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George and Ira Gershwin's "A Foggy Day"
"for those of us interested in...the comet called George Gershwin that blazed briefly across American skies, Mr. Rimler is the astronomer of choice" - Wall Street Journal

The Gershwins' “A Foggy Day”

This song was introduced by Fred Astaire (in the fog on the grounds of Totleigh Castle) in A Damsel in Distress, a film released by RKO on November 19, 1937.

George had come back to his and Ira's Beverly Hills residence after a party and at about one in the morning he sat down at the piano and asked Ira if he had any song ideas. Since the movie they were working on was set in London, Ira suggested doing something about a foggy day in London town. Less than half an hour later, they had finished the refrain. The verse was written quickly too, but on the following day. Ira suggested doing something with a wistful Irish quality and George improvised the delicate and atmospheric verse.

The music begins with the sound of early morning chimes, played quietly and up high in the treble. Then comes a sixteen-bar verse (“I was a stranger in the city”), one of the composer's finest and most expressive. It has the recitativo style of his late verses—which is to say that it has the intimacy of conversational speech and, at the same time, an insistent, graceful melody. In the tenth bar, on “blue” in “The outlook was decidedly blue.” we are given not a blue note as such but a sound—a major ninth chord—that is blue by virtue of the stillness it creates.

In the refrain (“A foggy day in London town”) Gershwin uses harmonic minutia to create subtle and cumulative emotional effects. For instance, on the third word he switches from the initial major tonality to a minor sixth chord. He returns to the major four syllables later (on “town”) but chips away at it by flatting the ninth of the chord. Then the minor seventh on the third syllable of the next phrase (“low” in “had me low”) is quickly altered, becoming a more disquieting minor sixth. Five bars later there is another little slide from major to minor on the word “alarm.”

The heart of the piece occurs in the twenty-fifth bar on the word “suddenly” where the melody, in reaching its highest note, all but cries out. The resolution is a simple chorale (“and through foggy London town”), as had been the case at the close of “They Can't Take That Away From Me.” The song ends as it began: with a succession of five note chords played high in the treble. They sound like a cross between wind chimes and the tolling of Big Ben.

Fred Astaire's original rendition from A Damsel in Distress is available. On October 17, 1937 he recorded a studio version with Ray Noble and his Orchestra. He also made a later versions with the Grantz All-Stars, with an orchestra conducted by David Rose, an orchestra conducted by Pete King, and an orchestra recorded by Elliot Lawrence.

Judy Garland sang this song at her 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert.