Berlin (Baline), Irving

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BERLIN (Baline), IRVING (Israel ; 1888–1989), U.S. popular songwriter. Berlin was born in Kirghizia, Russia, the son of a cantor, and was taken to New York in 1893. His first regular job was as a "singing waiter," and it was then that he wrote the lyrics of his first song "Marie from Sunny Italy" in 1907. His second song, "Dorando" (1908), brought him $25 and a job with a music company. He became a partner in the firm and later established his own music publishing house. Berlin had no musical training and never learned to read music. His technique remained primitive, and when he composed at the piano he did it only in one key; modulations were effected by a special set of pedals. After composing a tune, Berlin either sang or played it for an assistant, who would then transcribe it into musical notation.

His first big success was the song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), which sold more than a million copies in just a matter of months. His melodies, for which he wrote the lyrics, were infectious, sentimental, and have maintained their popularity. He composed more than 1,000 songs, 19 musicals, and the scores for 18 movies. Among his most popular songs are "White Christmas," "Easter Parade," "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Cheek to Cheek," "Say It with Music," "What'll I Do?" "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," and "Always." Films for which he wrote the songs include The Cocoanuts (1929), Puttin' on the Ritz (1930), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), On the Avenue (1937), Holiday Inn (1942), Easter Parade (1948), and White Christmas (1954). Among the Broadway shows for which he wrote the music, the best known are Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Call Me Madam (1950). Among his many awards were an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "White Christmas" in 1942 and a special Tony Award in 1963.

As such a prolific writer and the rare combination of both a composer and a lyricist, Berlin was haunted all his life by the rumor that his songs were written by other people or were plagiarized from other material. Many people thought it was impossible for one person to write as many songs in as many styles as he did or for an untrained musician to write so many works of genius. But no evidence has ever been found that he ever plagiarized anything.

In 1918 Berlin wrote the stirring "God Bless America," which he revamped two decades later as war loomed large over Europe. Kate Smith sang it on her radio broadcast on Armistice Day in 1938, and the song was an immediate sensation. It sold millions of copies, won numerous awards, earned immense royalties, and threatened to replace the national anthem because of its patriotism and popularity. Berlin donated all the royalties from the song to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls, saying that he refused to capitalize on patriotism. He composed numerous other patriotic songs during the war that benefited the Navy Relief, Red Cross, March of Dimes, and Bond Drives and contributed all the royalties to war charities.

His altruistic acts were acknowledged with such accolades as the Army's Medal of Merit from President Truman in 1945; a Congressional Gold Medal for "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs from President Eisenhower in 1955; and the Freedom Medal from President Ford in 1977.

Berlin also supported Jewish charities and organizations and donated generously to worthy causes. In 1944 he was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for "advancing the aims of the Conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict." Five years later, he was honored by the New York ymha as one of "12 outstanding Americans of the Jewish faith."

In 2002, the U.S. Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, named the Army Entertainment Division (aed) World Headquarters "The Irving Berlin Center" in his honor. Also that year he was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp.

An intuitive businessman, Berlin was a co-founder of ascap (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), founder of his own music publishing company, and with producer Sam Harris, builder of his own Broadway theatre, The Music Box.


A. Woollcott, Story of Irving Berlin (1925); D. Ewen, Story of Irving Berlin (1950); Baker, Biog Dict; Sendrey, Music, nos. 3605–07. add. bibliography: L. Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (1990).

[Nicolas Slonimsky /

Ruth Beloff (2nd ed.)]