George Gershwin’s “But Not for Me” is Definitely for Me

Mickey Rooney Judy Garland Girl Crazy 1943

Yesterday I performed in a concert with my band (I play the saxophone in a community band), and by far my favorite of all the pieces we played was the jazz standard “But Not for Me,” which was composed in 1930 by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

I think it might be the most fun piece we’ve ever played. Well except for maybe the time we played songs from the musical Hair. “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” especially was an absolute blast to play!

Anyway, when I got home I decided to look up the history of “But Not for Me,” and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it has ties to classic film. Turns out it was originally written for the 1930 musical Girl Crazy, a play that by most accounts made Ginger Rogers a star and helped launch the career of Ethel Merman. On opening night of the play, the pit orchestra included the likes of Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey. Boy, would I have loved to have been there for that!

The song was also performed by Judy Garland in the film version of Girl Crazy from 1943, and it appeared in the movies Manhattan (1979), When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994).

Composer George Gershwin

Learning about the song also inspired me to learn more about the Gershwins who I realized I didn’t really know much about. It’s probably something I should have already known, but I was surprised to learn that George (pictured at left) died tragically of a brain tumor in 1937 at age 38. For some reason I was thinking he was around a lot later than that. His brother Ira did live a long life though, dying in 1983 at age 86.

I love it when studying one topic takes me on a trail of discovery about a different subject, so it was great to learn more about the Gershwin brothers, listening to a little Rhapsody in Blue along the way.

The version of “But Not for Me” that we played was arranged by composer Warren Barker, who worked as a composer and arranger-conductor for studios such as 20th Century Fox, MGM and Columbia. He also composed music for over thirty television series including the popular tv show, Bewitched, and arranged pieces for concert and community bands like mine.

Being an instrumental version of the song, our piece didn’t necessarily sound like the ones performed over the years by many well known singers, but it was still interesting to listen to other versions by those who have recorded the tune in the past.

Some of those artists include Ketty Lester, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane (I have his instrumental version on my iPod), Rosemary Clooney, and Frank Sinatra. Besides the Coltrane instrumental, my favorite version is the one by Sam Cooke. I just love his soulful vocals, and he has one of those voices that I could listen to all day long.

Are you familiar with the song “But Not for Me” and if so, do you have a favorite version?

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4 Responses
  1. Karen says:

    Enjoyed your post, Ginny – and I would like to have heard your band! I’m definitely familiar with this song, but when I think of it, I think it’s kind of sad. It’s pretty, but it makes me want to cry. I hope your version was more upbeat!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Karen! Yes, our version was actually very jazzy and we had a professional musician playing with us, so that made it extra fun. It was a lot more like John Coltrane’s version, which I now put a link to in the post. I know how you feel though. When I heard some of the other versions, especially Judy Garland’s, I questioned whether it was even the same song because of how slow and somber it was.

  2. Allen says:

    Ella Fitzgerald’s version of But Not For me is awesome.

  3. [...] play the saxophone in a community band and had a great time at our spring concert playing the tune “But Not for Me,” which was composed by George Gershwin. Yesterday during our fall concert, we played two more pieces [...]

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