Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989), born Israel Isidore Beilin (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 play a piano or read music beyond a rudimentary level, he wrote over 3,000 songs. About half of Berlin's works became popular on Broadway and in Hollywood, leaving an indelible mark on American music and culture with hits such as "God Bless America," "White Christmas," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and '"There's No Business Like Show Business." Berlin produced 17 film scores and 21 Broadway scores in addition to his individual songs.
Irving Berlin was born to a Jewish family. His family migrated to the United States in 1893. His parents were Lena Jarchin and Moses Beilin, who was a rabbi and 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.
In 1911 the hit song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" launched a musical career that would include over a thousand songs. Richard Corliss, in a Time Magazine profile of Berlin in 2001, wrote:
Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911). It was a march, not a rag, and its savviest musicality comprised quotes from a bugle call and Swanee River. But the tune, which revived the ragtime fervor that Scott Joplin had stoked a decade earlier, made Berlin a songwriting star. On its first release, four versions of the tune charted at #1, #2, #3 and #4. Bessie Smith, in 1927, and Louis Armstrong, in 1937, made the top 20 with their interpretations. In 1938 the song was #1 again, in a duet by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell; another Crosby duet, this time with Al Jolson, hit the top-20 in 1947. Johnny Mercer charted a swing version in 1945, and Nellie Lutcher put it on the R&B charts (#13) in 1948. Add Ray Charles' brilliant big-band take in 1959, and "Alexander" had a dozen hit versions in a bit under a half century.
There is some evidence that Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band was lifted from Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha.
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 during the 1930s it was even considered for the National Anthem, but was rejected by the press in part because it came from a Jewish composer. 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. 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.
On the cover of Time magazine: May 28, 1934.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.
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 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".
Berlin stopped writing after the failure of Mr. President, which starred Nanette Fabray and Robert Ryan on Broadway in 1962.
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 Protestant — 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.
Berlin was the only person to ever find his own name on the winners' envelope at the Oscars, winning the award for best music in an original song for the song "White Christmas" in the film Holiday Inn in 1942. Bing Crosby's single of that song sold more than 30 million copies. Berlin was nominated for six others during his career.
In spite of his musical career, Berlin never learned how to play a piano or read music beyond a rudimentary level. He reportedly was unable to compose in any key other than F-sharp major (or, presumably, D-sharp minor, since he also wrote songs in minor keys) and owned a special piano that mechanically transposed keys while an assistant wrote out the music scores.
Was once invited to lunch and asked inappropriate questions by Winston Churchill, who confused him with political philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1945, while he was in Leyte, Philippines entertaining the American liberation troops, he composed the "Heaven Watch the Philippines" song.
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