The lyrics to this song are by B.G. DeSylva and Arthur Francis (Ira Gershwin). It was introduced by the entire cast—including George White himself—in George White's Scandals of 1922 at the Globe Theatre in New York City on August 28, 1922. All were in black, dancing against the backdrop of a white staircase in a scene called “The Patent Leather Forest.” The accompaniment was provided by Paul Whiteman's orchestra. Nearly thirty yeas later the song was done in a similar vein by Georges Guetary in the film An American in Paris.
George and Ira had written a ditty called “New Step Evey Day” in which the singer brags about the number of dance steps he is learning. Although they considered it a weak effort, the lyricist Buddy DeSylva thought it contained something special. One night after dinner at DeSylva's Greenwich Village apartment, the three songwriters got to work and by one a.m. they had “(I'll Build a) Stairway to Paradise.” The original had been entirely revamped; only one phrase remained in common between the two efforts, although in the original it had been “I'll build a staircase to paradise.”
The song was a sensation. As George Gershwin later told it:
“'Stairway' was played in the show by Paul Whiteman's orchestra, and I'll never forget the first time I heard Whiteman do it. Paul made my song live with a vigor that almost floored me. Curiously enough, another piece, “I Found a Four Leaf Clover,” was written to be the featured song or hit in the show. But there was no stopping “Stairway to Paradise” once Whitman got his brasses into it. Two circular staircases surrounded the orchestra on the stage, leading up into theatrical paradise or the flies...Mr. White had draped fifty of his most beautiful girls in a black patent-leather material which brilliantly reflected the spotlights...Incidentally, my association with Whiteman in this show I am sure had something to do with Paul's asking me to write a composition for his first jazz concert. As you may know, I wrote the Rhapsody in Blue for the occasion.” (Quoted from The Gershwins, Athenium 1973).
As for Ira, he had not expected to earn much from this song but it paid him $3,500—enough to support him for a year. His and George's father liked to refer to it as the “war song”--due, no doubt, to its march rhythms.
The composer's piano transcription of this song appears in George Gershwin's Songbook, published in September of 1932.
Although we do not hear the title of this song until the start of the refrain, it is depicted musically in the verse (“All you preachers”), where the melody rides to a series of plateaus on a succession of bold harmonic jumps. These jumps are far enough afield from one another (C to E-flat to A-flat to E to A) to create surprise, yet connected enough to create forward motion. And, underneath, there is the relentless march-like pulse that made Gershwin's father call this a war song. In the refrain, the beat has a more hopping or skipping quality; it is more playful than the verse. The melody is playful too, rising an octave right away, then bouncing up and down, happily ringing the occasional blue note. In its brief four-bar release (“I've got the blues”), however, it reverts back to the march rhythm of the verse.
Paul Whiteman's version was recorded in September of 1922 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYu43Ba8dXE). Georges Guetary's version from the 1951 film American n Paris is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVvGEBDioHg.