George was born Jacob Gershowitz in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the second of four children. In 1910, the Gershowitzes had acquired a piano for Ira's music lessons, but younger brother George took over, since he was learning silently at his aunt's house. He tried out various piano teachers for two years, then was introduced to Charles Hambitzer by Jack Miller, the pianist in the Beethoven Symphony Orchestra. Hambitzer acted as George's mentor until Hambitzer's death in 1918. Hambitzer taught George conventional piano technique, introduced him to music of the European classical tradition, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. (At home following such concerts, young George would attempt to reproduce at the piano the music he had heard). He later studied with classical composer Rubin Goldmark and avant-garde composer-theorist Henry Cowell.
His first job as a performer was as a piano pounder for Remick's, a publishing company on Tin Pan Alley. His 1917 novelty rag "Rialto Ripples" was a commercial success, and in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song "Swanee". 1916 was the year he started working for Aeolian Company and Standard Music Rolls in New York, recording and arranging piano rolls. He produced dozens if not hundreds of rolls under his own and assumed names (pseudonyms attributed to Gershwin include Fred Murtha and Bert Wynn.) He also recorded rolls of his own compositions for the Welte-Mignon reproducing piano of M. Welte & Sons, Inc. of New York City, the inventor and first producer of reproducing pianos.
In 1924, George and Ira collaborated on a musical comedy, Lady Be Good. It included such future standards as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "The Man I Love." This was followed by Oh, Kay! (1926); Funny Face in (1927); Strike Up the Band (1927 & 1930); Girl Crazy (1930), which introduced the standard "I Got Rhythm"; and Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. "I Got Rhythm", interestingly, was accepted as a Jazz Standard, and its chord progression has incredible significance in Jazz. These chord changes known as "Rhythm changes" have been frequently adopted in Jazz literature. In the same year, Gershwin composed his first classical work, Rhapsody in Blue for orchestra with piano, which was premièred with Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. It proved to be his most famous work. Gershwin stayed in Paris for a short period of time where he wrote An American in Paris. This work received mixed reviews. Eventually he found the music scene in Paris supercilious, and left for America. Though he hugely admired the French style of music - and did until the day he died - Gershwin remained thoroughly American.
His most ambitious composition was Porgy and Bess (1935). Called by Gershwin himself a "folk opera," the piece premiered in a Broadway theater and is now widely regarded as the most important American opera of the 20th century. Based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, the action takes place in a black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina, and with the exception of several minor speaking roles, all of the characters are black. The music combines elements of popular music of the day, which was strongly influenced by black music, with techniques found in Western opera, such as recitative and leit motifs.
Early in 1937, Gershwin began to complain of blinding headaches, and a recurring impression that he was smelling burned rubber. Unbeknownst to him, he had developed a brain tumor. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that he collapsed and, on July 11, 1937, died following surgery for the tumour at the age of 38.
Gershwin had a 10-year affair with composer Kay Swift, and frequently consulted her about his music. Oh, Kay was named for her. Posthumously, Swift arranged some of his music, transcribed some of his recordings, and collaborated with Ira on several projects. Gershwin had also had an affair with Paulette Goddard.
Gershwin could be generous, warm, and a friend-in-need, but he could also be vain and more than a trifle egotistical.His friend and champion, the concert pianist Oscar Levant once asked him: "George, if you had it to do all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?"