Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989)
✪ Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) was a Russian-American composer, songwriter and lyricist. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films. His songs were nominated eight times for an Academy Award. Many of Berlin’s songs became popular themes and anthems, including “God Bless America, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Easter Parade, Puttin’ on the Ritz, Cheek to Cheek, White Christmas, Happy Holiday, Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better), and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Berlin’s songs have reached the top of the charts 25 times and have been extensively covered & re-recorded by numerous singers & musical artists including The Andrews Sisters, Perry Como, Eddie Fisher, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley, Judy Garland, Tiny Tim, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, Cher, Diana Ross, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan, Ruth Etting, Fanny Brice, Marilyn Miller, Rudy Vallée, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Doris Day, Jerry Garcia, Taco, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Buble, Lady Gaga, and Christina Aguilera.
Composer George Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”
Berlin was born Israel Beilin on May 11, 1888, in the Russian Empire. Berlin later learned that he was probably born in Tyumen, Siberia, where his father, an itinerant cantor, had taken his family. He was one of eight children of Moses (1848–1901) and Lena Lipkin Beilin (1850–1922).
According to biographer Laurence Bergreen, as an adult Berlin admitted to having no memories of his first five years in Russia except one: “he was lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes.” As an adult, Berlin said he was unaware of being raised in abject poverty since he knew no other life. The Balines were one of hundreds of thousands of Jewish families who emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s to escape discrimination, poverty and brutal pogroms.
After their arrival in New York City, the Baline family lived briefly in a basement flat on Monroe Street, and then later moved to a three-room tenement at 330 Cherry Street. His father, unable to find comparable work as a cantor in New York, took a job instead at a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons in the evenings to support his family. He died a few years later when Irving was only thirteen years old.
With only a few years of schooling, eight-year-old Irving began to work to help support his family. He became a newspaper boy, hawking The Evening Journal. His mother took a job as a midwife, and three of his sisters worked wrapping cigars, a common form of employment at the time for immigrant girls. His older brother worked in a sweatshop assembling shirts.
Having left school around the age of thirteen, Berlin had very few survival skills and realized that formal employment was out of the question. His only ability was the one he had acquired from his father’s vocation as a singer, so he joined with several other youngsters who went into the saloons on the Bowery to sing to customers for pennies. Itinerant young singers like them were common on the Lower East Side. Berlin would sing a few of the popular ballads he heard on the street and hope people would pitch him a few pennies. From these seamy surroundings, he became streetwise, with real and lasting education. Music was his only source of income and he quickly picked up the language and culture of the Bowery lifestyle.
Berlin quickly discovered what kind of songs appealed most to audiences. As he later remarked, “well-known tunes expressing simple sentiments were the most reliable.” He soon began plugging songs at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and in 1906, when he was 18, got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. Besides serving drinks, he sang made-up “blue” parodies of current hit songs to the delight of customers.
In his free time after work hours, Berlin taught himself how to play the piano. Never having had lessons, after the bar closed for the night, young Berlin would sit at a piano in the back and begin improvising tunes. In 1907, he published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” written in collaboration with the Pelham’s resident pianist Mike Nicholson and received 33 cents for the publishing rights. The sheet music of the song credits his name as “I. Berlin.“
Berlin’s notoriety as a songwriter quickly rose on Tin Pan Alley and on Broadway. In 1911, he introduced his first world-famous hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” followed by a performance from Berlin himself at the Friars’ Frolic of 1911. Berlin was “flabbergasted” by the sudden international popularity of the song, and wondered why it had become such a sudden hit. The tune revived the ragtime fervor that Scott Joplin had begun a decade earlier and made Berlin a songwriting star. He also became an instant celebrity and the featured performer later that year at Oscar Hammerstein’s vaudeville house, where he introduced dozens of other new original songs.
Some of the songs Berlin created came out of his own sadness. In 1912 he married Dorothy Goetz, the sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz. Six months later, she died of typhoid fever contracted during their honeymoon in Havana. Left with writer’s block for months after Goetz’s death, he eventually wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” to express his grief. It was an immediate popular hit and sold more than a million copies.
Years later in the 1920s, he fell in love with a young heiress, Ellin Mackay, a daughter of Clarence Mackay, the socially prominent head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company. They married in 1926 and their marriage remained a love affair. They were inseparable until she died in July 1988 at the age of 85. During their 63 years of marriage, they had four children : Mary Ellin Barrett in 1926; Irving Berlin Jr., who died in infancy in 1928; Linda Louise Emmet in 1932 & Elizabeth Irving Peters in 1936.
By 1918 Berlin had already written hundreds of songs, mostly topical, which enjoyed brief popularity. An important song that Berlin wrote during his transition from writing ragtime to lyrical ballads was “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” which became another one of Berlin’s biggest hits. The song was written for the Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1919 and became the musical’s lead song. Its popularity was so great that it later became the theme for all of Ziegfeld’s revues; and, the theme song in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld.
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In 1917, Berlin was drafted into the United States Army, and his induction immediately became headline news, with one paper headline reading, “Army Takes Berlin!” However, the Army wanted Berlin, now aged 30, to do what he knew best: write songs. One song Berlin wrote during his time in the military but decided not to use until he introduced it to the public twenty years later was “God Bless America.”
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The song was written by Berlin twenty years earlier, but he filed it away until 1938 when Kate Smith needed a patriotic song to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I. Its release near the end of the Depression, which had by then gone on for nine years, enshrined a “strain of official patriotism intertwined with a religious faith that runs deep in the American psyche,” stated The New York Times.
Berlin’s daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, states that the song was actually “very personal” for her father, and was intended as an expression of his deep gratitude to the nation for merely “allowing” him, an immigrant raised in poverty, to become a successful songwriter.
Berlin returned to Tin Pan Alley after the war and in 1921 created a partnership with Sam Harris to build the Music Box Theater. He maintained an interest in the theater throughout his life and even into his later years. In its early years, the theater was a showcase for revues by Berlin. As theater owner, producer and composer, he looked after every detail of his shows; from the costumes and sets to the casting and musical arrangements. According to Berlin biographer David Leopold, the theater, located at 239 West 45th St., was the only Broadway house which has ever been built to accommodate the works of a songwriter.
When the United States joined World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Berlin immediately began composing a number of patriotic songs. Berlin loved his country, and wrote many songs reflecting his patriotism. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau requested a song to inspire Americans to buy war bonds, for which he wrote “Any Bonds Today?” He assigned all royalties to the United States Treasury Department. He also wrote songs for various government agencies and likewise assigned all profits to them: “Angels of Mercy” for the American Red Cross; “Arms for the Love of America,”, for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department; and “I Paid My Income Tax Today.”
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The 1942 film Holiday Inn introduced “White Christmas,” one of the most widly recorded songs in history. First sung in the film by Bing Crosby (along with Marjorie Reynolds, whose voice was dubbed by Martha Mears), it sold over 50 million records and stayed Number 1 on the pop and R&B charts for 10 weeks. Crosby’s version is the best-selling single of all time.
“White Christmas” also won Berlin the Academy Award for Best Music in an Original Song, one of seven Oscar nominations he would receive during his long career. In subsequent years, it was re-recorded and became a top-10 seller for numerous other artists. It would also be the last time a Berlin song went to Number 1 upon its release.
According to Saul Bourne, Berlin’s publishing company manager, “It was a ritual for Berlin to write a complete song, words and music, every day.” Berlin said that he “did not believe in inspiration,” and felt that although he might be gifted in certain areas, his most successful compositions were always the “result of work.” He said that he did most of his work under pressure and would typically begin writing after dinner and continue until 4 or 5 in the morning. “Each day I would attend rehearsals,” he said, “and at night write another song and bring it down the next day.”
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In later years, Berlin emphasized his conviction, saying that “it’s the lyrics that makes a song a hit, although the tune, of course, is what makes it last.” He played almost entirely in the key of F sharp so that he could stay on the black keys and owned three transposing pianos so as to change keys by moving a lever. Though Berlin eventually learned how to produce written music, he never changed from his method of dictating songs to a “musical secretary.”
Throughout his life, Berlin’s often returned on foot to visit his old neighborhoods in Union Square, Chinatown and the Bowery. He never forgot those childhood years when he “slept under tenement steps, ate scraps, and wore secondhand clothes,” and described those years of his life as hard but good. “Every man should have a Lower East Side in his life,” he said.
George Frazier of Life magazine found Berlin to be “intensely nervous,” with a habit of tapping his listener with his index finger to emphasize a point, and continually “pressing his hair down in back” and “picking up any stray crumbs left on a table after a meal.” While listening, “he leans forward tensely, with his hands clasped below his knees like a prizefighter waiting in his corner for the bell…. For a man who has known so much glory,” writes Frazier, “Berlin has somehow managed to retain the enthusiasm of a novice.”
Berlin’s daughter wrote in her memoir that her father was a loving, if workaholic, family man who was “basically an upbeat person, with down periods.” In his final decades he retreated from public life.
Berlin voted for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, but supported the presidential candidacy of General Dwight Eisenhower. His song “I Like Ike” was featured prominently in the Eisenhower campaign. In his later years Berlin also became more conservative in his views on music. According to his daughter, “He was consumed by patriotism.”
Berlin was a Freemason and a member of Munn Lodge no. 190, New York City, the Scottish Rite Valley of New York City, and Mecca Shrine Temple. Berlin was also an active member of The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Berlin died in his sleep at his 17 Beekman Place town house in Manhattan on September 22, 1989 of a heart attack and other natural causes at the age of 101. He was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City. On the evening following the announcement of his death, the marquee lights of all the Broadway playhouses dimmed before curtain time in honor of his memory. ✪