Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


BERLIN, Irving

(b Israel Baline, 11 May 1888, Temun, Russia; d 22 September 1989) Songwriter; one of the most successful and beloved of all time. He was a prolific composer of pop songs in Tin Pan Alley, then of scores of hits in shows and films. The family emigrated from Siberia to NYC, but Berlin's father died young; he became a singing waiter, a song plugger, then published hits: a printer's error on 'Marie From Sunny Italy' changed his name to Berlin. Partners with pianist/collaborator Ted Snyder, he sang a medley of his own songs in Up And Down Broadway (1910) with Snyder accompanying. 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' '11 was a huge hit when taken up by vaudeville singer Emma Carus; 'Everybody's Doin' It' the same year was a hit for Eddie Cantor, who had also begun as a singing waiter. Berlin married Dorothy '12, sister of Ray Goetz (b 12 June 1886, Buffalo NY; d 12 June 1954, Greenwich CN; composer of 'For Me And My Gal' etc; became Broadway producer): when she died five months later, Berlin wrote 'When I Lost You', his first tender ballad.

He starred at the London Hippodrome '13 singing his own songs, billed as The King of Ragtime, which he was not; but the controversy over whether 'Alexander' was a ragtime song has been overdone: Alec Wilder wrote that 'I find no elements of ragtime in it, unless the word ''ragtime'' simply specified the most swinging and exciting of the new American music,' and that's the key: Charles Hamm wrote an exhaustive and fascinating account of the song's introduction in his three-volume Irving Berlin: Early Songs, reprinted in American Music for Spring 1996; he finds ragtime elements in the song, but goes on to point out that a song was not judged by the public by how it appeared on paper but how it sounded in performance.

The truth was that Berlin could do anything: he began by writing jolly pre-WWI hits for Tin Pan Alley, and when Tin Pan Alley became more sophisticated, he wrote show tunes, film songs and pop hits for several more decades, and furthermore he did it without ever learning to read music or even to play the piano properly. Snyder's manager Henry Waterson started the firm of Waterson, Berlin and Snyder, which provided Berlin with a transposing piano, the mechanism allowing him to change keys while playing the only one he knew (the piano was shipped back and forth to England with him). He employed a musical secretary to harmonize his songs under his supervision, and had an infallible ear for what was right even though he couldn't find the harmonies on the keyboard: Wilder also wrote, 'It is very nearly impossible, upon hearing some of these melodies, to believe that every chord was not an integral part of the creation.' One of Berlin's first helpers was Max Winslow, who was also a vocal coach, helping female vaudeville artists with their stage personalities and teaching them how to sing the songs; he became known as the man who discovered Irving Berlin, and the women were called 'Winslow's singles'.

He wrote 'When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves For Alabam', 'I Want To Go Back To Michigan', 'Play A Simple Melody' (for the musical Watch Your Step with Vernon and Irene Castle). When he was drafted '17 into the U.S. Army the music press said 'Army takes Berlin!' He wrote a show for the Army '18, but left out 'God Bless America', thinking it was over the top. He wrote 'A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody' '19, 'All Alone' '24. When Berlin complained about the royalties he was getting, Winslow suggested they start their own firm, and Berlin's royalties tripled. During the '20s he began buying back the rights to his own songs, opened a small theatre, the Music Box, and presented revues there.

In 1926 he married wealthy Catholic girl Ellin MacKay against her father's wishes; the tabloid newspapers had a field day. Ellin wrote for the New Yorker and later published novels; her first piece for the New Yorker had appeared a few weeks before the marriage, titled 'Why We Go to Cabarets'; it was a social commentary on upper-class customs, and such a sensation that it is thought to have saved the struggling magazine. (See Ian Frazier's article in the 90th anniversary issue of the New Yorker, 23 Feb. & 2 March 2015.) As a wedding present Berlin gave her the rights to 'Always'. MacKay lost most of his money in the crash of 1929; Berlin lost money too, but he was now richer than his father-in-law. By then the grandchildren were coming along, and when their second child died in infancy, his attitude softened, and relations became harmonious. The marriage lasted 62 years, until her death in 1988.

Berlin wrote 'Remember' '25; 'Blue Skies' '27 (featured by Al Jolson in the first talkie The Jazz Singer); 'Marie' '29 (later an enormous Swing Era hit by Tommy Dorsey), 'Puttin' On The Ritz' '30, 'Soft Lights And Sweet Music', 'How Deep Is The Ocean?' and 'Say It Isn't So' all '32 (the latter a hit for Rudy Vallee); then 'Easter Parade' '33 (from As Thousands Cheer). Initially he had used collaborators but later wrote words and music himself; 'Easter Parade' was an earlier unsuccessful song with new words, and an example of a song that was sentimental and apparently old-fashioned yet a timeless hit: Berlin's emotions were so honest that they never went over the top.

(On Armistice Day 1938 Kate Smith sang 'God Bless America' over the radio from the New York World's Fair, and the tribute from a successful immigrant to his adopted country became a second national anthem, the royalties given to the Scout movement. It is indeed an anthem, not typical of a Berlin song; not even Tommy Dorsey could have made it swing.)

His film work included 'Cheek To Cheek', 'Top Hat, White Tie And Tails' in Top Hat '35, 'Let's Face The Music And Dance' from Follow The Fleet '36, both with Fred Astaire; 'I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm', 'You're Laughing At Me' from On The Avenue '37 with Dick Powell; 'Be Careful, It's My Heart', 'Happy Holiday' and 'White Christmas' from Holiday Inn '42 (at the Oscar ceremony that year he said, 'This goes to a nice guy; I've known him all my life,' and gave himself the award for 'White Christmas'). Jerome Kern was to write the score for Annie Get Your Gun '46, but died; producers Rodgers and Hammerstein hired Berlin and the show had more hits than any other ever written, illustrating Berlin's range: 'They Say It's Wonderful' and 'I Got The Sun In The Morning' would have been good pop songs from any period, 'Doin' What Comes Naturally' was cod hillbilly, 'The Girl That I Marry' was a sentimental waltz and 'There's No Business Like Show Business' was a tub-thumper (which belongs for ever to Ethel Merman). More songs were 'Old-Fashioned Walk' from Miss Liberty '49, 'You're Just In Love', 'It's A Lovely Day Today' from Call Me Madam '50 (also with Merman).

He received a Congressional Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower '54, and soon begged Norman Granz to record an Irving Berlin songbook with Ella Fitzgerald, because his grandchildren teased him by constantly playing her set of Cole Porter songs. He wrote a flop musical Mr President '62 and 'Old-Fashioned Wedding' for the revival of Annie '66. There was a Medal of Freedom from President Ford; he was also a member of the French Legion of Honour and a charter member of ASCAP (on its first Board of Directors 1914-18), his 80th birthday marked by a star-studded Ed Sullivan broadcast. Biographies by Alexander Woolcott in 1925 and David Ewen much later had the same title, The Story Of Irving Berlin; Laurence Bergreen's As Thousands Cheer came '90 but the typical 'popular biography' was subsequently demolished by Charles Hamm. Berlin always refused permission for a dramatized biography on stage or on film and even refused Wilder permission to quote from his music in Wilder's excellent American Popular Song.