Irving Berlin

1888 1989

Irving Berlin

Composer • Author


Irving Berlin is one of the most well-known and beloved composers of the Tin-Pan Alley and ragtime era, and one of the chief contributors to perhaps the most celebrated period in the history of Broadway theatre. Although he had almost no formal education, least of all in music, he possessed a remarkable gift for composing popular songs so enduring that many of them are still ubiquitous a century later.

Berlin was born with the given name Israel Baline in Russia to Jewish parents, and it was because of the rampant anti-Semitism present in Czarist Russia that his whole family was forced to move to New York when he was only five years old. For many years, his life there was full of hardship. Berlin was only thirteen years old when his father died, and he chose to run away from home a year later in a desperate attempt to ease the financial problems of his destitute mother.

For years Berlin did odd jobs that were vaguely musical in nature, including singing outside of cabarets, but he found his early calling as a song plugger. This was a profession in which bothGeorge Gershwin and Jerome Kern also found themselves starting in and involved mostly playing music for customers at sheet music shops as well as coming up with hits to be used by the big name vocalists and instrumentalists of the day. It was during this period that Berlin published his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy,” (1907) for which he was the lyricist. Interestingly, a typographical error on the score mistakenly wrote “I. Berlin” instead of Israel Baline, but he took such a liking to the new name that he adopted it as his own.

By 1911 Berlin had become a lyrist for the publishing company Waterson & Snyder, and it was with them that he scored his first breakthrough hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The following year he wrote “When I Lost You,” his first ballad, written for the death of his first wife to typhoid fever. In 1914 Berlin, now nearly universally acclaimed as the “King of Tin Pan Alley,” finished work on his first Broadway musical,Watch Your Step, which was arguably the first show consisting entirely of ragtime numbers. It led to a huge resurgence in the genre, and the tune “A Simple Melody” became a nation-wide hit.

What makes Berlin’s accomplishments as a songwriter all the more impressive is his complete lack of musical training. A self-taught pianist and composer, Berlin never learned to read or write music, and thus always had a secretary on hand to transcribe his songs from the piano. Berlin’s familiarity with the piano was so specific that he was only able to play or compose using all the black keys in the key of F#. He eventually used a custom-made piano that would change the key for him but before that he just had his works transposed into different keys by his copyist.

Having successful remade himself from ragtime songwriter to full-blown Broadway composer, Berlin began churning out megahits at an almost implausible rate. Over the course of his career he would compose the music to nineteen Broadway shows, contributing to what was truly the golden age of American theatre. These includedFace the Music (1932), Louisiana Purchase (1940) and This is the Army(1942), another all-soldier piece written to lift spirits during World War II. However, his most popular and enduring musical was undeniablyAnnie Get Your Gun (1946), which became so successful it even made its way into the opera house, and into the cinema in the 1950 film of the same title.

Like most young men at the time, Berlin found himself inevitably drawn into the conflict of World War I. After becoming a U.S. citizen in 1916, he was promptly drafted into the war effort. However, Berlin soon found out that he was recruited mostly to raise morale and create propaganda. His showYip Yip Yaphank was a patriotic ode to (and fundraiser for) the U.S. military. The production featured a cast made up entirely of soldiers, including Berlin himself, who was featured on the tune “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” One song he wrote forYip Yip Yaphank but ended up not publishing for another twenty years was “God Bless America,” which was first sung in 1938 by Kate Smith and has since become America’s unofficial national anthem and one of the most recognizable songs in the United States.

Berlin also had great success in the film world, writing almost as many film soundtracks (eighteen in total) as Broadway scores.Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936) and Call Me Madam (1953) would all become great successes, as would the 1942 filmHoliday Inn, which featured Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, which is remarkably still the best-selling and most-recorded song in American history. Many of his other songs have reached nearly the same level of success and many of them, includingCheek to Cheek, How Deep is the Ocean and Blue Skies have been incorporated into the American Songbook and become jazz standards. Many jazz vocalists have dedicated entire albums to covering Berlin’s music including Frank Sinatra (Frank Sinatra Sings Irving Berlin) and Ella Fitzgerald (Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook).

Estimates vary for the number of songs Berlin wrote during his career, but most put the number at over 1000, with hundreds of them becoming well-known in their day. In addition to his almost inexhaustible creativity he possessed an uncanny ability to perfectly follow and in some cases lead the latest popular music fashions. His early ragtime works seamlessly gave way to swing numbers and eventually fully-fledged theatrical works as the tastes of the American public changed throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s. It is equally impressive that many these pieces, written in a style that so quickly was supplanted by the next fashion, still retain an enduring popularity today, and represent a cherished contribution to the Great American Songbook. It is fortunate that Berlin, who died at the age of 101, was able to see first-hand the lasting impact his music would make.

Header image: courtesy of AZ Jewish Post Other images: courtesy of ArtsAtl