Irving Berlin

May 11, 1888 - September 22, 1989
  • Born Israel Isidore Baline in Russia, Irving Berlin became one of the most successful songwriters in the 20th century. His father was a Jewish cantor who moved his family to New York to escape religious persecution in 1893. After his father died in 1901, Berlin left home and began earning money as a street singer. His big break came in 1906 when he was hired as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in New York's Chinatown. It was here that he caught the eye of Harry Von Tilzer, who hired him to sing his songs at Tony Pastor's Music Hall, considered by many to be the birthplace of vaudeville.
  • Early in his music career, Berlin showed his prowess as a lyricist in Tin Pan Alley, the heart of the music publishing industry in the early 20th century. He never did learn to read or write music, but taught himself to play just enough piano to create a tune. He could play only in the key of F-sharp – the black keys - which was not entirely unusual in his era. Sticking with the black keys made it less likely to play the wrong note, or as Berlin put it, "The black keys are right there, under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music." After he had worked out the details to a song, he would explain it to a musical transcriber, who wrote the notes. Primarily using this method, Berlin wrote over 1,500 songs in his career.
  • Berlin's first hit song was "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911, which has been covered by artists ranging from Ray Charles to the Bee Gees. He would go on to write numerous musical scores, including Top Hat and Annie Get Your Gun, which featured the song "There's No Business Like Show Business." The music he wrote for the 1942 film Holiday Inn included "Easter Parade" and the classic "White Christmas," which remains one of the best selling songs of all time. While it might seem odd that a Jewish man would write one of the most recognizable Christmas songs ever to be heard, Berlin viewed it more as a cultural holiday than a religious one. He was also very protective of the song, as he was with all of his music, and launched a failed campaign to ban Elvis Presley's cover, which Berlin considered "sacrilege," from the radio waves in 1957.
  • A shrewd businessman, Berlin was intent on ensuring that he and other songwriters were paid for their work. Berlin co-founded the nonprofit ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) in 1914, which works to license music and ensure that songwriters get the royalties due to them. However, he did not keep the royalties to all of his songs. Berlin became an American citizen in 1918 and in 1938, updated a song he started several years earlier, intending to write a peace song. Kate Smith would become forever associated with the result – "God Bless America" – after singing it in the 1943 movie adaptation of Berlin's production of This is the Army.
    Uncomfortable with profiting from it, Berlin donated the copyright and the royalties to the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of America. The song also sparked another patriotic anthem. Folk singer Woody Guthrie detested "God Bless America," which he felt was overly sweet and ignorant to the problems the country was facing. His response was "This Land Is Your Land," which he wrote in 1940 and became popular with leftist groups in the 1950s.
  • In the final two decades of Berlin's life, he became something of a recluse who was extremely guarded about his work. He refused to allow any of his lyrics to be cited in Alec Wilder's The American Popular Song and Jimmy Breslin had to rewrite part of a novel that had three words from Berlin's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." He did allow ASCAP to put together a televised tribute to him on his 100th birthday, but only on the condition that all of the orchestrations be destroyed immediately after the performance. He developed an unfavorable reputation, particularly because many of his contemporaries who could speak more highly of him died long before he did. Berlin died in his sleep at his Manhattan home in 1989 at the age of 101.

Comments: 1

  • Joey DuganIrving was a genius, pure and simple. Just for the song "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In The Morning", which knocked me out when I heard it on the radio when I was seven. To think the same guy wrote "God Bess America" and "White Christmas"....well, he had the common touch,a dn could appeal to people of all ages over the generations.....Was he well-liked as a young man? Did his eccentricities only develop in his later years? I know he was politcally conservative at a time when that was not popular for a New Yorker.....
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