GEORGE Gershwin called him ‘the greatest songwriter that has ever lived’ and Jerome Kern said: ‘Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music’.
Irving Berlin was born Israel Beilin in Siberia in 1888, one of eight children of a Jewish cantor. When he was five the family’s house burned down, and they left for New York, where they lived among other immigrants in grinding poverty. His father scraped a living as a meat porter but he died when Irving was 13. The boy had only one marketable talent – like his father, he could sing. He would sing tunes he had heard around the streets and passers-by would give him a few pennies.
In 1906, when he was 18, he got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. Besides serving drinks, he sang his own parodies of hit songs. After the bar closed for the night, he sat at a piano in the back and taught himself to play. (He was able to play only in the key of F sharp, which uses all the black keys. In later years he had two custom-made pianos which could transpose music into other keys.)
When he was 21, in 1909, he got a big break when he was taken on as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder sheet music publishing company. In this role he wrote his first big hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, in 1911.
Here is a contemporary recording by Billy Murray:
It sparked an international dance craze and Berlin was an instant celebrity. George Gershwin, foreseeing its influence, said it was ‘the first real American musical work’, adding, ‘Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.’
In 1912 Berlin married Dorothy Goetz. She died six months later, aged 20, of typhoid fever which she caught during their honeymoon in Havana. For a while Berlin could not write, but eventually expressed his grief in When I Lost You, his first ballad. Frank Sinatra sings it here.
In 1914 he wrote a revue for dancers Irene and Vernon Castle called Watch Your Step. It included Sing a Simple Melody, the first of Berlin’s ‘double’ songs with two melodies and sets of lyrics in counterpoint.
Here is a lovely version from 1956 with Tennessee Ernie Ford and Rosemary Clooney.
The show was a hit, with Variety describing Berlin as one of the greatest lyric writers America has ever produced.
In 1917 he was drafted into the US Army, one newspaper headline reading ‘Army Takes Berlin!’
He wrote the show Yip Yip Yaphank for performance by troops. One song he wrote for it but decided not to use was called God Bless America.
Returning to civilian life after the war, Berlin and a partner built the Music Box Theater on Broadway to stage the revues (collections of songs without a unifying plot) that he wrote almost continuously. He was a disciplined writer, saying he did not believe in inspiration and that his most successful compositions were the result of hard work under pressure. He would typically begin writing after dinner and continue until 4 or 5 in the morning. ‘Each day I would attend rehearsals,’ he said, ‘and at night write another song and bring it down the next day.’
Among his successful songs from this period was What’ll I Do? (1923) sung here by Judy Holliday in 1958:
In 1924 he met and fell in love with Ellin Mackay, the daughter of a wealthy Catholic of Irish descent. Her father, Clarence Mackay, opposed the match from the start, and sent Ellin on a European tour in the hope that she would find someone else. It didn’t work – the couple wrote to each other every day and he wrote songs for her including Always (1925). In 1926 they married in a civil ceremony, and the outraged Clarence had to read about it in the press. He disowned her, so as a wedding present Irving gave Ellin the rights to Always to guarantee her a steady income whatever happened.
Here is a 1946 recording of Always by Jo Stafford:
Berlin wrote Blue Skies in 1926 after his first daughter’s birth, and it was recorded by Al Bowlly in 1927.
Clarence Mackay and the Berlins were reconciled after they lost their second child, their only son, at a month old in 1928. They had three daughters who were brought up in the Protestant faith as a middle ground between the parents’ Judaism and Catholicism.
Berlin published Puttin’ On The Ritz in 1929, and it was first seen performed by Harry Richman in the 1930 film of the same name, the first song in film to be sung by an interracial ensemble:
In 1935 he wrote the songs for the film Top Hat, in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed Cheek to Cheek:
The next year came another Astaire-Rogers film, Follow the Fleet, with Let’s Face the Music and Dance:
In 1937 Berlin’s songs for the Dick Powell film On the Avenue included I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm:
In 1938 Kate Smith needed a patriotic song to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day commemorating the end of World War I. Berlin dusted off God Bless America which he written 20 years earlier but not published. ‘To me,’ said Berlin, ‘God Bless America was not just a song but an expression of my feeling toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.’
Kate Smith premiered it on her radio show on November 11, 1938, the day that the newspapers reported the pogrom known as Kristallnacht in German and Austria:
On the evening of September 11, 2001, after the Twin Towers and Pentagon terrorist attacks, members of the United States Congress broke out into a spontaneous verse of God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
Over the decades it has earned millions for the US Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to whom Berlin assigned all royalties.
The war brought arguably Berlin’s greatest success, White Christmas. Bing Crosby sang it in the film Holiday Inn and is still the biggest-selling single of all time at more than 50million.
During the war Berlin wrote patriotic songs, assigning royalties to various agencies including the Red Cross. His major work was a stage show, This is the Army, which he took round the world, keeping him away from his family for three and a half years. He took no salary or expenses, and donated all profits to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. In recognition of his contribution to troop morale, Berlin was awarded the Medal for Merit by President Harry S Truman.
After the war he was exhausted but when his friend Jerome Kern died suddenly in 1945 while working on the score for the musical Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman, Berlin stepped in. Among the numbers he wrote were They Say It’s Wonderful and There’s No Business Like Show Business:
Berlin’s last success was Call Me Madam, also starring Ethel Merman, which opened in 1946. It included another of his counterpoint songs, You’re Just in Love, seen here in the 1953 film:
After this he wound down, and from the 60s seldom appeared in public life.
He often said: ‘I owe all my success to my adopted country’ and rejected his lawyers’ advice to invest in tax shelters, insisting: ‘I want to pay taxes. I love this country.’
In a 100th birthday tribute, Walter Cronkite said Berlin ‘helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.’
He died in 1989 at the age of 101 with 1,500 songs, 19 Broadway musicals and 18 films to his credit. The lights of Broadway were dimmed in tribute.