This song was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (singing and dancing in the rooftop restaurant of a Manhattan hotel) in Shall We Dance, a film released by RKO on May 7, 1937.
It was one of the first of the Shall We Dance songs to be written and the only one written at the RKO studios. The Gershwins' office there had once been singer Lily Pons's dressing room.
When the brothers played this song for playwright George S. Kaufman he cut in after the references to Edison and Wilbur Wright, saying, “Don't tell me this is going to be a love song!” It was only with the line, “They laughed at me wanting you” that he realized how they had pulled it off.
Ira took the title from a famous 1920s correspondence school ad which read, “They all laughed when I sat down to play the piano.”
The verse (“The odds were a hundred to one against me”) is in the pop recitative style that characterized nearly all of Gershwin's post-Porgy verses. Beginning with a distinctive harmonic progression (B-flat seventh with a flatted fifth to A-minor seventh on “The odds”), it traverses twenty bars with melodic and rhythmic phrasings that take their cue from the natural inflections of speech. Its contemplative personality contrasts sharply with the brightness of the refrain (“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus”). That tune catches the ear by beginning with an eighth note after an initial eighth note rest, making for a comic effect—like stepping into rather than onto a stair. Gershwin then produces a very singable melody, backed by the elementary I-vii-ii-V7 progression that was the point of departure for so many of these, his final songs. This harmony becomes richer and more subtle as the refrain continues.
Some other points of interest: the rhythmically tricky piano fill after bar six (after “recorded sound”), the smart progression of ninth chords in bars fifteen and sixteen (“It's the same old cry”), and the surprise ending (“He, He, He!”) which begins abruptly in far-off E-flat and then breezily works its way back to the home key finish in G.
Fred Astaire's original performance is on the movie soundtrack, which has been released on record. On March 18, 1937 he recorded a studio version with Johnny Green and His Orchestra. In later years he recorded it again with the Grantz All-Stars and with orchestras conducted by Pete King, David Rose, and Elliot Lawrence. In 1937 there were versions by Tommy Dorsey, Ozzie Nelson, Nat Brandywynne, Red Nichols, and Harry Richman. It has also been recorded by David Allyn, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Feinstein, Joan Morris and William Bolcom, Andre Previn, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan.