The premiere of Of Thee I Sing was conducted by George Gershwin at the Music Box Theatre in New York City on December 26, 1931.
In conducting the orchestra that night, Gershwin admonished them to “Play it hot—not Harlem hot, Park Avenue hot.”
Until this one, all the overtures to Gershwin's Broadway shows had been medleys. The Of Thee I Sing overture is a medley too but with a difference: instead of a smorgasbord from the show, it offers just a small sampling of themes and, for most of its four and a half minutes, develops them to create a piece of music with an identity of its own. The overture can be broken down into nine sections:
1. The opening bars of “Wintergreen For President" played with alternating three-four and two-four meters, although the song itself is in two-four. This fifteen-bar passage concludes with an interesting vamp that is in the spirit of the song but not in the song itself.
2. A frenetic dotted-note motive based on the opening notes common to two Of Thee I Sing themes: “Because, Because” and “The Senator From Minnesota." Here the idea is played faster than in those songs and Gershwin develops it at length, mainly harmonically.
3. “Who Cares?” played with the dotted-note motive as counterpoint.
4. A straightforward rendition of “Who Cares?”
5. A slow reading of the first seven notes of “Wintergreen For President” played against shifting harmonies.
6. “I Was the Most Beautiful Blossom” performed as a violin solo. This melody contains a hint of “Summertime,” which Gershwin would write three years later.
7. A return to the dotted-note motive developed with increasing frenzy and dissonance.
8. A four-bar transitional melody featuring minor chords played against chromatically descending harmony.
9. A straightforward reading of “Of Thee I Sing.”
In the first broadcast of his radio program “Music By Gershwin” on February 19, 1934 the composer presented a slightly abridged orchestral performance of this piece.
The show was orchestrated by Robert Russell Bennett, William Daly and Gershwin himself.
In 1977 Michael Tilson Thomas recorded this piece with the Buffalo Philharmonic. In 1987 he recorded it again as part of a concert version of the show, this time with the Orchestra of St. Luke's.