This song was introduced by Fred and Adele Astaire and Cliff Edwards (“Ukelele Ike”) in Lady, Be Good! At the Liberty Theatre in New York City on December 1, 1924.
In May 1923 Bill Daly and Joe Meyer set an Ira Gershwin lyric, “Little rhythm—go 'way,” to music. The next year that line was the source of Ira's “Fascinating Rhythm” idea. George Gershwin had foreshadowed the music for the song in “Some Wonderful Sort of Someone”--written six years earlier—although the composer may not have been consciously drawing on that source when, while working in London on Primrose, he wrote the first eight bars. The tune was finished when he got back to New York. Producer Alex Aarons asked that Gershwin have it done in time for Lady, Be Good!
During the writing of this song a dispute over the rhyme scheme developed between the Gershwin brothers. George thought that a two-syllable rhyme was needed on the fourth and eighth lines (at “quiver” and “flivver”) with the accent on the first syllable in each instance. Ira wanted a single rhyme on the last syllable. The argument went on for several days before George was able to convince Ira that, because the downbeat of this rhythmically tricky song (its phrases are in two concurrent and conflicting meters, two-four and three-four) came on the first syllable, a rhyme had to be there.
Morris Gershwin, father of the songwriting team, liked to call this song “Fashion on the River.”
George Gershwin, a good dancer himself, gave Fred Astaire a welcome suggestion for a travel step exit for this tune. The step was, as Astaire later recalled in his autobiography Steps in Time:
“a complicated precision rhythm thing in which we kicked out simultaneously as we crossed back and forth in front of each other with arm pulls and heads back. There was a lot going on, and when George suggested traveling, we didn't think it was possible. It was the perfect answer to our problem, however, this suggestion by hoofer Gershwin, and it turned out to be a knockout applause puller...George threw me a couple for my solo routine too. I liked to watch him dance. It made me laugh.”
In Lady, Be Good! Cliff Edwards sang this song at a garden party for the upper crust. He later became the voice for Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's Pinocchio.
The composer's piano variation on this song was published in 1932 as part of George Gershwin's Songbook.
In 1940 “Fascinating Rhythm” and several other Gershwin songs were used in the ballet The New Yorkers, performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
The verse (“Got a little rhythm”) is similar melodically and harmonically to the refrain of “The Man I Love.” Here Gershwin uses this language to create momentum and, upon the sudden shift to B-flat minor in the ninth bar (on “comes in the mornings”), power.
In the refrain (“Fascinating rhythm, you've got me on the go”) he tailgates his musical phrases—something he had done in earlier songs, such as “Tra-La-La” but never so boldly. Ordinarily, one would expect “go” in “you've got me on the go!” to last half a bar. But Gershwin gives it only a quarter bar, bringing in a repeat of the “Fascinating Rhythm” phrase a beat ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, the accompaniment keeps time as if nothing has happened. The release (“Each morning I get up with the sun”) provides a melodic and unfrenetic contrast with the main strain. It is later altered to make a coda (“Oh, how I long to be the man I used to be!”).
One can hear George Gershwin playing and Fred and Adele Astaire singing “Fascinating Rhythm” on a record made in London in 1926. Cliff Edwards also recorded a version. The songwriters' sister, Frances Gershwin, recorded a version in the early 1970s.