This song was introduced by Gracie Barrie in The Show is On at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York City on December 25, 1936.
At a New York party director Vincente Minnelli heard the Gershwin brothers fooling around with a Strauss-like waltz. A few months later, in August of 1936, he wired them in Beverly Hills (they were staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel) with a request that they finish it up and send it to him, as he wanted to use it in a new revue. They did so, taking a day off from their work on “Hi-Ho!” for Shall We Dance (the latter song was not used in that film and not published until 1968). “By Strauss,” therefore, was the last song written by George Gershwin for the Broadway stage.
Though well-received, it did not become popular until 1951 when it was sung by Gene Kelly in Vincente Minnelli's film An American in Paris. Some of the text was changed by the lyricist for that occasion. According to Minnelli, “By Strauss” was included in An American in Paris because Kelly wanted one of his dances to be a duet between himself and a little old lady and it seemed most fitting that the number be a waltz.
The song's unusually long verse (forty-three bars) disconcerted the publisher who did not want to go to the expense of printing an extra page of music. An editor wrote George Gershwin about the problem asking if he would help her whittle the piece down. In a December 4, 1936 letter the composer replied, “It has always been my policy to give the public a lot for its money; and I think it would be a good idea to put this on the title page--”This song has an extra long verse so you are getting more notes per penny than in any other song this season'...in other words, dear Selma, I would like the song printed as I wrote it, with no commas left over. Love and kisses, George.”
The above-mentioned verse (“Away with the music of Broadway”) is a notable and melodic waltz in and of itself. Its lyric mentions a few of the great contemporary songwriters: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and George Gershwin himself. Ira Gershwin had done something on this order before in “When Do We Dance” but then his list had only included Kern and Berlin. The phrase “Gershwin keeps pounding on tin” might be a reference to his brother's piano playing or to Tin Pan Alley or it may have been a handy way to come up with a rhyme for Berlin.
The refrain (“When I want a melody lilting through the house”) begins with Straussian luftpauses and continues throughout to parody its model with fond exuberance. It is thirty-six bars long and A(1)-B-A(2)-B(2) in form, with the final section (“By Jo!”) dipping for moment into the distant key of D-flat for some extra push. It is interesting to note that “Hi-Ho!,” which Gershwin was writing at this time, is also in F and also spends some time in D-flat.
As for recordings: Gene Kelly's 1951 version is on the An American in Paris soundtrack, Ella Fitzgerald's version was released in 1959, and the truest to Gershwin's original piano/vocal setting is by Rosalind Rees and Oresta Cybriwsky.