People were always telling Bruce Lloyd Kates that the song he had written had a Gershwin-like sound to it.
Kates, a piano tuner and composer, took that as a compliment. After all, he's a huge fan of George and Ira Gershwin's work and of 1930s-era music in general.
The Los Feliz resident wrote "Some Time to Get to Know You" in the early 1990s and copyrighted it in 2002.
It wasn't until later that it dawned on Kates why his tune seems so Gershwin-esque: It came from George Gershwin's piano.
Kates was reading a Times article in 2005 about Gershwin's former Beverly Hills home being torn down when he recalled the time in the late 1980s when he was hired to tune the famed composer's piano.
The Steinway grand was in the home of Ira Gershwin, whose widow was preparing the instrument for delivery to the Library of Congress. When Kates noticed several keys sticking, he investigated and discovered a tiny wad of paper, a pencil stub and a paper clip wedged in the keyboard mechanism.
He pulled the paper out with tweezers and dropped it into his sport coat pocket. When he gave away the jacket a few years later he checked its pockets and found the wad.
Unfurling it, Kates discovered musical notes written on it.
"It looked like it was from a manuscript pad, a pocket notebook that composers carry with them to jot down music as it comes to them," recalled Kates, 68.
There were just 15 notes — in the key of C major — followed by a repeat symbol. They were written across the five lines printed on the crumpled paper to form a stave.
"At first I thought it was something that I'd written. I played the notes and they had a pleasant sound. Being a tunesmith, I decided to expand upon it and draw it to its logical conclusion," Kates said.
The eight bars needed a bridge, a coda and a harmony, he decided. When he finished the 32-bar tune, he immediately wrote some lyrics to go with it.
His recollection of the Gershwin piano-tuning job suddenly connected the dots for him.
It had been a memorable assignment for Kates, a Gershwin fan who favors music from the Depression era.
The tuning took place at the Roxbury Drive home of Leonore Gershwin. She and Ira Gershwin had shared a home with George Gershwin until his death in 1937. After that, the couple moved into the house next door.
George's piano went with them.
"A pair of conservators were there overseeing the gathering of materials going to Washington," Kates said. "They told me that this was the piano that George Gershwin wrote 'Rhapsody in Blue' on. I felt that the ghost of Gershwin was hovering over me. I was very nervous — I was so afraid of breaking strings."
"Mrs. Gershwin was there," he said. "I found that there were several keys in the base section that weren't working well, and I asked a conservator for permission to open the keyboard up."
When permission was granted, Kates cautiously slid the keyboard mechanism out of the piano. "When you do it, you have to depress the sustaining pedal or the hammers will break off. All 88 of them," he explained.
Kates peered inside the mechanism with a flashlight and found the obstructions — the paper clip, the pencil stub and the crumpled paper.
"They had probably been sitting on the keyboard lid when it was opened and they fell back inside," he said.
Kates had the sinking feeling that perhaps he had inadvertently plagiarized George Gershwin. "This was George Gershwin's piano. This may have been one of Gershwin's songs," he said.
If it is Gershwin's music, it apparently has never been published, said Kates, who has a rendition of the song on http://www.brucelloydkates.com, music sample 18.
Kates said he has offered to let go of the copyright to the music to "Some Time to Get to Know You."
So far, though, he hasn't found anyone to surrender the copyright to. He said inquiries to Warner-Chappell Music Inc., a music publishing company that has licensed the Gershwins' work, and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which collects performance royalties for composers and songwriters, have gone unanswered.
ASCAP Vice President Jim Steinblatt was unaware of the inquiry but said Kates is a member of his organization and registered "Some Time to Get to Know You" with it in 2004. A Warner-Chappell executive was also unaware of Kates' copyright-surrender offer.
Leonore Gershwin died in 1991, eight years after Ira Gershwin's death. In 2009 Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame was chosen to write the finishes to George Gershwin's incomplete music. His "Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin" album was released in mid-2010.
The Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts, which until this February operated a San Francisco archive containing some 15,000 musical scores, recordings, photos and other materials from the Gershwin brothers, has transferred those items to the Library of Congress.
Raymond White, senior music specialist with the library and curator of its George and Ira Gershwin Collection, said the 6-foot, 10 3/4-inch Steinway was built in 1925 and sits in a room dedicated to the pair. Also displayed is the typewriter Ira used to write lyrics, as well as original compositions and photographs.
George Gershwin owned several pianos, and the age of the Steinway, verified by its serial number, means that it could not have been used for the composition of "Rhapsody in Blue," which was written in 1924, White said.
Archivist Michael Owen, whose work with the trust is coming to an end, said it's possible George Gershwin wrote the 15-note melody that Kates has turned into "Some Time to Get to Know You."
But it's unlikely a wad of paper causing Gershwin's piano keys to stick would have gone unnoticed by those who played the Steinway during the 50 years that followed the composer's death, Owen said. It's a sentiment that White shares.
"If the paper clearly has George Gershwin's hand on it, there are enough people out there who would recognize it," Owen said. "It would certainly have some interest on the curatorial side."
That's bad news for Kates. He threw the wad away after he copied the 15 notes onto sheet music and fleshed it out with the bridge and the harmony.
Having "no original document would probably mitigate interest," Owen said. "We need the manuscript in its original hand to provide certainty."
Just because a tune has a Gershwin sound to it doesn't make it Gershwin music, he said.
Kates said he remains willing to give up the copyright to "Some Time to Get to Know You." He's keeping the rights to its lyrics, however.
As the Gershwins would put it, "They can't take that away from me," Kates said.