Irving Berlin - Biography
BY J Poet
Irving Berlin was a competent pianist and a vocalist with a limited rage, yet he wrote some of the most immortal American pop tunes of the 20th Century including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Always,” “God Bless America,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “What'll I Do?” and “White Christmas,” which sold over 30 million copies when it was first cut by Bing Crosby in 1942. “White Christmas” won an Academy Award for Best Song that same year and may be the most recorded song in history. Berlin never made a commercial recording himself, but some home recordings and demos are available on Irving Sings Berlin (2001 Koch International).
Berlin couldn’t read music and barely played piano, but he published over 1,000 tunes and contributed more classic to the American song bag than any other writer of popular music. Berlin was born Isadore Baline in Russia on May 11, 1888. His family fled to the United States and landed in New York in 1893. When he was 13 his father died and he dropped out of high school to find work. He started busking, singing in bars and whorehouses for tips, graduating to a job as a singing waiter in Mike Salter’s Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. Baline started composing humorous lyrics to the pop songs of the day, gaining a reputation as an entertaining singer. When waiters at a rival café published a song praising their workplace, Salter asked Baline and the café’s piano player Nick Nicholson to write one for the Pelham Café. “Marie Of Sunny Italy” was the result, but when it was published it was credited to Irving Berlin. Baline though his new name sounded more American and kept it.
He moved to a job at Jimmy Kelly’s at Union Square where he started writing original lyrics as well as the parodies that made him a draw as a singing waiter. He pitched a lyric he’d written called “Dorando” to Ted Snyder, who later composed “Who’s Sorry Now?” Snyder said he’d pay Berlin 25 dollars for the words and music, Berlin scrambled and hummed a melody to an arranger he knew who helped him complete the tune. From 1908 to 1911, Berlin wrote lyrics for some successful songs including “Sadie Salome, Go Home” with Edgar Leslie which sold over 200,000 copies. Some biographers claim that Berlin never really learned how to play the piano properly, stating he could only play in one key, F# and only on the black keys. In those days, it was common practice for composers to use arrangers to “help” with their melodies, although they were seldom given co-writing credit. Berlin was known to use arrangers, but also had a keen ear for melody, despite his limitations as a player.
In 1911 he wrote “Alexander's Ragtime Band” actually a march, not a ragtime tune. It swept the country and sold over a million copies of sheet music in the months after it was published. Hews an overnight success and developed the work habits he used for the rest of his career, retiring to the piano after supper and writing music until dawn, often with the help of an arranger. He married Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died shortly after their honeymoon. He produced “When I Lost You” in his grief and it became another smash. In 1914 he wrote his first musical, Watch Your Step, for the famous singer/dancer team Vernon and Irene Castle. The show ran for six months and got Berlin good notices for his tunes including “Play a Simple Melody.” He followed it with Stop! Look! Listen! (1915) and The Century Girl (1916).
When America entered WW I Berlin became a citizen and was promptly drafted. He hated reveille and wrote “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” He then convinced the military to produce a show featuring only soldiers and wrote Yip, Yip Yaphank (1918), which included “God Bless America,” but he dropped it from the show thinking it wasn’t upbeat enough. The score did include “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” which became another smash. The play raised 83,000 dollars for the Army before the cast was sent to fight in France.
After the war, she started his own publishing house, began performing in vaudeville and built a theater with his business partner Sam Harris called The Music Box, which is still staging plays. Each year he produced a new review for The Music Box, which introduced tunes like “What'll I Do” and “All Alone.” In 1926 he married the catholic socialite and heiress Ellin Mackay.
In 1929 Berlin started writing tunes for movies like Puttin’ on the Ritz and the Marx Brothers’ Coconuts. Then stock market crash of 1929 wiped out most of his savings. Berlin’s tunes also stopped selling. In 1932 Rudy Vallee started singing Berlin songs and the public responded. Berlin wrote “How Deep Is the Ocean” that year, which did so well he got back on track and started producing reviews again such as Face The Music (1932) which featured “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee” and As Thousands Cheer (1933) which introduced “Easter Parade.” His next movie project Top Hat (1935), a vehicle for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, included “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” which earned Berlin his first Best Song Oscar. In 1938 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ was turned into a film with 25 Berlin tunes in the score. Irving Berlin in Hollywood (1999 Rhino) collects tunes from movies Berlin scored sung by Ethel Merman, Al Jolson, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Berlin himself.
In 1938 Hitler was on the rise and Berlin dusted off “God Bless America” and gave it to Kate Smith who introduced it on her popular radio show The Kate Smith Hour. Her recording of the song sold millions of copies and Berlin donated all of the song’s royalties to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls, refusing, as he said, “to make money off of patriotism.” When WW II commenced, Berlin wrote a new show for the soldiers This is The Army (1942); it toured the US, played for the troops in Europe, and became a successful movie. Berlin again donated all his earnings, over ten million dollars, to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. 1942 also saw the premiere of Holiday Inn (2000 Soundtrack Factory) with Bing Crosby singing both “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas,” which remains the best selling single of all time.
After the War, Berlin returned to Broadway with Annie Get Your Gun (1946), loosely based on the life of female sharpshooter Annie Oakley with Ethel Mermen and tunes like “There's No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin' What Comes Natur'lly,” “They Say It's Wonderful,” “The Girl That I Marry” and “Anything You Can Do.” Recordings include Annie Get Your Gun Original 1946 Cast Recording (2000 Decca) and Annie Get Your Gun Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (2000 Rhino). In the 1950s, Berlin started slowing down although he did pen tunes for the Broadway and film versions of Call Me Madam (1950 Broadway, 1953 film), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) with Ethel Merman and Marilyn Monroe. He also wrote “I Like Ike” the theme song of General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s successful 1952 campaign for president. In the late 50s he retired from public life and stopped writing, although he was still earning about $100,000 a year from royalties. He kept to himself in his New York town house and his Catskill Mountains estate. He was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1962 and died at home in New York on September 22, 1989.
Berlin recorded infrequently himself, but there are massive collections of his tunes available. Puttin’ on the Ritz: Capital Sings Irving Berlin (1992 Capital) includes renditions by Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole, The Four Freshmen and Peggy Lee. Irving Berlin 100th Anniversary Collection (1990 MCA) includes his most famous songs in their original hit versions and features Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Merman’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and Kate Smith’s “God Bless America.” Composers on Broadway: Irving Berlin (2006 Decca Broadway) includes Berlin singing “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” one of many classics.