WK

1914’s The Girl from Utah produced They Don’t Believe Me. Written with Herbert Reynolds, it is considered by many to be the first modern ballad. SH It was likely Kern’s best known song from this era. Harry Macdonough and Olive Kline had a #1 with the song in 1915. PM The song put Kern in great demand on Broadway, where he composed sixteen scores over the next five years. WK While earlier musical comedy often inserted songs into the scores with little regard for plot, Kern and librettist Guy Bolton followed the example of Gilbert and Sullivan in integrating story and song, most notably for a series of shows written for the Princess Theatre. WK

Among Kern’s highlights in the early 1920s was Sally. Its 570 performances were one of the longest runs of a Broadway show in the decade. WK The song Look for the Silver Lining proved to be another hit, most notably as a #1 for Marion Harris. PM

Ironically, Kern was developing an aversion to his songs being taken out of context, such as on hits on the radio. He especially objected to jazz interpretations of his songs. WK

Oscar Hammerstein II and Show Boat (1925-1927)
“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.” WK Their first show together, Sunny, ran for 517 performances on Broadway with another 363 performances the next year in the West End. WK The show produced another #1 hit for Kern with George Olsen’s version of Who (Stole My Heart Away)?. PM

For their next project, Kern persuaded Hammerstein to adapt Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat. The story’s themes of “dealing with racism, marital strife and alcoholism, was unheard of in the escapist world of musical comedy.” WK The show “pioneered the concept of the fully integrated musical, with all aspects of the show working together toward a single artistic unity.” SH With well-known songs like Ol’ Man River, Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man, Make Believe, Why Do I Love You? and Bill, the score is arguably Kern’s greatest. WK Note: the last song, originally with a lyric b P.G. Wodehouse, was written for one of the Princess musicals and revised by Hammerstein. SH

While many of Kern’s individual songs have held up, most of his shows have been largely forgotten. Show Boat remains the exception, having been frequently seen via numerous revivals. It initially ran for 572 performances on Broadway and was also successful in London. It was made into a film in 1936 and again in 1951. A stage version was presented on television for the first time in 1989. WK

Hollywood and Harbach (1929-1939)
In 1929, Kern would branch out to Hollywood, where he supervised the film version of Sally, “one of the first ‘all-talking’ Technicolor films.” WK However, within two years musicals were already losing steam and Kern returned to Broadway. He collaborated with Otto Harbach with whom Hammerstein and Kern had worked on Sunny. Their work included 1931’s The Cat and the Fiddle, which was made into a film in 1934, and 1933’s Roberta. WK The latter included I Won’t Dance, a #1 for Eddy Duchin, PM and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which was a #1 for Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra in 1934. PM Doo-wop group The Platters would also go to #1 with their 1958 version of the song.

Kern returned to Hollywood in 1935 once musical film regained a foothold. The 1936 film Swing Time produced the song The Way You Look Tonight, an Academy Award winner for best song. WK That song and the show’s A Fine Romance were both #1 songs for Fred Astaire. PM

By 1937, Kern settled permanently in Hollywood. After a heart attack in 1939, doctors advised him to concentrate on the less stressful task of developing film scores since “Hollywood songwriters were not as deeply involved with the production of their works as Broadway songwriters.” WK

Final Years (1939-)
Kern’s last Broadway show, another collaboration with Hammerstein, was 1939’s Very Warm for May. It was a disappointment, but included the song All the Things You Are. Tommy Dorsey’s 1940 version of the song was another #1 hit. PM

1940’s Lady Be Good produced Kern’s second Oscar-winning song – for The Last Time I Saw Paris, WK a #8 hit for Kate Smith. PM

Kern’s last Hollywood musicals saw him paired with distinguished partners such as Johnny Mercer (1942’s You Were Never Lovelier) Ira Gershwin (1944’s Cover Girl, and E.Y. Harburg (1944’s Cant Help Singing). The latter collaboration produced the song Long Ago (and Far Away), WK a #2 hit for Helen Forrest and Dick Haymes. PM

On Kern’s last film score, 1946’s Centennial Summer, Hammerstein, Harburg, and Leo Robin all contributed lyrics. The song All Through the Day was an Oscar nominee for Best Song. WK Frank Sinatra went to #7 with his take on the song.

Kern died in 1945 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. He was in New York City to begin work on the score of Annie Get Your Gun. He was survived by his wife Evan and their daughter Betty Jane.

Biography Source(s):

Click on box above to check out the DMDB on Facebook.

Last updated January 27, 2011.