Irving Berlin

Israel Isidore Baline, popularly known as Irving Berlin (1888-1989), was arguably the most celebrated 20th century ‘Great American Songbook’ composer. George Gershwin said of him ‘I frankly believe that Irving Berlin is the greatest songwriter that has ever lived’. Berlin wrote both the words and music for eighteen Hollywood films, nineteen Broadway shows and over 1,500 songs of which twenty-five topped the US charts. He won one of his seven Academy Award nominations in 1942 for the film Holiday Inn. The most popular song from the movie, White Christmas, was sung by Bing Crosby and sold more than fifty million records and four million copies of the sheet music.

The violent anti-Semitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia ordered by Henry Poole & Co customer Emperor Alexander III forced the Baline family to emigrate to America in 1893 after their village had been burnt to the ground by Cossacks. They settled in a slum tenement building on the Lower East Side. Berlin left school aged eight and delivered newspapers in the Bowery for a pittance where sang in the street for coins. He later graduated from busking to a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in Chinatown where he became known as ‘the Yiddishe Yankee Doodle’. His first published song, Marie from Sunny Italy, earned him thirty-seven cents and his name. Because of a typographical error, the sheet music read I. Berlin.

Berlin was fiercely proud to be an American and live in the land of opportunity. As he said of his music, ‘my ambition is to reach the heart of the average American … the real soul of the country’. In 1911, he wrote his first great American song, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, that showed-off his talent for lyrics penned in the vernacular. It became a worldwide dance sensation. In England, Lady Diana Manners recalled Poole’s customer Prince Felix Youssoupoff ‘wriggling around the ballroom like a demented worm screaming for more ragtime and more champagne’.

In 1912 Irving Berlin married Dorothy Goetz. She died six-months later from typhoid fever prompting him to pen his first ballad When I Lost You which sold a million copies of the sheet music. When he wooed his second wife Ellin Mackay, an heiress from a Catholic family who disapproved of the Jewish composer, Berlin wrote one of his most enduring love songs Always that Noël Coward made a centrepiece of his 1941 play Blithe Spirit. Blue Skies, performed by Al Jolson in the 1927 film The Jazz Singer (Hollywood’s first talking picture) was written for his eldest daughter Mary Ellin.

Berlin was drafted in 1917 leading one New York paper to post the headline ‘Army Takes Berlin’. Already a star in Tin Pan Alley, Berlin was a prolific composer for musical revues. His composition A Pretty Girl is like a Melody, written for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, was such a hit it remained in all subsequent Follies shows. Berlin also constructed his own theatre, the Music Box on Broadway, in which he produced his own revues. It was in 1920 that Irving Berlin paid his solo visit to Henry Poole & Co and ordered a brown Angola short suit, lined with silk. He stayed at the Savoy hotel.

Journalist Walter Cronkite said that ‘Irving Berlin helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives’. During the Depression, he wrote some of his most glamorous, escapist melodies that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed on film such as Puttin On the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, Top Hat and Let’s Face the Music and Dance. Neither was Berlin shy of ‘message songs’ such as the anti-slavery ballad Supper Time sung by Ethel Walters.

Berlin was particularly adept at writing celebratory holiday songs such as White Christmas and Easter Parade that would become synonymous with the occasions themselves. There’s No Business Like Show Business, recorded by Ethel Merman in 1954 for the film of the same name, became a hymn for entertainers worldwide. Written in 1918, God Bless America became a national anthem in all but name during the Second World War and, after the 9/11 atrocities, was revived and recorded by Celine Dion.

Cole Porter was the only other Great American Songbook composer of Berlin’s stature to write both words and music. Whereas Porter was a skilled musician, Berlin only played piano in one key, F- sharp, and had a secretary to transcribe his work into notes on a page. Still, his work was recorded by the defining voices of the 20th century including Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand.

In 1962, after his last stage musical Mr President closed on Broadway, Irving Berlin announced his retirement and lived an increasingly reclusive life in his Beekman Place apartment in New York and his weekend home in the Catskill mountains. Irving Berlin died of natural causes in 1989 aged 101. The lights on Broadway were dimmed in honour of a man who the New York Times said ‘set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century’. As his biographer Alexander Woolcott said, ‘Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music’.

(c) James Sherwood

Photo © (c) Wiki Commons