Although he was born in Russia, Irving Berlin created songs that epitomize American music. As Michael Walsh said in Time, “Berlin’s songs are as much part of American culture as any folk song. They seem to have been with us always, defining the spirit of a nation in an artless melody, or an unexpected harmonic twist.” During his lifetime, Berlin published more than one thousand songs, some failures and many successes; some have been forgotten, and some, such as “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” will be remembered always. Berlin could not read music, but he is one of the twentieth century’s most beloved composers.
Berlin’s life began in poverty. He was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, the youngest of the six children of Lena and Moses Baline. Fleeing Russian persecution of Jews, his family arrived in the United States in 1893 and settled into an immigrant tenement neighborhood in New York City. The older members of the family took jobs where they could find them, but money was still too scarce. Shortly after his father’s death in 1901, young Israel left school and home to earn his living.
Between the ages of 14 and 17, Israel Baline made money as a busker, or a street singer. He would roam from brothel to bar, singing for the coins the generous would toss. In 1905 he secured a full-time job as a singing waiter at Mike Salter’s Pelham Cafe in New York City’s Chinatown. When the bartender at a rival bar scored a big success by writing a new song to sing in his bar, young Baline set out to do the same. In 1907 he published his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy.” The artist who drew the cover for the printed music of the song misprinted his name as I. Berlin; thinking the name sounded more American than Israel Baline, the composer renamed himself Irving Berlin.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, New York City became the business center of music publishing. Firms would hire songwriters and lyricists to mass-produce songs according to a musical and textual formula that pleased the public. These songwriters worked on the premises, often at pianos in large rooms where others like themselves also sat at pianos. They would then play their tunes for arrangers who would add the accompaniment to the published version. The companies hired “pluggers” to sell the new songs by singing them everywhere sheet music was sold or the public gathered; they plugged their songs in dime stores, departments stores, bars, and on the streets, and business boomed.
Born Israel Baline, May 11, 1888, in Tyumen, Russia; immigrated to United States, 1893, naturalized citizen, 1918; died September 22, 1989, in New York, NY; son of Moses (a cantor and shochet [meat/poultry certifier]) and Lena (Lipkin) Baline; married Dorothy Goertz, February, 1913 (died July 17, 1913); married Ellin Mackay, January 4, 1926 (died July, 1988); children: Mary Ellin, Linda Louise, Elizabeth Iris. Education: Attended public schools in New York City until the age of 14.
Published first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy,” 1907; worked for publishing firm Waterson & Snyder, beginning in 1909; published first big hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” 1911; opened own publishing firm, Irving Berlin, Inc., 1914. Broadway shows include Watch Your Step, 1914, Stop! Look! Listen!, 1915, The Century Girl (with Victor Herbert), 1916, Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, 1918, Ziegfeld Follies, 1919, Music Box Revue, 1921, 1922, 1923, and 1924 (four different shows), The Cocoanuts, 1925, Face the Music, 1932, As Thousands Cheer, 1933, Louisiana Purchase, 1940, This Is the Army, 1942, Annie Get Your Gun, 1946, Miss Liberty, 1949, Call Me Madam, 1950, and Mr. President, 1962. Films include Puttin’ on the Ritz, 1929, The Cocoanuts, 1929, Top Hat, 1935, Follow the Fleet, 1936, On the Avenue, 1937, Carefree, 1938, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1938, Second Fiddle, 1939, Holiday Inn, 1942, This Is the Army, 1943, Blue Skies, 1946, Easter Parade, 1948, Annie Get Your Gun, 1950, Call Me Madam, 1953, and White Christmas, 1954.
During the early years of the twentieth century, many publishing firms established their offices by the theater district, on West 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. In 1909 journalist and songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld wrote a series of articles on the music publishing industry. Walking through that district, he was amazed by the clamor the industry produced and later in print likened the cacophony of the pianists, pluggers, and composers to the clatter of pots and pans and dubbed the area Tin Pan Alley.
Between the ages of 19 and 21, Berlin worked odd jobs in the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway areas. He plugged songs, sang in vaudeville, and sometimes played bit parts in shows. After business hours he would find pianos to play on and taught himself to plunk out songs.
In 1909 he got his first Tin Pan Alley job, as lyricist for the publishing firm of Waterson & Snyder. These early years of plugging and writing served as his initiation and education in the songwriting industry, and he learned well the art of pleasing the public. In 1911 he published “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which immediately thrust him into songwriting fame; his song was such a hit that he was instantly dubbed the “King of Tin Pan Alley.”
He developed at this time the work habits he would retain all of his life. After dinner Berlin would sit down at the piano and write songs until dawn. Since he had no formal musical training, he could only play the piano in one key. To be able to take full advantage of all the harmonies the piano had to offer, he used a special transposing keyboard. He just had to push a lever and the piano would start playing in another key while he still played the same notes on the keyboard. Berlin could not read music. He consequently would work out all of the details of the song in his head, and then sing and play it for his musical transcriber who would then write it down, playing it back to Berlin until it was right. This method of working was not uncommon for songwriters of his generation, and others used both the transposing keyboard and a musical secretary.
It is said that Berlin succeeded in part because he followed a strict work ethic. The composer had “Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs,” which appeared in an interview in American Magazine in 1920; he explained one of them thusly: “The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK.” Between 1912 and 1916 Berlin wrote more than 180 songs, including many that would appear later in films; “Snooky Ookums” and “I Love a Piano,” for example, were included in the 1948 film Easter Parade. Even Berlin’s off hours were filled with his business: he spent his free time in the Broadway and vaudeville theaters. In 1914 he wrote his first complete Broadway musical, Watch Your Step. This was quickly followed by Stop! Look! Listen! in 1915 and The Century Girl in 1916.
When World War I broke out, Berlin decided it was time to become an American in fact as well as in spirit. After several years of paperwork and delays, he took his oath on February 6, 1918, and became a citizen of the United States. Several months later he was drafted into the army. The hardest adjustment at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, for this notorious night owl was to rise to reveille every day. He turned this experience into a song, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which became one of the most popular tunes of the day. Berlin subsequently was asked to write a musical show to raise money for the army. Yip! Yip! Yaphank! played on Broadway for a month, raising $83,000 before the cast—300 army soldiers—was sent to France.
After the war, life for Berlin returned to normal, and he continued to turn out song hits. In the 1920s he fell in love with heiress Ellin Mackay, who was Catholic. She reciprocated his feelings, but her father disliked Berlin for his undistinguished origins and theater ties and sent his daughter to Europe to forget him. During their months of separation Berlin wrote several of his most lovely ballads, “What’ll I Do,” “All Alone,” and “Remember.” Mr. Mackay’s ruse did not work; the heiress returned from her year abroad in 1925, and the following year she and Berlin eloped.
1929 was a year of both success and setback for Berlin. Along with the rest of the country, he lost a fortune in the stock market crash. But that year, sound came to moving pictures, and Berlin began to write film scores. His first two films, Puttin’on the Ritz (1929) and Cocoanuts (1929), were adaptations of Broadway shows. His next film, Top Hat (1935)—featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—was written expressly for Hollywood. Some of his most famous and memorable songs were in this film, including “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek.” More films followed, such as Follow the Fleet (1936), On the Avenue (1937), Carefree (1938), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and Holiday Inn (1942), which contains the song that has sold more recordings than any other, “White Christmas.”
When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Berlin needed to make a musical statement. “I’d like to write a great peace song, but it’s hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace,” he said in an interview with the New York Journal American. “Yet music is so important. It changes thinking, it influences everybody, whether they know it or not.” He found a song that he had written for his World War I show but had not included in it. He updated it a bit and found a radio singer who wanted a peace song for Armistice Day. When Kate Smith sang Berlin’s “God Bless America” on November 11, 1938, the country gained a new—if unofficial—national anthem. Feeling uncomfortable about capitalizing on such sentiments, Berlin donated the copyright and royalties to the Girl Scouts of America and the Boy Scouts of America.
When the United States entered World War II, Berlin took it as a personal call to action. He offered his services to the army, and created This Is the Army. The stage show toured the United States and then played for the troops in Europe; it was made into a movie in 1942 and earned ten million dollars for the Army Emergency Relief fund. Even more important to the country and composer than the money was the moral support it drew for the war effort. Writer Laurence Bergreen said in As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, “Through his songs, Berlin managed to inject human touches that made life in the armed services comprehensible to civilian audiences.”
Once the war was over Berlin returned to working for himself. He continued to turn out the hits. Annie Get Your Gun (1946) contained more hit songs than any other musical on Broadway and was his most successful show ever. Movie moguls in Hollywood also demanded his songs. The almost universal popularity of his music insured their appeal for years. Songs that Berlin wrote in his early career were given new life in the movies. White Christmas (1954) not only included the title song, which was written for an earlier movie, but also used “Mandy” and “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” both of which were written in 1918 for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!
In the 1950s Berlin’s creativity began to slow down. While his old hits played well, he wrote fewer new songs, and they were less successful. Financially secure, he did not need to work, for his royalties exceeded the income of any other songwriter ever. In 1954 he earned $101,000 in royalties, and in 1956 he earned $102,000. Finally, after his last Broadway show, Mr. President (1962), flopped, he retired.
Resigning from songwriting, Berlin also withdrew from public life. He spent the last decades of his life privately in his New York City town house, or in retreat at his estate in the Catskill Mountains. He made no public appearances. In 1972, when the cast of This Is the Army held a reunion party, he did not attend. But the public did not forget him. His 100th birthday in 1988 spawned many public tributes, including a televised celebration at Carnegie Hall, complete with old and new stars and even Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts marching on stage singing “God Bless America.” The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., had a six-month exhibit of Berlin memorabilia, including his transposing piano. He also received many private tributes as well. For almost 20 years, a small group of people met on Christmas Eve outside his home in New York City and sang to him their favorite carol, “White Christmas.”
Berlin died on September 22, 1989. The number and length of the subsequent printed obituaries and articles attests to the respect the world holds for him. To many, he symbolizes the sentiments of an era and the music of a nation. Fellow songwriter Jerome Kern was quoted as saying in Alexander Woollcott’s biography of Berlin: “Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music.”
Annie Get Your Gun (selections), RCA Victor, 1966, reissued, 1988.
Call Me Madam (selections), MCA, 1973.
The Vintage Berlin, New World Records, 1977.
Say It All with Music, Monmouth Evergree, 1978.
The Girl on the Magazine Cover, RCA Victor, 1979, reissued, 1988.
Blue Skies, Nonesuch, 1985.
Rosemary Clooney Sings the Music of Irving Berlin, King Record Co., 1985.
Bennett/Berlin, Columbia Records, 1987.
Remember: Michael Feinstein Sings Irving Berlin, Elektra, 1987.
Songs of Irving Berlin, CRI, 1988.
Irving Berlin: A Hundred Years (recorded 1930-58), Columbia, 1988.
The Irving Berlin 100th Anniversary Collection, MCA, 1988.
The Irving Berlin Songbook: A Centennial Celebration, RCA, 1988.
Holiday Inn and Blue Skies (soundtrack), Vintage Jazz Classics, 1990.
Mr. President, Sony Broadway, 1992.
Bergreen, Laurence, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, Viking, 1990.
Freedland, Michael, Irving Berlin, W. H. Allen, 1974.
Whitcomb, Ian, Irving Berlin and Ragtime America, Century, 1987.
Woollcott, Alexander, The Story of Irving Berlin, Putnam, 1925.
American History Illustrated, May 1988.
American Magazine, December 1920.
Commentary, October 1990.
Esquire, January 1990.
New York Journal American, September 4, 1938.
Newsweek, October 2, 1989.
Opera News, December 9, 1989.
People, October 9, 1989.
Stereo Review, February 1988.
Time, May 16, 1988; October 2, 1989.
U.S. News and World Report, May 9, 1988.
Composer and Songwriter. Nationality: American. Born: Israel Isidore Baline in Temun, Siberia, 11 May 1888; family emigrated to the U.S., 1892. Career: As a boy sang on street corners in New York's Lower East Side; 1902—ran away from home and sang in cafés in the Bowery; 1907—hired as singing waiter at Nigger Mike's Saloon; hired by publishing firm as songwriter; 1911—wrote "Alexander's Ragtime Band," followed by numerous scores for the stage including the Ziegfeld Follies; 1927—moved to Hollywood and began scoring films. Awards: Academy Award for "White Christmas," 1942. Died: In New York, 22 September 1989.
Films as Songwriter/Composer:
The Jazz Singer (Crosland)
The Awakening (Fleming)
Cocoanuts (Santley) (+ original play); Coquette (Sam Taylor); Glorifying the American Girl (Webb); Lady of the Pavements (D. W. Griffith); Hallelujah (Vidor)
Puttin' on the Ritz (Schenk); Mammy (Curtiz) (+ original play); The Bad One (Fitzmaurice)
Reaching for the Moon (Goulding) (+ story)
Kid Millions (Goldwyn); Top Hat (Sandrich)
Follow the Fleet (Sandrich)
On the Avenue (Del Ruth): Way out West
Carefree (Sandrich); Alexander's Ragtime Band (King)
Second Fiddle (Lanfield)
Holiday Inn (Sandrich) (+ story); Louisiana Purchase (Cummings) (co)
This is the Army (Curtiz) (+ story + ro)
Christmas Holiday (Siodmak)
Blue Skies (Heisler); The Jolson Story (Green)
Easter Parade (Walters)
Annie Get Your Gun (Sidney) (+ original play)
Call Me Madam (Walter Lang): Run for the Hills
White Christmas (Curtiz); There's No BusinessLike Showbusiness (Walter Lang) (songs)
Sayonara (Logan) (song)
Film as Writer of Original Story:
Stop, Look and Listen
On BERLIN: books—
Freedland, Michael, Irving Berlin, London, 1974.
Woollcott, Alexander, The Story of Irving Berlin, New York, 1982.
Bergreen, Lawrence, As Thousands Cheer, London, 1990.
Barrett, Mary Ellin, Irving Berlin: A Daughter's Memoir, New York and London, 1995.
Furia, Philip, Irving Berlin: A Life in Song, New York, 1998.
On BERLIN: articles—
Films in Review (New York), vol. 9, no. 5, May 1958.
Hemmings, Roy, in The Melody Lingers On, New York, 1986.
The Listener (London), vol. 119, no. 3061, 5 May 1988.
Obituary, in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 173, November 1989.
Hayes, H., "Of Life and Love, Of Happiness and Friendship," in New York Times, Section 2, 28 March 1993.
Hamm, Charles, "Genre, Performance and Ideology in the Early Songs of Irving Berlin," in Popular Music, May 1994.
Schiff, David, "For Everyman, By Everyman: In Creating Himself According to the Nation's Enthusiams for His Songs, Irving Berlin helped create a National Identity," in Atlantic Monthly, March 1996.
"A Song for America, The Lost Generation Wobbles," in Newsweek, June 28, 1999.
* * *
Irving Berlin's career as a songwriter was so long that he out-lived some of the copyrights of his early works. Although he was hit-making as early as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, he was obviously barred from the cinema until 1927, when he got in at the earliest possible moment by providing "Blue Skies," a tune featured in The Jazz Singer, the first musical movie. The burst of song and dance activity that naturally followed Al Jolson's warbling found Berlin's work featured in a clutch of late 1920s and early 1930s musicals, most notably the Marx Brothers' Cocoanuts ("When My Dreams Come True," the first song Berlin wrote expressly for a film, "Monkey Doodle-Doo," "The Tale of a Shirt") and the all-black Hallelujah ("Waiting at the End of the Road," "Swanee Shuffle") in 1929, but also Glorifying the American Girl ("Blue Skies" again), Puttin' on the Ritz (the first film titled after a Berlin tune), and The Jazz Singer follow-up Mammy (with a Technicolor sequence, and "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy"). However, once the first burst of screen musicals died down, Berlin had to wait until 1935 to be offered something worthwhile in the way of a credit.
Top Hat, the first of the great Astaire-Rogers musicals, features only one forgettable song—"The Piccolino," which is unfortunately the climax of the picture—but otherwise boasts four soon-to-be-standard numbers, all mounted with the maximum of RKO elegance, "No Strings," "Cheek to Cheek," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain?" Here, Berlin's deft but unfussy tunes and simple but perfect lyrics are at their best, expressing neither the lyrical nor musical sophistication of George Gershwin or Cole Porter—beside whom Berlin still looks like the Compleat Tin Pan Alley Professional—and yet never seeming cheap, obvious or cynical. Top Hat was followed by the underrated Follow the Fleet, which is a better all-round movie than Top Hat—with a more congenial navy-and-showbiz New York setting as opposed to the stuffily trivial London and continental high society of the earlier film—with an almost equally good score, led off by "Let's Face the Music and Dance" but featuring also "I'm Puttin' All My Eggs in One Basket," "Let Yourself Go," "We Saw the Sea" and "But Where Are You?"
Berlin would create hit-packed scores for Astaire movies again—for Carefree ("I Used to Be Color Blind") and Holiday Inn ("White Christmas," for which he won an Oscar)—as well as a few lesser talents (Second Fiddle, for Sonja Henie) but Top Hat and Follow the Fleet were the peak of his contribution purely to cinema, most of the other Berlin movies being adapted from stage successes (Louisiana Purchase, This Is the Army, Call Me Madam, Annie Get Your Gun) or built around clutches of pre-existing songs (On the Avenue, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, White Christmas, There's No Business Like Show Business).
Meanwhile, individual Berlin songs persistently turned up, the most lavishly overproduced number perhaps being the "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" riot of bad taste in The Great Ziegfeld. Berlin songs also appear in Kid Millions ("Mandy"), The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle ("Syncopated Walk"), Hello, Frisco, Hello ("Doin' the Grizzly Bear"), The Powers Girl ("A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"), The Jolson Story ("Let Me Sing and I'm Happy"), The Fabulous Dorseys ("Everybody's Doin' It"), Big City ("God Bless America," "What'll I Do?"), Jolson Sings Again ("Let Me Sing and I'm Happy," again), Meet Danny Wilson ("How Deep is the Ocean?"), Love Me or Leave Me ("Shaking the Blues Away"), The Great Gatsby ("What'll I Do?"), Pennies from Heaven ("Let's Face the Music and Dance," soundtrack poached from Follow the Fleet) and The Purple Rose of Cairo ("Cheek to Cheek," poached from Top Hat). Strangely, Steven Spielberg's Always, whose mood obviously derives from the Berlin song, opts to use Jerome Kern's inapt "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" instead.
While Porter, Gershwin, Richard Rogers and Stephen Sondheim aspire to lift the musical comedy to a High Art level, Berlin was simply content to do the best possible work within the framework of a three-minute popular song, and demonstrated an astonishing versatility within those limits, turning to comedy ("Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," "Doin' What Comes Nat'rally"), romance ("Cheek to Cheek," "Always"), social comment ("Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee, Let's Have Another Piece of Pie"), patriotism ("God Bless America," a song so ingrained in the national psyche it's hard to remember someone sat down and wrote it, "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue") holiday sentiment ("Easter Parade," "White Christmas"), and show stopping razzamatazz ("When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam," "There's No Business Like Show Business"). Almost always sunny and optimistic, the only variety of standard Berlin appeared never to master was the lovelorn torch song, which he either turned around into a renewal of hope ("Blue Skies") or played for laughs ("You Can't Get a Man with a Gun"). After the 1950s, his output declined, but his oeuvre probably includes more lasting songs than any other composer this century.
The American composer Irving Berlin produced over eight hundred songs, many of which attained worldwide popularity. His patriotic songs, especially "God Bless America," summed up the feelings of Americans at the time.
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Temun, Russia, on May 11, 1888. He was the youngest of Moses and Leah Lipkin Baline's eight children. His father, a cantor (a singer in a Jewish place of worship) who gave him singing lessons, was the first to expose Israel to music. The family fled the persecutions (the act of tormenting and harassing regularly) of Jews in Russia in 1893 and settled in New York City. The first years in America were very difficult—at one time every member of the family sold newspapers on the streets. Things got worse when Moses Baline died in 1896. At age fourteen Israel left home and began making money by singing in bars and on the streets of New York. He attended school for two years but had no formal musical education; he never learned to read or write music.
First efforts at songwriting
In 1906 Baline went to work as a singing waiter at a restaurant in New York's Chinatown. He waited tables and entertained customers by singing popular songs of the time with his own made-up lyrics. It was while working here that he wrote his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy," which he worked on together with another restaurant employee. He also changed his name, becoming I. Berlin, lyricist (songwriter). This was the name he chose to appear on the sheet music when the song was published shortly after in 1907.
Berlin began to gain recognition as a clever lyric writer. He provided words for "Queenie, My Own," "Dorando," and "Sadie Salome, Go Home." The last was something of a success, and he was hired by a publisher to write words for new songs. Although he had difficulty writing English and had to have someone who understood musical notation (characters and symbols) write down the melodies that he created with one finger, within a year Berlin was established as a rising talent in the popular-music business.
Around this time music publishers became interested in ragtime, the highly original creation of African American musicians in the South and Midwest during the 1880s and 1890s. Berlin contributed lyrics—and a few tunes—to several mild ragtime songs. In 1911 he wrote the words and music for "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which started toward worldwide popularity when sung by Emma Carus in Chicago, Illinois, that year. It is one of the most famous of all "rag-time" songs, with its sheet music having sold over one million copies.
Berlin's fame continued to grow. He wrote his first complete musical score in 1914, Watch Your Step, followed by Stop, Look, Listen. In the Army during World War I (1914–18) he wrote a successful soldier show entitled Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1919), which contained "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." In 1919 he founded his own music publishing company, Irving Berlin, Inc.
Berlin's most successful shows included Ziegfeld Follies (1919, 1920, 1927), Music Box Revues (1921–24), As Thousands Cheer (1933), This Is the Army (1942), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Call Me Madam (1950). His best-known musical scores for films include Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Holiday Inn (1942). Among Berlin's best-known songs are "White Christmas" and "God Bless America," which are holiday favorites to this day.
Berlin's hundredth birthday was celebrated in a televised special from Carnegie Hall. When he died in New York on September 22, 1989, he was remembered as a symbol of the nation. As fellow songwriter Jerome Kern was quoted in Alexander Woollcott's biography of Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music."
For More Information
Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990.
Furia, Philip. Irving Berlin: A Life in Song. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998.
Jablonski, Edward. Irving Berlin: American Troubadour. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.
The American composer Irving Berlin (1888-1989) produced about 800 songs, many of which attained worldwide popularity. His patriotic songs, especially "God Bless America," seemed to epitomize the mass American sentiments of the era.
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Tyumen, Russia, on May 11, 1888. The family of nine fled the persecutions of Jews in Russia in 1893 and settled in New York City, where, like so many other immigrants of that time, they lived on the Lower East Side. The family's first years in America were very difficult—at one time they all sold newspapers on the streets. Israel, the youngest child, was first exposed to music in the synagogue in which his father occasionally sang as cantor; he also received singing lessons from his father.
When the boy left home at 14, he made money by singing in saloons on New York's Bowery. He attended school for two years but had no formal musical education; he never learned to read or notate music.
It was while working as a singing waiter that Israel Baline, collaborating with a coworker named Nicholson on a song entitled "Marie from Sunny Italy," became I. Berlin, lyricist. This was the name he chose to appear on the sheet music when the song was published shortly after, in 1907.
Subsequently, Berlin began to gain recognition as a clever lyricist. He provided words for "Queenie, My Own," "Dorando," and "Sadie Salome, Go Home." The last was something of a success, and he was hired by a Tin Pan Alley publisher to write words for new songs. Within a year, despite his continuing difficulty in writing English, Berlin was established as a rising talent in the popular-music business.
Somewhat belatedly music publishers became interested in exploiting ragtime, the highly original creation of African-American musicians in the South and Midwest during the 1880s and 1890s. Berlin contributed lyrics (and a few tunes) to several mild ragtime songs. In 1911 he wrote the words and music for "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which started toward worldwide popularity when sung by Emma Carus in Chicago that year. It is ironic that one of the most famous of all "ragtime" songs employs a few conventional syncopations but no real ragtime at all.
Berlin's fame soared. He wrote his first complete musical score in 1914, Watch Your Step, followed by Stop, Look, Listen. In the Army during World War I he wrote a successful soldier show entitled Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1919), which contained "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." In 1919 he founded his own music publishing company, Irving Berlin, Inc.
His most successful subsequent shows included Ziegfeld Follies (1919, 1920, 1927), Music Box Revues (1921-1924), As Thousands Cheer (1933), This Is the Army (1942), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Call Me Madam (1950). His best-known scores for films include Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Holiday Inn (1942).
Among Berlin's best known songs are "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" which are perennial holiday favorites to this day.
Commenting on the composer who produced more popular hits than any other of his generation, Harold Clurman wrote in 1949, "Irving Berlin's genius consists not so much in his adaptability to every historical and theatrical contingency, but rather in his capacity to discover the root need and sentiment of all our American lives."
Berlin's 100th birthday was celebrated in a televised special from Carnegie Hall. When he died in New York on September 22, 1989 he was remembered as a symbol of the nation. As fellow songwriter Jerome Kern was quoted in Alexander Woolcott's biography of Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music."
Alexander Woollcott, The Story of Irving Berlin (1925), is an affectionate and stylishly written account of Berlin's early career. The Songs of Irving Berlin (1957?), a catalog of his works, was published by the Irving Berlin Music Corporation. For background on Berlin and American musical comedy see David Ewen, Complete Book of the American Musical Theater (1959; rev. ed. 1968) and The Story of America's Musical Theater (1961; rev. ed. 1968), Stanley Green, World of Musical Comedy (1960; rev. ed. 1968), and Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (1990). □
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Temun, Siberia, on May 11, 1888. He fled with his family to New York in 1893 to escape the Russian persecution of Jews. Berlin's family settled in Manhattan's Lower East Side, a section of the city in which most Jewish immigrants resided.
Because his family was so poor, Berlin did not go to school but worked instead. He made money singing on street corners, and later he held a job as a singing waiter. It was during this period that he began writing songs. In 1907, he published “Marie from Sunny Italy” and signed his work I. Berlin. He would become famous with that last name.
The road to fame
Berlin held various odd jobs in the music industry in a neighborhood known as Tin Pan Alley. He eventually worked as a lyricist for music publisher Waterson & Snyder. His tune “Alexander's Ragtime Band” became an instant hit in 1911 and earned him the title King of Tin Pan Alley.
Berlin's musical talent was natural; he never received any formal training. He developed his style by playing only the black keys on the piano, so most of his early songs were written in the key of F-sharp.
Berlin was one of America's most successful songwriters by the 1920s. He began to stage his own music revues and comedies. Although he suffered through the Great Depression (1929–41) and lost his fortune like so many others, he managed to rebuild his career.
Although Broadway had been good to Berlin, he wanted to try his talents in Hollywood. He wrote the scores for many hit musical movies , including the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. One of his songs from that musical, “White Christmas,” remains the best-selling song ever recorded, even in the twenty-first century.
Sound of a nation
Berlin's musical abilities bolstered the nation through two world wars. He wrote patriotic songs that kept hope alive during some of the most frightening and difficult times America had known. His most famous patriotic song, “God Bless America,” was written during World War I (1914–18) but was sung in public for the first time in 1938.
Berlin was responsible for some of the most popular love songs of the twentieth century. By the time of his death on September 22, 1989, he had received numerous awards and become an icon of American popular music. His tunes helped shape the genre of pop music as he experimented with a variety of styles. More than that, however, Berlin became America's voice. Whether hopeful or fearful, he embodied a nation's collective soul and put its thoughts to music.