Perhaps the most prolific songwriter ever, Irving Berlin published some 1,500 songs—from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “White Christmas.” Beloved from Broadway to Hollywood, he responded to changing times and tastes with main-street language and down-home images as he set Americans singing with his always-irresistible melodies.
Berlin, the youngest of eight children, was born in Mohilev, Russia on May 11, 1888. He was named Israel by his parents, Moses and Lena Baline. Driven from Russia by Jewish persecution, the Balines reached New York in 1892 and settled on the Lower East Side. Berlin’s father, a cantor, died three years later.
The young Berlin had two years of schooling before hard times forced him to work selling newspapers and singing on the streets. After he landed a job as a singing waiter at Pelham’s Café in Chinatown, he wrote “Marie from Sunny Italy” with the restaurant’s pianist, M. Nicholson. Berlin’s name appears on the sheet music as I. Berlin. The song, published in 1907, earned him 37.5 cents in royalties. By 1909, he was working as a lyricist and song plugger, and a year later, he was performing his own songs in Up and Down Broadway, a revue.
In 1911, Berlin changed his name legally from Israel Baline to Irving Berlin. That same year, he had his first major success with the jaunty “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It was played again and again for dance-crazy Americans. Though not strictly ragtime, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” became one of Tin Pan Alley’s greatest ragtime hits. The nickname “Tin Pan Alley,” referring to New York’s West 28th Street music publishing district, referred to the area’s constant musical din.
The next year, a ballad, “When I Lost You,” reflected Berlin’s mood after his bride’s death of typhoid six months after the wedding. He buried himself in work and wrote his first complete score and lyrics in 1914—Watch Your Step, a show designed for dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. Berlin, constantly creating, usually at night, contributed to New York revues and operettas—from Ziegfeld Follies in 1911 to The Century Girl in 1916—and even performed in London as the “King of Ragtime” in 1917.
Drafted into the U.S. Army, Berlin cajoled his World War I superiors into mounting an all-soldier revue, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, in 1918. It included the song “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” but “God Bless America” was discarded as unsuitable. After he was discharged, Berlin formed his own music publishing firm—Irving Berlin Music, Inc.—in 1919, and two years later, with producer Sam H. Harris, he built the Music Box Theatre.
The Music Box, still on West 45th Street, opened in September 1921 and was to stage Berlin’s revues and showcase his popular songs. Berlin, a good businessman, maintained control of his works. Along with staging his own productions, the hard-working Berlin was writing music for the Flo Ziegfeld Follies, including in 1919, the hit “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and for Broadway musicals like The Cocoanuts (1925), which starred the Marx Brothers.
In 1926, Berlin married socialite Ellin Mackay, the daughter of a Catholic millionaire. Furious, Clarence Mackay disinherited the bride. Berlin’s wedding gift to his bride, the rights to the song “Always,” more than compensated for her financial loss. In 1946, 20 years later, Ellin received $60,000 in royalties from the song. Ironically, her father’s fortune was wiped out by the Great Depression.
Berlin began to pull out of a long dry period with the 1932 success of Face the Music (“Let’s Have Another Cup o’ Coffee”) and 1933’s As Thousands Cheer, both of which were written with Moss Hart. The latter, a clever revue, was based on pages from a daily newspaper. It included a revised “Easter Parade” (from the failed Smile and Show Your Dimple), representing the rotogravure section; “Heat Wave,” representing the weather report; and the moving “Supper Time,” representing the news, with Ethel Waters singing about the lynching of a black man.
Berlin, taken up by Hollywood, produced successful songs for successful movies, including “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” for Top Hat (1935), with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” for Follow the Fleet (1936); and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” for On the Avenue (1937).
However, it was Holiday Inn (1942), starring Bing Crosby and Astaire, that launched “White Christmas.” Berlin had doubts about the song and recalled, “I didn’t think it would be a hit. But Crosby saw something there…. When he read the song he just took his pipe out of his mouth and said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry about this one, Irving.’” Crosby was right.
World War II brought Berlin back to familiar territory with another all-soldier revue, This Is the Army (1942, film 1943). “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones” and “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen” became hits. Berlin toured with the show for three and a half years, earned $10 million for army relief, and once again portrayed the sleepy soldier singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Yet “God Bless America,” originally intended for the World War I revue, turned out to be the showstopper.
The postwar Annie Get Your Gun (film version 1950) opened in 1946 and became Berlin’s longest-running musical. Starring Ethel Merman, the show included the hit song “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Call Me Madam followed in 1950 (film 1953). Twelve years later, in 1962, the final Berlin show, Mr. President, opened. It ran for eight months, received lukewarm reviews, and was to be Berlin’s Broadway farewell. He died in Manhattan on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101.
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