where the writers are
The Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It"
"Compact in length and voluminous in its details, Walter Rimler's study of Gershwin is freighted with melancholy—an appropriate parallel with Gershwin's own life."--TLS

The Gershwins' “Nice Work if You Can Get It"

This song was introduced by Fred Astaire, Jan Duggan, Mary Dean and Pearl Amatore in A Damsel in Distress, a film released by RKO on November 19, 1937.

George first jotted down he core of this tune in July of 1930. In his notebook it appears after “Garçon, S'il Vous Plait” and before “Posterity is Just Around the Corner” (both from Of Thee I Sing). At that time the tune was just nine bars long and was fitted with the words, “”If the truth you're telling, then I'm yelling there's no stopping us now.” The last five words were the working title. Six years later the composer retrieved this from his notebook and got to work on it. As for a new lyric, Ira had seen a cartoon by George Belcher that had one woman telling another that a third lady's daughter had become a whore. To this the second had replied, “It's nice work if you can get it.”

In the twenty-bar verse (“The man who only lives for making money”) we are told not to count on achieving wealth or fame, but to realize that “the only work that really brings enjoyment/Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant.” The music begins playfully but, in the fifth bar (on “Likewise”) we are given a B7 chord with the note G thrown in—the first of the strange sounds with which Gershwin will pepper this piece.

This chord appears again at the beginning of the refrain (“Holding hands at midnight”) and it is followed by a succession of weird sounds—a sequence based on the simple cycle of fifths pattern but with spooky alterations. Had this sort of harmony been allowed to continue much longer the effect would have been quite disconcerting. However, at the title phrase the harmony becomes conventional and the melody turns frisky and playful.

The release (“Just imagine someone”), beginning at bar seventeen, is a dark and rhythmic excursion into the harmonic minor and it presents additional eerie sounds when, on “some” in “someone,” a diminished fifth and a ninth are added to a C7 chord, and at “more” in “Who could ask for anything more? when we get an F#7-5 chord with the diminished fifth in the bass. In the latter phrase the Gershwins are referring to their 1930 song “I Got Rhythm,” as they had a few months earlier in “Slap That Bass.”

Fred Astaire's original performance from A Damsel in Distress is available on video and on disc. On October 19, 1937 he made a studio recording with Ray Noble and His Orchestra. In later years he recorded this song with The Grantz All-Stars and then with an orchestra conducted by David Rose. In September 1937 there were recordings by Shep Fields and Vincent Lopez and His Orchestra. In October of that year there were versions by Tommy Dorsey and Maxine Sullivan. In November there were renditions by the Andrews Sisters, Bob Crosby, the Benny Goodman Trio, and Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra.