Born Israel Baline, May 11, 1888, in Tyumen, Russia; immigrated to United States, 1893, naturalized citizen, 1918; died September 22, 1989, in New York, NY; son of Moses (a cantor and shochet [meat/poultry certifier]) and Lena (Lipkin) Baline; married Dorothy Goertz, February, 1913 (died July 17, 1913); married Ellin Mackay, January 4, 1926 (died July, 1988); children: Mary Ellin, Linda Louise, Elizabeth Iris. Education: Attended public schools in New York City until the age of 14.
Although he was born in Russia, Irving Berlin created songs that epitomize American music. As Michael Walsh said in Time, "Berlin's songs are as much part of American culture as any folk song. They seem to have been with us always, defining the spirit of a nation in an artless melody, or an unexpected harmonic twist." During his lifetime, Berlin published more than one thousand songs, some failures and many successes; some have been forgotten, and some, such as "White Christmas" and "God Bless America," will be remembered always. Berlin could not read music, but he is one of the twentieth century's most beloved composers.
Berlin's life began in poverty. He was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, the youngest of the six children of Lena and Moses Baline. 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. The older members of the family took jobs where they could find them, but money was still too scarce. 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 Baline made money as a busker, or a street singer. He would roam from brothel to bar, singing for the coins the generous would toss. 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, young Baline set out 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 than Israel Baline, the composer renamed himself Irving Berlin.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, New York City became the business center of music publishing. Firms would hire songwriters and lyricists to mass-produce songs according to a musical and textual formula that pleased the public. These songwriters worked on the premises, often at pianos in large rooms where others like themselves also sat at pianos. They would then play their tunes for arrangers who would add the accompaniment to the published version. The companies hired "pluggers" to sell the new songs by singing them everywhere sheet music was sold or the public gathered; they plugged their songs in dime stores, departments stores, bars, and on the streets, and business boomed.
During the early years of the twentieth century, many publishing firms established their offices by the theater district, on West 28th Street between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. In 1909 journalist and songwriter Monroe Rosenfeld wrote a series of articles on the music publishing industry. Walking through that district, he was amazed by the clamor the industry produced and later in print likened the cacophony of the pianists, pluggers, and composers to the clatter of pots and pans and dubbed the area Tin Pan Alley.
Between the ages of 19 and 21, Berlin worked odd jobs in the Tin Pan Alley and Broadway areas. He plugged songs, sang in vaudeville, and sometimes played bit parts in shows. After business hours he would find pianos to play on and taught himself to plunk out songs. In 1909 he got his first Tin Pan Alley job, as lyricist for the publishing firm of Waterson & Snyder. These early years of plugging and writing served as his initiation and education in the songwriting industry, and he learned well the art of pleasing the public. In 1911 he published "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which immediately thrust him into songwriting fame; his song was such a hit that he was instantly dubbed the "King of Tin Pan Alley."
He developed at this time the work habits he would retain all of his life. After dinner Berlin would sit down at the piano and write songs until dawn. Since he 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 had to offer, he used a special transposing keyboard. He just had to push a lever and the piano would start playing in another key while he still played the same notes on the keyboard. Berlin could not read music. He consequently would work out all of the details of the song in his head, and then sing and play it for his musical transcriber who would then write it down, playing it back to Berlin until it was right. This method of working was not uncommon for songwriters of his generation, and others used both the transposing keyboard and a musical secretary.
It is said that Berlin succeeded in part because he followed a strict work ethic. The composer had "Nine Rules for Writing Popular Songs," which appeared in an interview in American Magazine in 1920; he explained one of them thusly: "The song writer must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK." Between 1912 and 1916 Berlin wrote more than 180 songs, including many that would appear later in films; "Snooky Ookums" and "I Love a Piano," for example, were included in the 1948 film Easter Parade. Even Berlin's off hours were filled with his business: he spent his free time in the Broadway and vaudeville theaters. In 1914 he wrote his first complete Broadway musical, Watch Your Step. This 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 in fact as well as in spirit. After several years of paperwork and delays, he took his oath on February 6, 1918, and became a citizen of the United States. Several months later he was drafted into the army. The hardest adjustment at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island, for this notorious night owl was to rise to reveille every day. He turned this experience 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 subsequently was asked to write a musical show to raise money for the army. Yip! Yip! Yaphank! played on Broadway for a month, raising $83,000 before the cast--300 army soldiers--was sent to France.
After the war, life for Berlin returned to normal, and he continued to turn out song hits. In the 1920s he fell in love with heiress Ellin Mackay, who was Catholic. She reciprocated his feelings, but her father disliked Berlin for his undistinguished origins and theater ties and sent his daughter to Europe to forget him. During their months of separation Berlin wrote several of his most lovely ballads, "What'll I Do," "All Alone," and "Remember." Mr. Mackay's ruse did not work; the heiress returned from her year abroad in 1925, and the following year she and Berlin eloped.
1929 was a year of both success and setback for Berlin. Along with the rest of the country, he lost a fortune in the stock market crash. But that year, sound came to moving pictures, and Berlin began to write 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. Some of his most famous and memorable songs were in this film, including "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek." More films followed, such as Follow the Fleet (1936), On the Avenue (1937), Carefree (1938), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), and Holiday Inn (1942), which contains the song that has sold more recordings than any other, "White Christmas."
When the Second World War broke out in Europe, Berlin needed to make a musical statement. "I'd like to write a great peace song, but it's hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace," he said in an interview with the New York Journal American. "Yet music is so important. It changes thinking, it influences everybody, whether they know it or not." He found a song that he had written for his World War I show but had not included in it. He updated it a bit and found a radio singer who wanted a peace song for Armistice Day. When Kate Smith sang Berlin's "God Bless America" on November 11, 1938, the country gained a new--if unofficial--national anthem. Feeling uncomfortable about capitalizing on such sentiments, Berlin donated the copyright and royalties to the Girl Scouts of America and the Boy Scouts of America.
When the United States entered World War II, Berlin took it as a personal call to action. He offered his services to the army, and created This Is the Army. The stage show toured the United States and then played for the troops in Europe; it was made into a movie in 1942 and earned ten million dollars for the Army Emergency Relief fund. Even more important to the country and composer than the money was the moral support it drew for the war effort. Writer Laurence Bergreen said in As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, "Through his songs, Berlin managed to inject human touches that made life in the armed services comprehensible to civilian audiences."
Once the war was over Berlin returned to working for himself. He continued to turn out the hits. Annie Get Your Gun (1946) contained more hit songs than any other musical on Broadway and was his most successful show ever. Movie moguls in Hollywood also demanded his songs. The almost universal popularity of his music insured their appeal for years. Songs that Berlin wrote in his early career were given new life in the movies. White Christmas (1954) not only included the title song, which was written for an earlier movie, but also used "Mandy" and "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," both of which were written in 1918 for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!
In the 1950s Berlin's creativity began to slow down. While his old hits played well, he wrote fewer new songs, and they were less successful. Financially secure, he did not need to work, for his royalties exceeded the income of any other songwriter ever. In 1954 he earned $101,000 in royalties, and in 1956 he earned $102,000. Finally, after his last Broadway show, Mr. President (1962), flopped, he retired.
Resigning from songwriting, Berlin also withdrew from public life. He spent the last decades of his life privately in his New York City town house, or in retreat at his estate in the Catskill Mountains. He made no public appearances. In 1972, when the cast of This Is the Army held a reunion party, he did not attend. But the public did not forget him. His 100th birthday in 1988 spawned many public tributes, including a televised celebration at Carnegie Hall, complete with old and new stars and even Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts marching on stage singing "God Bless America." The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., had a six-month exhibit of Berlin memorabilia, including his transposing piano. He also received many private tributes as well. For almost 20 years, a small group of people met on Christmas Eve outside his home in New York City and sang to him their favorite carol, "White Christmas."
Berlin died on September 22, 1989. The number and length of the subsequent printed obituaries and articles attests to the respect the world holds for him. To many, he symbolizes the sentiments of an era and the music of a nation. Fellow songwriter Jerome Kern was quoted as saying in Alexander Woollcott's biography of Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music."
by Robin Armstrong
Irving Berlin's Career
Published first song, "Marie From Sunny Italy," 1907; worked for publishing firm Waterson & Snyder, beginning in 1909; published first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," 1911; opened own publishing firm, Irving Berlin, Inc., 1914. Broadway shows include Watch Your Step, 1914, Stop! Look! Listen!, 1915, The Century Girl (with Victor Herbert), 1916, Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, 1918, Ziegfeld Follies, 1919, Music Box Revue, 1921, 1922, 1923, and 1924 (four different shows), The Cocoanuts, 1925, Face the Music, 1932, As Thousands Cheer, 1933, Louisiana Purchase, 1940, This Is the Army, 1942, Annie Get Your Gun, 1946, Miss Liberty, 1949, Call Me Madam, 1950, and Mr. President, 1962. Films include Puttin' on the Ritz, 1929, The Cocoanuts, 1929, Top Hat, 1935, Follow the Fleet, 1936, On the Avenue, 1937, Carefree, 1938, Alexander's Ragtime Band, 1938, Second Fiddle, 1939, Holiday Inn, 1942, This Is the Army, 1943, Blue Skies, 1946, Easter Parade, 1948, Annie Get Your Gun, 1950, Call Me Madam, 1953, and White Christmas, 1954.
- Selective Works
- Annie Get Your Gun (selections), RCA Victor, 1966, reissued, 1988.
- Call Me Madam (selections), MCA, 1973.
- The Vintage Berlin New World Records, 1977.
- Say It All with Music Monmouth Evergree, 1978.
- The Girl on the Magazine Cover RCA Victor, 1979, reissued, 1988.
- Blue Skies Nonesuch, 1985.
- Rosemary Clooney Sings the Music of Irving Berlin King Record Co., 1985.
- Bennett/Berlin Columbia Records, 1987.
- Remember: Michael Feinstein Sings Irving Berlin Elektra, 1987.
- Songs of Irving Berlin CRI, 1988.
- Irving Berlin: A Hundred Years (recorded 1930-58), Columbia, 1988.
- The Irving Berlin 100th Anniversary Collection MCA, 1988.
- The Irving Berlin Songbook: A Centennial Celebration RCA, 1988.
- Holiday Inn and Blue Skies (soundtrack), Vintage Jazz Classics, 1990.
- Mr. President Sony Broadway, 1992.
- Bergreen, Laurence, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin, Viking, 1990.
- Freedland, Michael, Irving Berlin, W. H. Allen, 1974.
- Whitcomb, Ian, Irving Berlin and Ragtime America, Century, 1987.
- Woollcott, Alexander, The Story of Irving Berlin, Putnam, 1925.
- American History Illustrated, May 1988.
- American Magazine, December 1920.
- Commentary, October 1990.
- Esquire, January 1990.
- New York Journal American, September 4, 1938.
- Newsweek, October 2, 1989.
- Opera News, December 9, 1989.
- People, October 9, 1989.
- Stereo Review, February 1988.
- Time, May 16, 1988; October 2, 1989.
- U.S. News and World Report, May 9, 1988.