One of the most important composers of American popular music theatre, Kern is best known for Show Boat, often labelled the most influential Broadway musical play ever written. It established the genre of the musical as one that integrated book, lyrics and music, and provided the model for generations of popular music composers to follow.
Kern was born in New York on 27 January 1885 and learned the piano from his mother. By 1902 he was studying harmony, theory and piano at the New York College of Music and was already a published composer. Further study in Heidelberg followed before Kern began working as a rehearsal pianist in Broadway and as a song-plugger for firms on Tin Pan Alley. He also began providing additional songs for adaptations of British musical shows, making several trips to London as a result.
By the outbreak of the First World War, over 100 of Kern's songs had been used in adapted European operettas and shows. Between 1915 and 1918, Kern wrote four musicals with Guy Bolton and PG Wodehouse, developing a genre in which characters were more realistic and the songs more integrated into the story. The second of these was Kern's first big success, Very Good Eddie (1915).
Kern continued to contribute to commercially-successful musicals, but it wasn't until Show Boat in 1927 that he produced his most important work. With Kern's work being adapted for the new talking pictures, the composer turned to the composition of original film scores, including Swing Time (1936), a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle: it featured such popular songs as 'A Fine Romance' and 'The Way You Look Tonight'.
Kern went to live in Hollywood and wrote exclusively for films. Some of his greatest songs were produced in these last years, including 'The Last Time I saw Paris'. In 1945 Kern was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters but he died suddenly in New York on 11 November 1945.
Possibly America's most prolific theatre composer with over 1,000 songs in over 100 stage works to his name, Kern collaborated with some of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century (Oscar Hammerstein II, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin). His legacy remains the incomparable Show Boat, with its wonderful songs ('Ol' Man River', 'Can't help lovin' dat man') and its pioneering approach to musical theatre.