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Heirs of George and Ira Gershwin at odds over foreign song royalties

October 31, 2009 |  8:30 am
Gershwins OK, everybody, let's all sing along!

I like potato and you like potahto,
I like tomato and you like tomahto,
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto --
Let's call the whole thing off!

It's lettuce, actually, that's at stake, and plenty of it, in two Los Angeles courtrooms where the heirs of George and Ira Gershwin are in marked disharmony over who should get what from the overseas royalties generated by the brothers' huge, estimable and highly remunerative songbook.

In fact, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" is the refrain Ira's side is singing to Warner/Chappell Music, the prominent song publisher that has handled the Gershwins' catalog for more than 60 years. The Ira side's suit in Superior Court alleges that Warner/Chappell has been favoring the interests of the George side of the family. The publisher, in turn, has asked a federal judge to sort out an alleged impasse between the two Gershwin factions so that everybody can get back to dancing cheek to cheek (as one of the brothers' few peers, Irving Berlin, put it) while reaping their respective cuts of a catalog that appears to generate $8 million a year in royalties.

In their working life together, biographers say, composer George, who died at 38 in 1937, and older brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics and lived to be 86, struck nary a sour note with each other, getting on swimmingly both in and out of the music studio.

Click here for our story on the posthumous dissonance that has broken out over the mellifluous fruits of the greatest brother act in songwriting history.

-- Mike Boehm

Photo: George Gershwin, left, and Ira Gerdshwin, right, signed this photo for DuBose Heyward, center, their collaborator on "Porgy and Bess," before the opera's arrival on Broadway in 1935. Credit: PBS