Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989), born Israel Isidore Baline (as per ), in Tyumen, Russia (or possibly Mogilev, now Belarus), was an American composer and lyricist, one of the most prodigious and famous American songwriters in history. Berlin got his start as a lyricist for other composers, and although he never learned how to read music beyond a rudimentary level, he wrote over 3,000 songs, many of which, including God Bless America", "White Christmas", "Alexander's Ragtime Band", and "There's No Business Like Show Business" left an indelible mark on American music and culture. Berlin was one of the few Tin Pan Alley/Broadway songwriters who wrote both lyrics and music for his songs. He produced 17 film scores and 21 Broadway scores in addition to his individual songs.
Irving Berlin's family migrated to the United States in 1893. His parents were Leah (Lena) Jarchin and Moses Baline; his father was a rabbi who obtained work certifying kosher meat (see ). Following the death of his father in 1896, Irving found himself having to work to survive. He did various street jobs including selling newspapers and busking. The harsh economic reality of having to work or starve was to have a lasting effect on the way Berlin treated money. While working as a singing waiter at Pelham's Cafe in Chinatown, Berlin was asked by the proprietor to write an original song for the cafe because a rival tavern had had their own song published. "Marie from Sunny Italy" was the result and it was soon published. Although it only earned him 37 cents, it gave him a new career and a new name: Israel Baline was misprinted as "I. Berlin" on the sheet music.
Many of his earliest songs, among them "Sadie Salome (Go Home)," "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune," and "Oh How That German Could Love," enjoyed modest success in sheet music form, as recordings, on the vaudeville stage, or as interpolations into stage shows, but it was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," written in 1911, that launched his career as one of Tin Pan Alley's brightest stars. Richard Corliss, in a Time Magazine profile of Berlin in 2001, wrote:
After the success of "Alexander," Berlin was rumored to be writing a "ragtime opera," but instead he produced his first full-length work for the musical stage, "Watch Your Step" (1914), starring Irene and Vernon Castle, which was the first musical comedy to make pervasive use of syncopated rhythms. A similar show entitled "Stop! Look! Listen!" followed in 1915.
In 1917, during World War I, he was drafted into the United States Army and staged a musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank while at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. Billed as "a military mess cooked up by the boys of Camp Union," the show cast 350 members of the armed forces. The revue was a patriotic tribute to the United States Army, and Berlin composed a song entitled "God Bless America" for the show, but decided against using it. When it was released years later, "God Bless America" proved so popular that suggestions have been made that it should become the National Anthem. It remains to this day one of his most successful songs and one of the most widely-known in the United States. A particularly famous rendition occurred after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when members of the United States Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol building and sang Berlin's tune (see Audio link).
After the war, Berlin built his own theater, the Music Box, as a showplace for annual shows built around his new songs, in revue format, beginning with "The Music Box Revue of 1921." The theater is still in use, incidentally. Though most of Berlin's works for the Broadway stage took the form of revues -- collections of songs with no unifying plot -- he did write several book shows. The Cocoanuts (1925) was a light comedy, with a cast featuring, among others, the Marx Brothers. Face the Music (1932) was a political satire with a book by Moss Hart, and Louisiana Purchase (1940) was a satire of a Southern politician, obviously based on the exploits of Huey Long.
Berlin's 1926 hit song "Blue Skies" became another American classic, and was featured in the first talkie (motion picture with sound), Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer. In 1946, a Berlin musical with the same title revived the song's popularity, and it reached #8 with Count Basie and #9 with Benny Goodman (see ).
Berlin was responsible for many Hollywood film scores including Top Hat (1935) and Holiday Inn (1942), which included "White Christmas", one of the most-recorded tunes in American history.
The Yaphank revue was later included in the 1943 movie This Is the Army featuring other Berlin songs, including the famous title piece, as well as a full-length rendition of "God Bless America" by Kate Smith
The song was first sung by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn and sold over 30 million copies when released as a record. The song was re-used as the title theme of the 1954 musical film, White Christmas, which starred Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen.
Crosby's single of "White Christmas" was recognized as the best-selling single in any music category for more than 50 years until 1998 when Elton John's tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, "Candle In the Wind 1997," overtook it in a matter of months. However, Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" has sold additional millions of copies as part of numerous albums, including his best-selling album Merry Christmas, which was first released as an LP in 1949.
The most familiar version of "White Christmas" is not the one Crosby originally recorded for Holiday Inn. Crosby was called back to the Decca studios on March 19, 1947, to re-record "White Christmas" as a result of damage to the 1942 master due to its frequent use. Every effort was made to reproduce the original Decca recording session, once again including the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and the Ken Darby Singers. The resulting re-issue is the one that has become most familiar to the public.
Berlin was equally prolific on Broadway, where he is perhaps best known for the stage musical Annie Get Your Gun (1946), produced by Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Loosely based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the music and lyrics were written by Berlin, with a book by Herbert Fields and Dorothy Fields. Berlin had taken on the job after the original choice, Jerome Kern, died suddenly. At first he refused to take on the job, claiming that he knew nothing about "hillbilly music". But the show became his Broadway climax, running for 1,147 performances. It is said that the showstopper song, "There's No Business Like Show Business," was almost left out of the show altogether because Berlin wrongly got the impression that his sponsors, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, did not like it. Annie Get Your Gun is considered to be Berlin's best musical theatre score not only because of the number of hits it contains, but because its songs successfully combine character and plot development.
His friend and fellow songwriter Jule Styne said of him, "It's easy to be clever. But the really clever thing is to be simple" (see ).
Berlin stopped writing after the failure of Mr. President, which starred Nanette Fabray and Robert Ryan on Broadway in 1962.
A list of some of Berlin's other well known songs follows:
Perhaps his most powerful ballad, "Supper Time," is a haunting song about racial bigotry that was unusually weighty for a musical revue. However, Ethel Waters' heartrending rendition of the song was so powerful that it was kept in the show (As Thousands Cheer).
Berlin was married twice. His first wife, singer Dorothy Goetz, sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz, contracted pneumonia and typhoid fever on their honeymoon to Cuba, and died five months after their wedding in 1912 at the age of twenty. Her death inspired Berlin's song "When I Lost You", which became one of his earliest hits. Curiously, a year before Dorothy Berlin's death, Irving Berlin, E. Ray Goetz, and Ted Snyder co-wrote a song called "There's a Girl in Havana".
His second wife was Ellin Mackay, a devout Irish-American Catholic and heiress to the Comstock Lode mining fortune, as well as an avant-garde writer who had been published in The New Yorker. They were married in 1926, against the wishes of both his family, who objected to religious intermarriage, and her father, Clarence Mackay, a prominent Roman Catholic layman, who disinherited her (see ). (Her sister, who dated a Nazi diplomat in New York and was known for wearing a diamond swastika, remained a member of the family in good standing, however (see ). Without a dispensation from the Church, the two were joined in a civil ceremony on January 4, 1926, and were immediately snubbed by society: Ellin was immediately disinvited from the wedding of her friend Consuelo Vanderbilt, although Vanderbilt was not a Catholic. Finances were not a problem, however: Berlin assigned her the rights to his song ‘Always’ which yielded her a huge and steady income.
The couple had three daughters—Mary Ellin, Linda, and Elizabeth, all of whom were raised as Protestants—and a son, Irving Berlin, Jr., who died before his first birthday, on Christmas Day.
Becoming a virtual recluse in his last years, Berlin didn't attend the 100th birthday party held in his honor. However, he did attend the centennial celebrations for the Statue of Liberty in 1986.
Irving Berlin died of a heart attack in New York City at the age of 101 and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. He had been predeceased by his wife, Ellin.