IRVING BERLIN (1888-1989) : Biography

His Humble Beginnings

Irving Berlin was born in Russia  and emigrated to America with his family in 1893.  As a youngster, he learned to sing from his father, a Cantor.

When his father passed away in 1901, Berlin dropped out of school to sing on the streets of New York.  By 1905, he was hired by songwriter-publisher Harry Von Tilzer to plug songs at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall on Fourteenth Street.  In 1906 he became a singing waiter at Mike Salter’s Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, and in 1907, the nineteen year old started to write lyrics for composer Mike Nicholson.  He earned thirty-seven cents for his first published song, “Marie from Sunny Italy.”

Berlin’s first song with both his music and lyrics was “The Best of Friends Must Part” in 1908, the same year he went to work as a singing waiter at Jimmy Kelly’s in Union Square.  In 1909 Berlin was hired as an in-house lyric writer for music publisher Ted Snyder Company, where he is credited with writing two successful songs, “My Wife’s Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” and “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune.”  By 1910, Berlin and Snyder were performing in Up and Down Broadway (1910.19) at the Casino Theatre, singing “Oh, That Beautiful Rag” and “Sweet Italian Love.”  In April 1910, Berlin’s song (“Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon”) was released and became his first number one hit.

Berlin Becomes a Major Tin Pan Alley Songwriter and Publisher

In 1911, Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published, and he contributed four songs to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911, one of which was “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now.”  The year 1912 brought commercial success (a partner at the publishing firm, now called Waterson, Berlin & Snyder) but also great personal loss.  He married Dorothy Goetz, sister of songwriter and producer E. Ray Goetz, in February 1912, who contracted typhoid fever on the honeymoon trip to Cuba and died within six months.  He wrote “When I Lost You,” a love ballad to his wife; then wrote the syncopated “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam’.” (He would later use this song, sung by Judy Garland, in the 1948 movie, Easter Parade.)

In 1914, Berlin joined Victor Herbert to become a founding member of ASCAP, and his first revue (entire score for Watch Your Step, 1914.31) opened at The New Amsterdam Theatre.  In this show, Berlin introduced the “double” song “Simple Melody/Musical Demon,” where two melodic lines, one slow and languid fights against one that is fast and syncopated or highly rhythmic.  He would again use this technique successfully in the musical and movie, Call Me Madame, with the dual song “You’re Not Sick, You’re Just in Love/I Wonder Why.”  

Berlin’s Stop! Look! Listen! (1915.31) opened at The Globe in 1915 and included the songs “I Love a Piano” and “The Girl on the Magazine Cover.”

In 1916, Berlin collaborated with Herbert on a revue called The Century Girl (1916.24), and in 1917, Berlin started his own music publishing business. Within the short period of eight years, Berlin went from a lyric writer to one of the most successful composers on Tin Pan Alley and Broadway.

Citizen Berlin

In 1918, Berlin became an American citizen and was inducted into the Army.  While in the Army, he wrote the show Yip, Yip Yaphank (1918.21) and performed in it on Broadway, singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” a song he reprised for 1942’s This Is the Army (1942.20).  Berlin was honorably discharged from the Army in 1919, as WWI came to an end (similar to the experience of Robert Russell Bennett), and returned to Broadway to write most of the score for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, which included the song “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”

Sam Harris, whose partnership with George M. Cohan came to an end, entered into a partnership with Berlin in 1920, and they built the venerable Music Box Theatre.  In 1924 Berlin met and subsequently married Ellin Mackay, a member of the New York’s Blue Book Society.  Inasmuch as at that time the Society had no Jewish members, this marriage carried with it serious social implications.

Berlin’s Career

Berlin would continue to write music for the Ziegfeld Follies, for his own Music Box Revues and the occasional Broadway show (The Cocoanuts (1925.45), Face the Music (1932.05), As Thousands Cheer (1933.22), Louisiana Purchase (1940.08), This Is the Army (1942.20).  His two excellent Broadway shows came late in his Broadway career–Annie Get Your Gun (1946.12) and Call Me Madame (1950.15).

Notwithstanding his success on Broadway, Berlin’s main contribution came from his published songs and movies.  It is noteworthy that Berlin was involved in the first talking motion picture (The Jazz Singer, 1927), where Al Jolson introduced Berlin’s “Blue Skies” to a large American audience.  It is because of Berlin’s involvement in and contributions to American films that we have a permanent record of some of Berlin’s greatest tunes. Berlin teamed up with RKO and Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers for Top Hat (1935),  Follow the Fleet (1936) and Carefree (1938).  He also started a series of “Berlin movies,” where he would supply a number of his songs to a studio to support contrived scripts about bandleaders (Alexander’s Ragtime Band in 1938, with Don Ameche and Alice Faye) or singers and dancers (Holiday Inn in 1942 and Blue Skies in 1946, with Astaire and Bing Crosby; and Easter Parade in 1948, with Astaire and Judy Garland).  In 1954, the films, White Christmas (with Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney) and There’s No Business Like Show Business (with Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor), were released.

Berlin’s Tributes

When asked about Berlin’s place in American music, Jerome Kern responded:  “Irving Berlin has no place in American music: he is American music.”

Even though Berlin had no formal musical training, he impressed those of his colleagues who did have that training, such as Bennett.

Perhaps the greatest professional honor given to Berlin was Robert Kimball’s decision to publish The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin.  Kimball is one of those unsung heroes of American Musical Theatre who chronicle and thus archive the work of our major lyricists.  He has advised the Library of Congress and many of the composer trusts.  He is an invaluable resource to our country and the music profession.

As a naturalized citizen, Berlin has been honored by four Presidents:  President Truman presented Berlin with the Medal of Merit; President Eisenhower conferred on Berlin the Congressional Medal of Honor; President Ford gave Berlin the Medal of Freedom; and President Reagan gave Berlin the Liberty Medal, as one of twelve naturalized citizens, in honor of the 100th Anniversary of the Statue of Liberty.

In return, Berlin gave America its second national anthem, “God Bless America.”