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Irving Berlin, born Israel Baline (1888 - 1989)

Irving Berlin

The Dean Of American Songwriters



Perhaps no other songwriter had so much influence on the development and performance of American popular song as Irving Berlin. So much has been written about him, we cannot hope to add anything new here. Our purpose is to provide a reasonably complete biography that is useful to our visitors and which includes musical examples and commentary in the context of the ParlorSongs series of articles about American Popular Music.

 

If ever anything could prove the claim that America is a melting pot of the world, the number of immigrant musicians who came to our shores and became famous and who molded American music should be adequate. Among that flow of new citizens was one Israel Baline and his family who arrived in New York from Temun Russia in 1888. Israel, born May 11, 1888 was the youngest of eight children in the family. There has been some confusion among biographers as to Berlin's birth name. Some biographers have stated Isadore, others Israel and some list both (Israel Isadore or Isadore Israel). I've chosen to go with Israel as his first name in this article. Escaping persecution, the family came to America in 1893 and settled on the lower East side of New York. Israel's father, Moses was a Jewish cantor. On arrival in America, Moses was forced to work in a market and filled in at times as a cantor in local synagogues. As with many immigrant families, times were tough and even the kids had to pitch in and earn money. During his youngest days, Israel lived a relatively wild and unsupervised life belonging to a gang and playing street games with his pals. In 1896, Moses died and Israel ran away from home. Young Israel earned money for himself first as a street singer beginning as a companion to an unsavory singing beggar. Israel began singing too and hung around some popular cafes and restaurants in the Bowery. As a result, he was hired to sing in some of the cafes including Callahan's and later, the Pelham Café. It was at this time he was noticed by Harry Von Tilzer and hired to plug Von Tilzer songs at Tony Pastor's Music Hall, opened in 1881 and often credited as the birthplace of vaudeville. One of the many acts that Israel was assigned to were the Three Keatons, one of whom was the great film comedian, Buster Keaton.

 

It was 1906 when Israel was hired as a singing waiter at Pelham's and it was here that his fortunes and the course of American music would change forever. According to David Ewen ( Popular American Composers, p. 22) after the young Baline was hired, he became quite popular entertaining customers with parodies of current popular songs. Baline became well known and even was mentioned in the papers thus becoming better known. Two waiters at a rival café had written an Italian song and had it published. Not to be outdone, Pelham asked their pianist, "Nick" Nicholson to write a song and tapped Baline to write lyrics. The two wrote Marie Of Sunny Italy ( MIDI, Lyrics) and Berlin introduced the song himself and often sung it while at work. The song was quite popular with the clientele and when Stern picked it up to publish, a printer's error on the cover gave him the name, Irving Berlin. Not one to tempt fate, the newly named Berlin stuck with the name for the rest of his life. Berlin made a total of 37¢ in royalties from the song.

 

The newly named Berlin began to make a name for himself as a creative lyricist. One of his specialties at Pelham's had been the ability to sing parodies of existing hit songs, much to the joy of the clientele. Not long after the publication of "Marie," Berlin moved over to Jimmy Kelly's at Union Square. Though still primarily writing lyrics, in 1908 Berlin ended up "accidentally" writing a melody to go with some lyrics. Berlin had written some lyrics for a potential song about an Italian marathoner named Dorando. When Berlin tried to sell the lyrics to Ted Snyder, they assumed he also had a tune to go with the words and offered Berlin $25 for a complete song. Though he had a sense for melody, at this time, Berlin could not play piano, or any other instrument I'm aware of. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to make a sale, Berlin found an arranger to whom he dictated a potential melody. The arranger flushed out the song and Berlin had his first complete song, Dorando. That same year he also wrote another song, The Best Of Friends Must Part, using the same arranger.

 

Though he had proven that he could create a melody, it was still as a lyricist that Berlin established himself in the music industry. From the period of 1908 to 1911, Berlin wrote lyrics to a number of melodies by various composers (some of the best at the time) and enjoyed a great deal of success. One of his earliest songs, Sadie Salome, Go Home with music by Edgar Leslie sold over 200,000 copies in 1909. Berlin wrote several songs to music by Ted Stern including, Next To Your Mother, Who Do You Love (1909) and Kiss Me, My Honey, Kiss Me (1910). Berlin's lyrics had become very popular by 1910 and he was sought after by many composers and even was hired by the New York Journal to write several hundred verses. (Ewen, p. 23)

 

Though lyrics were his immediate claim to fame, Berlin continued to write melodies (through an arranger) that reached a fair level of acclaim. I find it interesting that in Berlin's case as well as that of other notable composers of the period, arrangers rarely, if ever were credited for their contribution to the songs. Early on, Charles K. Harris credited his arranger but as soon as he was successful, the arrangers were forgotten. In Berlin's case, he seems to have never credited arrangers for their collaboration. This is especially interesting given the fact that Berlin never really learned to play the piano. In fact, over his entire life, he ultimately could only play in one key, F sharp, essentially only black keys. Later, he had a device attached to his piano that would allow him to transpose other keys to his favored one. It somehow seems unfair that these creative collaborators were never given credit for helping him succeed. Along these same lines though, it must be admitted that Berlin had a knack for the codependency of lyrics and melody and regardless of his piano proficiency, was able to write a broad range of songs in different styles while developing a unique musical style and harmony that becomes almost instantly recognizable when a song of his is heard. Alec Wilder had some insightful comment about Berlin's music in his 1972 book, American Popular Song;

"I heard Berlin play the piano, back in vaudeville days and found his harmony notably inept. --Yet Robert Russell Bennett states unequivocally that upon hearing someone's harmonization of his songs, Berlin would insist on a succession of variant chords ..and was not satisfied until the right chord was found. I must accept the fact that though Berlin may seldom have played acceptable harmony, he nevertheless , by some mastery of his inner ear, senses it, in fact writes many of his melodies with his natural, intuitive harmonic sense at work in his head, but not in his hands." (Wilder, p. 93)

Many students of Berlin have speculated that he never wrote any of his songs, that he always used "ghost writers" or hirelings to create the melodies he claimed as his own. Chances are the truth is somewhere in between. The limits to his musical ability are clearly documented. However, so too is his ability to call upon that inner sense of music to create a melody and set of lyrics. My personal conclusion is that he was indeed a musical genius who had the misfortune of a mental - manual disconnect and regardless of his limited performance skills, was the greatest overall songwriter we've seen in America.

 

In 1911, Berlin hit the hit song jackpot with a song that swept the country like wildfire; Alexander's Ragtime Band (MIDI, Lyrics). While not a true Ragtime work, this song captured the spirit of the Ragtime movement which had swept the nation and redefined popular music in America. Selling over a million copies in just a matter of months it seemed to be a national craze. The song actually began as a piano rag titled, Alexander and His Clarinet (that never would have sold!). Berlin was elected a member of the Friars club and invited to appear in their annual show for 1911. Not having a song handy, Berlin rewrote Alexander as a song with lyrics and presented it at the show. It went virtually unnoticed until The great Emma Carus performed it on vaudeville in Chicago. The song then spread across the country as though it were a virus and took the country by storm.

 

I suspect Berlin was as surprised as anyone that this simple song caused such a furor. Berlin followed up on the theme with a number of other "rag" titles, some of which were successful, others not. In the same year he issued That Mysterious Rag (not very memorable but with a great cover) and even an odd one titled Alexander's Bag Pipe Band. That Mysterious Rag was one of the very few songs post 1911 that Berlin wrote with someone else's music, Ted Snyder provided the melody. Of course other composers followed suit with their own non-ragtime, ragtime titles. The song by the way, is not a ragtime tune at all, it has none of the attributes of a true ragtime work, only the name. That did not seem to matter to anyone and still does not but it is of interest to those of us who research and study music. This song is one of those that without question, changed the direction of American popular music.

 

As a result of his success, Berlin's talents were drawn into other areas, especially Broadway. In 1914 he was contracted to write a Broadway stage show for a show starring Vernon and Irene Castle, the famous dancers of the period and creators of a number of dances including the famous Castle Walk. The title of the show was, Watch Your Step and it opened at the New Amsterdam Theater on December 8, 1914. The show ran till June of 1915 and enjoyed 175 performances, quite an accomplishment for a first production. Of course the Castles were a hot property at that time so I'm sure their involvement helped the budding Broadway writer's success. However, Berlin's music received critical acclaim and out of the show came a number of his classic hits including Play A Simple Melody. The New Amsterdam was built by Klaw & Erlanger in 1903. With its elaborate architecture and décor, it brought Art Nouveau to Broadway. Ziegfeld was 1/3 owner. It became a registered landmark in 1982. The theater was restored in 1997 and today is the venue for The Lion King.

 

In his personal life, Berlin had met and married Dorothy Goetz in 1912 and Berlin suffered a tragedy of nightmarish proportions when he and the new Mrs. Berlin went on their honeymoon to Cuba. Dorothy contracted typhoid fever on their honeymoon and died soon after their return. Devastated, Berlin turned to his music and wrote some of his more heartfelt and poignant love songs. Driven by his loss, he wrote When I Lost You (MIDI) that same year. In a bitter turn of fate, the song became one of his most successful songs, nearly selling as many copies as Alexander's Ragtime Band.

 

When America went to war, Berlin, like many composers not only turned to composing music to uplift the morale of the folks at home, but he joined the Army and did his part to help win the war. While assigned to Camp Upton on Long Island, Berlin had the inspired idea to write a stage work to be performed entirely by soldiers. He was convinced that the troops needed to be entertained, wrote an show that stared only soldiers, Yip, Yip Yaphank in 1918. After tryouts at the camp theater, the show premiered at the Century Theater in New York on July 26, 1918, the show contained the song Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning (see our February, 2003 feature on Berlin's music) which became an instant hit. The infectious tune and good humored lyrics made the song one of the greatest to come out of the War and further established Berlin as a great songwriter. As with most shows, some songs written for it were not used in the final production, a common occurrence in the creation of musical shows. One melody he dropped from the show was one he thought too dreary for the time and nature of the show. He would later dust off this tune, add new lyrics to it and produce it in 1939 as the great inspirational patriotic song, God Bless America.

 

After the war, Berlin returned full time to his music however, began to spread his wings and embrace other aspects of the business. He ended his publishing relationship with Waterson, Berlin & Snyder and formed his own publishing house, Irving Berlin, Inc. He also began performing in vaudeville, performing his songs in some of the top theaters on the circuit. In 1921, Berlin and Sam Harris built a theater, The Music Box on 45th Street as a venue for his own music as well as for other shows. The Music Box is still in existence and is currently the home of the musical, Amour. During the next few years, Berlin presented a show, The Music Box Revue each year that showcased top talent singing his songs. As with every year before, these years produced a number of terrific hit songs including, Say It With Music and What'll I Do?

 

In 1925, Berlin met a socialite, Ellin Mackay, the daughter of Clarence Mackay, the CEO of Postal Telegraph. At that time, any songwriter, even one of Berlin's stature, was considered beneath the social status of such a high born woman and Mackay tried for months to prevent a marriage between the two. At one point, Mackay sent the hapless Ellin to Europe to place her out of reach. It was during this absence that Berlin wrote some of his most beautiful love ballads, including Always. Mackay's power and efforts were for naught though and love triumphed as when Ellin returned to New York from Europe, the two were secretly married at City Hall on January 4, 1926. In a twist of irony, the two immediately left New York for a honeymoon in Europe. Surely that stuck in Mackay's craw and supposedly it was years before he allowed a reconciliation. Interestingly, their marriage caused such a social scandal that even other songwriters were inspired to write songs about the event. The most prominent was, When A Kid Who Came From The East Side Found a Sweet Society Rose, by Al Dubin and Jimmy McHugh.

 

Sometimes, even the best of creative genius loses their muse and it happened for Berlin during the years from 1927 to 1932. It seemed that he was unable to create much of anything that was salable and the public found little in his work to satisfy them. The financial depression in the US compounded things and Berlin found himself in a difficult situation.(Ewen, p. 25) In 1932 the popular singer Rudy Vallee put Berlin back on track. Vallee sang a number of Berlin's songs and put him back in the consciousness of the public. That same year, Berlin published How Deep Is The Ocean and it became a huge hit. Inspired, Berlin returned to stage works and created a hit show, Face The Music (Premiered February 17, 1932) which featured some new hit songs that resonated with the public, including Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee. Berlin was back and at the top of his form and he seemed to reach an even higher level of skill and creativity not seen before. In 1933, his stage show, As Thousands Cheer featured a song that is one of his most famous, Easter Parade. Interestingly, as with God Bless America, this melody had been written many years earlier, in 1917 as a song titled Smile and Show Your Dimple (click cover at left for Scorch view, here for MIDI or Lyrics) and it had never caught on. The practice of reviving melodies in other guises was not uncommon (and still is not) with composers and songwriters. Sometimes, it's a matter of timing and or subject matter. In this case, the 1917 song was a complete flop but in it's new form, it became an American classic. We're pleased to bring this rare song to you as a part of our continuing efforts to preserve the valuable heritage of popular song in America.

 

By 1933, the motion picture musical was a big part of the entertainment scene in America and Berlin saw this also as a new opportunity and way to showcase his music. Some of his best music came with the wonderful Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers films including some of my personal favorites, Top Hat, Follow The Fleet and Carefree. The film Top Hat included that great song, Cheek to Cheek which netted Berlin an Academy Award. In the late 30's, early 40's there was a spate of films about composers and our musical heritage. In 1938, the ever popular Alexander's Ragtime Band got the royal Hollywood treatment with a film by the same name produced by 20th Century Fox. With an all star case that included Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Don Ameche and Ethel Merman. A virtual cavalcade of Berlin's hits, this film featured over 25 of his songs including several new ones written just for the film.

 

1938 also brought the clouds of World War over Europe and Americans began to understand and appreciate the freedoms we enjoy. The result was the beginning of a patriotic surge that would continue for the next eight years. Berlin was one of the first composers to recognize the need for a new patriotism when he dusted off that old discarded tune from the 1918 show Yip, Yip. Yaphank. He wrote new lyrics and republished it as God Bless America. Kate Smith introduced the song on her long running radio show (started in 1931) and as we often say, the rest is history. If ever a song defined patriotism, God Bless America must be counted as the single most defining patriotic song of all time. Used time after time in America's crises, it again enjoyed a tremendous resurgence after the fateful and horrible attacks on America in September of 2001. Thanks to the Kate Smith Commemorative Society for allowing us to use this great photo of her from their excellent article about Kate Smith and God Bless America at http://katesmith.org/gba.html . The song has become as close to a second national anthem as any song and in fact, there have been movements over the years to replace the difficult to sing Star Spangled Banner (Scorch Format) with God Bless America. The song sold millions of copies, won numerous awards and earned huge royalties. In a selfless act of his own patriotism, Berlin donated the entire royalties from the song to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls saying he refused to capitalize on patriotism. Berlin further showed his mettle by composing numerous other patriotic songs during the war that benefited the Navy Relief, Red Cross, March of Dimes and Bond Drives and contributed all of the royalties from these songs to war charities.

 

Repeating a chapter from his life during W.W.I, Berlin insisted on returning to Camp Upton after the attack on Pearl Harbor with the intent of gaining current first hand experience about the life of soldiers. From this experience he wrote an all new, all soldier show titled This is The Army and premiered it at the Broadway Theater on July 4, 1942. The show went on tour in the US as well as all the combat areas of Europe and the Pacific and then was made into a movie in 1943 that starred among other notables, a young Ronald Reagan. Again, Berlin donated all royalties for this show to charity and the proceeds amounted to over ten million dollars! For his contributions to war charities and the uplifting of homefront morale, Berlin received the Medal of Merit from General George C. Marshall.

 

After the war, Berlin again focused on stage & film and it was during the next decade or so that he produced some of his greatest stage and film score works. Among his masterpieces from these years are; Call Me Madam (1950), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), There's No Business Like Show Business ( 1954) and Sayonara (1957). Essentially, Berlin became inactive as a composer after the 60's. Though he would enjoy a good twenty more years of life, he receded into the background of American song as an active composer. There is no doubt in my mind though that he must have felt a great deal of satisfaction for his contribution to the development of American popular song. According to Ewen (p. 26-27), in 1958 Berlin was asked to list his favorite songs and he named; Alexander's Ragtime Band, A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody, Always, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, How Deep Is The Ocean, Oh! How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning, White Christmas, God Bless America and There's No Business Like Show Business. It's probably no coincidence that most Americans would name these same ten songs among their favorite Berlin pieces for they capture the essence of what makes American song so great and what makes a hit song, a hit. With memorable and singable melodies, unbridled emotion and timeless lyrics, these songs as well as hundreds of others of Berlin's works will no doubt be sung by us for many generations to come.


Richard A. Reublin, February, 2003


(See our resources page for a complete list of references used to research this article as well as all of our other articles.)


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