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The song came from the musical Girl Crazy which also includes two other hit songs, "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me", and has been sung by many jazz singers since. It was originally written as a slow song for Treasure Girl (1928) and found another, faster setting in Girl Crazy. Ethel Merman sang the song in the original Broadway production and Broadway lore holds that George Gershwin, after seeing her opening reviews, warned her never to take a singing lesson.
The piece was originally penned in the key of D♭ major. The song melody uses four notes of the five-note pentatonic scale, first rising, then falling. A rhythmic interest in the song is that the tune keeps behind the main pulse, with the three "I got..." phrases syncopated, appearing one beat behind in the first bar, while the fourth phase "Who could..." rushes in to the song. The song's chorus is in a 34-bar AABA form. Its chord progression (although often reduced to a standard 32-bar structure, for the sake of improvised solos), is known as the "rhythm changes", and is the foundation for many other popular jazz tunes. The song was used as the theme in Gershwin's last concert piece for piano and orchestra, the Variations on "I Got Rhythm", written in 1934. The song has become symbolic of the Gershwins, of swing, and of the 1920s.
As usual, George Gershwin wrote the melody first and gave it to Ira to set, but Ira found it an unusually hard melody for which to create lyrics. He experimented for two weeks with the rhyme scheme he felt the music called for, sets of triple rhymes, but found that the heavy rhyming "seemed at best to give a pleasant and jingly Mother Goose quality to a tune which should throw its weight around more." Finally he began to experiment with leaving most of the lines unrhymed. "This approach felt stronger," he wrote, "and I finally arrived at the present refrain, with only 'more-door' and 'mind him-find him' the rhymes." He added that this approach "was a bit daring for me who usually depended on rhyme insurance."
Ira also wrote that although the phrase "who could ask for anything more?" is repeated four times in the song, he decided not to make it the title because "somehow the first line of the refrain sounded more arresting and provocative."
The song is featured in the 1951 musical film An American in Paris. Gene Kelly sang the song and tap-danced, while French-speaking children whom he had just taught a few words of English shouted the words "I got" each time they appeared in the lyrics. This version finished at #32 in AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
It is also featured in the film Mr. Holland's Opus, during a scene in which students are trying out for a Gershwin revue.
Also featured in the movie "My Girl", during a dinner scene when the grandmother sang it, oblivious of the others.
Another version of the song was arranged for solo guitar by Ton Van Bergeyk. It appears on the album Black and Tan Fantasy. Mike Oldfield and Wendy Roberts performed a version on Oldfield's Platinum album.
The song was satirized in an episode of The Muppet Show where Rowlf and Fozzie attempt to perform it but Fozzie is unable to keep in tempo. To compensate Rowlf has him change the lyrics to "I don't got Rhythm".
The song has appeared in several film versions of Girl Crazy:
^Ethel Merman with Orchestra Directed by Jay Blackton. Recorded December 12, 1947, New York City, Master #74230-A, originally released on Decca single 24453 B and Ethel Merman: Songs She Made Famous, album DA-681, June 28, 1948. Source notes from Front Row Center: The Broadway Gold Box, 1935 - 1988. Four Compact Disc Set, Broadway Gold/MCA Classics, MCAD4-11353 (1996)
^Barbra Streisand and Other Musical Instruments, Columbia Records/CBS, Inc. (1973)