This song was introduced by Tony Bennett in a 1968 recording (see below).
This is the first song that George and Ira finished upon arriving in Los Angeles in August 1936. It was written in their suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It must have taken some daring, even defiance, to begin their work on Shall We Dance with such an unorthodox work, since the studio chiefs in Hollywood had been openly worried about the composer's “highbrow” inclinations—so worried that the brothers had to lower their salary requirements from $100,000 plus a percentage of the film's profits to not much more than half of that and no profit-sharing. Still, there was a favorable reaction to “Hi-Ho!,” Shall We Dance director Mark Sandrich saying “this is real $4.40 stuff” (the top price of a Broadway ticket at the time).
“Hi-Ho!” was to have accompanied a sequence—devised by the Gershwins—that would have had Astaire dancing around the streets of Paris singing the praises of a celebrity (Ginger Rogers) whom he knew only from Parisian posters. The decision not to use it in the picture was based the high cost of filming that sequence.
The song was first heard publicly in the late 1940s in an S.N. Behrman play, Let Me Hear the Melody, which was based on the author's memories of George Gershwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the play and the song went nowhere. Publication did not come until 1967, when the composition was made part of an exhibition of Gershwin works at the Museum of the City of New York.
“Hi-Ho!” resembles Gershwins' one published “art” song, “In the Mandarin's Orchid Garden,” in its adventurous length, its unhurried flow and its abundant and interconnected ideas. But, unlike “Mandarin,” “Hi-Ho!” is completely in the vernacular, both musically and lyrically. It is also more than twice as long, coming in at 118 bars. Yet, it is more simply constructed than the other song, being ABAC in form.
It begins with a piano introduction—a light, evanescent motive that comes and goes throughout (Harold Arlen and Kay Swift play it in their respective recordings—see below). There is no verse. Section A (“Hi-Ho!”), which has a low-keyed joyousness, is forty-two bars long and, except for the two-note title phrase, does not repeat. Like the refrain of “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off,” it is based on a I-ii-vi7-V7 sequence. But here, atop a gentle swinging beat, the melody gradually surges; it has a lighthearted grandeur. The B section (“Please, pardon me, sir”) begins suddenly in the far-ff key of D-flat. It is a wonderful melody, as singable as it is unusual, and it finishes with a joyous and unexpected little tag (“She's lovely”). Section A is then repeated in F until, in the 109th bar, we come to the coda (“Hi-Ho! I've got it”). Here the melody speaks in asides while the accompaniment dances about in a pleasing progression of unusual chords.
The lyric is entirely in the spirit of the music and it contains such deft wordplay as “Will I ever be her Romeo, me, oh my!”
The first and best recording of “Hi-Ho!” was a homemade version from late 1937 or early 1938 by Ira Gershwin (vocal) and Harold Arlen (piano). The first commercial recording was made in 1968 by Tony Bennett: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PI0GWVV-cG. A few years after that there was a fine version by Bobby Short with George Gershwin's inamorata Kay Swift at the second piano.