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Bruin tune rooted in music history

Gershwin brothers' 'Strike Up the Band' is part of the hoopla as UCLA plunges into March Madness.

March 20, 2008|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

From a 1927 Broadway musical comedy to a 2008 basketball game in Anaheim is a big journey for a song to make. But that's exactly the trip that one of UCLA's fight songs will be completing tonight, thanks to its creators -- the incomparable Gershwin brothers.

As the Gershwins might say, 's wonderful.

UCLA's Varsity Band is expected to play "Strike Up the Band for UCLA" at Anaheim's Honda Center as the men's basketball team plays in the first round of the NCAA's March Madness tournament. And the 29-piece band probably will keep performing the jazzy, trumpet-driven tune throughout the competition if UCLA advances through all six potential games to the national title, band director Gordon Henderson said.

"It's a good, strong marching song," Henderson said. And, he added, it's a piece of music "that everybody knows."

However, few people nowadays know the starry and tragic history behind the song, born far from any basketball hoops.

The Gershwins -- George on music and older brother Ira on lyrics -- originally wrote "Strike Up the Band" for a similarly named political satire that was a failure in a 1927 Philadelphia tryout but succeeded in a 1930 revision on Broadway. The toe-tapping march -- try resisting its ta-ta-ta TAH TAH -- later was featured in a 1940 movie with a different plot starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

Since then, the number has been overshadowed by more emotional classics in the huge Gershwin song library, such as "Embraceable You," "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Summertime." It is popular but "certainly not in their category," said Michael Owen, archivist at the San Francisco-based Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

Don't tell that to the Bruins who, to paraphrase another Gershwin classic, think the song is here to stay. In 1936, UCLA students were looking for a new rally tune. A music industry contact, Maxson Judell, knew the Gershwins were in Los Angeles to work on the Fred Astaire movie "Shall We Dance" and approached them about contributing a song.

The brothers "liked the notion and also liked the institution," according to a story in the Sept. 24, 1936, edition of the Daily Bruin campus newspaper. The Gershwins picked out their "Strike Up" tune because it had the "right amounts of liveliness, catchiness and personality to qualify as a top-notch collegiate pep number."

Ira revised its lyrics as a gift to the school and called the new version "Strike Up the Band for UCLA." Original lines, "There is work to be done, to be done. There's a war to be won, to be won" became "There's a game to be won, to be won! Put the foe on the run, on the run!" A new ending cleverly proclaimed: "You see, We're UCLA!"

In September 1936, the Gershwins came to the 7-year-old Westwood campus to rehearse the song with the Bruin band and attend a performance at Royce Hall. George played it on the piano, surrounded by admiring female student singers. In thanks, the Associated Students declared George and Ira honorary Bruins and gave them UCLA sweaters and lifetime tickets to sporting events, which Ira sometimes attended later.

The Gershwins had recently moved to Beverly Hills from New York and had no previous connection to UCLA, according to Owen. Their "Porgy and Bess" had opened on Broadway in 1935, and they were in demand by Hollywood studios, not by football teams.

"I think this came out of the blue to them," Owen said of the UCLA request. "It was something they thought was a nice gesture for them to do for the school. It was not a commercial thing."

"This instance was a unique event. They didn't do anything like this before. And there was no chance to do it again."

George died the following year, at age 38, of a brain tumor. Ira, who became a Beverly Hills resident, worked with other composers and died in 1983 at age 86.

Over the years, "Strike Up the Band for UCLA" sometimes has been pushed aside by other UCLA rally songs, "Sons of Westwood" and "Mighty Bruins." In the early 1950s, Judell wrote letters to UCLA officials demanding that the tune be played more. Judell even cited his previous success in 1917 in persuading John Philip Sousa, the fabled "March King," to allow the University of Wisconsin, Judell's alma mater, to adapt a Sousa tune into "Wisconsin Forward Forever."

More recently, Henderson has given the Gershwin number more field and court time. The 250-piece UCLA Bruin Marching Band plays the song at every football pre-game session, and the smaller Varsity Band riffs it at most home basketball games. "Our older alumni are always asking for it," he said.

The Gershwins hoped their favorite songs would last through time and "have a power to stick around," Owen said. "This song was probably not one they had on the radar. But songs come out of the woodwork when you don't expect them and still have resonance with modern audiences," he said.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

'Strike Up the Band

For UCLA'

Let the drums roll out!

Let the trumpets call,

Let the whole world shout

UCLA.

With our battle cry Bruin!

Conquer all!

We will do or die!

UCLA!

There's a game to be won, to be

won!

Put the foe on the run, on the

run!

And it's got to be done,

To be done here today!

With our flag unfurled, we can

lick the world!

You see, we're UCLA!

Source: UCLA

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