Irving Berlin

Israel Baline
BORN: May 11, 1888, Tumen, Russia
DIED: September 22, 1989, New York, NY

Irving Berlin (1888-1989) was the most successful songwriter of the 20th century. Though, like his contemporaries, he spent the better part of his career writing songs (usually both words and music) to be used in Broadway musicals, he is better remembered for the songs themselves than for the shows (and sometimes films) in which they were introduced. This is because Berlin was a master at the kind of music that flourished from the turn of the century until World War II, shows that were really just collections of production numbers, scenes, and novelty acts (organized vaudeville presentations, really) rather than the story musicals that became prevalent starting with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in 1943. It is also because Berlin, who did not read music and could play the piano in only one key and only on the black notes (he used a special piano with a lever that changed keys for him and employed a musical secretary to notate his compositions), wrote songs, not scores.

But what songs! Out of more than a thousand, a short list would include "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (his first major hit, in 1911), "God Bless America," "A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody," "Always," "Blues Skies," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "How Deep Is the Ocean?," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "White Christmas," "There's No Business like Show Business," "I Love a Piano," "What'll I Do?" "Easter Parade," and "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." The last came from one of the two shows Berlin organized and performed in during the two world wars (he can be seen in the film version of the second one, This Is the Army).

Berlin became his own song publisher and built and owned a Broadway theater, the Music Box, to house his shows. Perhaps his greatest and his last hit came with the musical Annie Get Your Gun in 1946, though he did write three more before retiring in 1962. ~ William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide

Everyone is fond of quoting Jerome Kern's famous assessment that "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Remarkably, this tribute was made in the mid-1930s, at a point in time when Berlin had already been writing songs for nearly three decades, and still had three more decades' activity ahead of him. Born in a Russian Jewish ghetto to a cantor and his wife, Berlin was five when he and his family emigrated to America. Growing up on New York's Lower East Side, young Berlin sang for pennies on the streets, then moved up the performing scale to become a singing waiter. Though he never learned to read music, Berlin had taught himself piano sufficiently enough to write his first song, "Marie of Sunny Italy," in 1907; his first hit was 1911's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Because he was only able to compose his songs in the key of F sharp major, he had a special key-transposing piano built to order. Berlin contributed songs to several editions of The Ziegfeld Follies (the 1919 edition featured his "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody"), and to dozens of Broadway musicals. Unlike such composers as Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Berlin wrote his songs independently of the libretto; as a result, it is possible to compile a list of Berlin's hits without knowing, or caring, what shows they were written for (he would not compose a genuine "integrated" musical--with songs specifically written to advance the plot--until 1945's Annie Get Your Gun). So prolific and successful was Berlin that some of his rivals circulated the rumor that he was not the author of his songs, but that in fact Berlin was exploiting an anonymous, underpaid black composer whom he kept hidden somewhere in Harlem! Berlin's association with movies began literally at the dawn of the talkie era: his "Blue Skies" was performed by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). The first of his Broadway musicals to be adapted for films (and the only one without a hit song) was the 1929 Marx Bros. vehicle The Cocoanuts. Berlin wrote both the score and the original story for Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Reaching for the Moon (1931), but when the producers decided to cut all but one of the songs before the film's release, the experience soured Berlin to the extent that he would not work in Hollywood again for another three years. Fortunately for us all, he returned to pen the tunes for such films as Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), On the Avenue (1936), Second Fiddle (1939), Easter Parade (1948), and of course Holiday Inn (1942), whence came the composer's most popular song, the Oscar-winning "White Christmas." Though Berlin's life story (his escape from Russia, his rise to fame, the tragic death of his first wife, his later elopement with a WASP heiress, etc.) had enough drama for ten films, he steadfastly refused to allow a biopic to be filmed. As compensation, Hollywood turned out several "catalogue" musicals in which Berlin's previously written songs were presented chronologically to reflect the social and political changes in 20th-century American society: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Blue Skies (1946), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). Berlin himself appeared on camera to sing (more or less) his own "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," in This is the Army (1943), a film which also featured Kate Smith singing God Bless America, Berlin's favorite song--and the one for which he never earned a penny (he donated all royalties to the Boy Scouts of America). Berlin's last film work was his title song for 1957's Sayonara; five years later, he retired from Broadway with the disappointing Mr. President. Despite his hermit-like existence in his later years, Berlin continued to govern the activities of his own music-publishing company (formed in 1919) with an iron hand. In 1961, he briefly emerged from his cocoon to unsuccessfully sue the publishers of Mad magazine for printing parody lyrics to several of his more popular works. Twenty-five years later, he showed up in Washington DC to accept the Medal of Liberty from President Reagan. Irving Berlin's last public appearance was at a star-studded celebration given in honor of his 100th birthday. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide