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Irving Berlin

writer of over 200 songs

Irving Berlin

Israel Baline was born in Russia on May 11, 1888. Fleeing Russian persecution of Jews, his family arrived in the United States in 1893 and settled into an immigrant tenement neighborhood in New York City. Shortly after his father's death in 1901, young Israel left school and home to earn his living.

Between the ages of 14 and 17, Israel made money as a street singer. In 1905 he secured a full-time job as a singing waiter at Mike Salter's Pelham Cafe in New York City's Chinatown. When the bartender at a rival bar scored a big success by writing a new song to sing in his bar, Baline decided to do the same. In 1907 he published his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy." The artist who drew the cover for the printed music of the song misprinted his name as "I. Berlin;" thinking the name sounded more American, the young composer renamed himself Irving Berlin.

Between the ages of 19 and 21, Berlin worked odd jobs in the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway districts -- plugging songs, singing in vaudeville, and sometimes playing bit parts in shows. After hours he would find a piano to play on and taught himself to "plunk out" songs. In 1909 he got his first Tin Pan Alley job, as a lyricist for the publishing firm of Waterson and Snyder. In 1911, he published "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which immediately thrust him into songwriting fame and got him dubbed the "King of Tin Pan Alley."

sheet music cover for Alexander's Ragtime Band

Since Berlin had no formal musical training, he could only play the piano in one key. To be able to take full advantage of all the harmonies the piano offered, he used a special transposing keyboard. All he had to do was push a lever and the piano would start playing in another key while he still played the same notes on the keyboard. And, because he never learned how to read or write music, Berlin would work out all the details of a song in his head, and then sing and play it for a musical transcriber who would then write it down, playing it back to Berlin until it was right. This method of songwriting was not uncommon at the time, however.

Between 1912 and 1916, Berlin wrote more than 180 songs, including many that would later appear in films -- "Snooky Ookums" and "I Love a Piano," for example, were included in the 1948 film Easter Parade. In 1914 he wrote his first complete Broadway musical, Watch Your Step, which was quickly followed by Stop! Look! Listen! in 1915 and The Century Girl in 1916.

When World War I broke out, Berlin decided it was time to become an American citizen, and after years of paperwork and delays took his citizenship oath of February 6, 1918. Several months later he was drafted into the army. A notorious night owl now forced to rise at dawn every day, Berlin turned his experiences into a song, "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which became one of the most popular tunes of the day. Berlin was subsequently asked to write a musical show to raise money for the army. Yip! Yip! Yaphank! played on Broadway for a month and raised $83,000 before the cast -- 300 soldiers -- was sent to France.

In the 1920's, Berlin fell in love with heiress Ellin Mackay, but her father prevented the two from marrying by sending her to Europe. During their months of separation, Berlin wrote several of his most lovely ballads, including "What'll I Do, All Alone," and "Remember." Ellin returned from her "exile" in 1925, and the couple eloped the following year.

When sound came to motion pictures in 1929, Berlin turned to writing film scores. His first two films, Puttin' on the Ritz (1929) and Cocoanuts (1929), were adaptations of Broadway shows. His next film, Top Hat (1935) -- featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers -- was written expressly for Hollywood. This film included such memorable songs as "Top Hat," "White Tie, and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek." Other films he contributed to included Follow the Fleet (1936), On the Avenue (1937), Carefree (1938), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and Holiday Inn (1942); the latter film contains the song that has sold more recordings than any other, "White Christmas."

When World War II broke out in Europe, Berlin felt a need to write a "great peace song." He found a song that he had written for his World War I show, updated it a bit, and found a radio singer who wanted a peace song for Armistice Day. The song, "God Bless America," was first sung by Kate Smith on November 11, 1938, and was immediately embraced by the American public. Uncomfortable about capitalizing on patriotic sentiments, Berlin donated all copyright and royalty proceeds to the Girl Scouts of America and the Boy Scouts of America.

After the United States entered World War II, Berlin created "This Is the Army," a stage show that toured the United States and played for troops in Europe. It was made into a movie in 1942 and earned ten million dollars for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.

After the war, Berlin returned to working for his own benefit. Annie Get Your Gun (1946) contained more hit songs than any other musical on Broadway and was his most successful show ever. Movie producers also clamored for his songs, knowing that having a Berlin score in their film all but guaranteed financial success -- the movie White Christmas (1954) was just one of many such successes.

By the 1950's, however, Berlin's productivity had begun to wane. Financially secure, he did not need to work, as his royalties far exceeded the income of any other songwriter to his day. He officially retired from songwriting in 1962, after his last Broadway show, Mr. President, flopped. He also withdrew from public life, and spent the last decades of his life privately in his New York City town house, or in retreat at his estate in the Catskills. He died in his sleep in his town house on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101. He was survived by three daughters, nine grandchildren and six great-grandchildren (his wife had died the previous year).

Among Berlin's many awards were a special Tony Award (1963) and the Academy Award for Best Song of the Year for "White Christmas" in 1942. He was a co-founder of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), the founder of his own music publishing company, and with producer Sam Harris, builder of his own Broadway theatre, The Music Box. His patriotic actions were acknowledged with such accolades as the Army's Medal of Merit from President Harry S. Truman in 1945, a Congressional Medal for "God Bless America" from President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1955, and the Freedom Medal from President Gerald Ford in 1977.

See Also

World War I
World War II
President Harry S. Truman
President Dwight D. Eisenhower
President Gerald Ford

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The Robinson Library >> Composers and Songwriters

This page was last updated on 12/31/2018.