Everyone is fond of quoting Jerome Kern's famous assessment that "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Remarkably, this tribute was made in the mid-1930s, at a point in time when Berlin had already been writing songs for nearly three decades, and still had three more decades' activity ahead of him. Born in a Russian Jewish ghetto to a cantor and his wife, Berlin was five when he and his family emigrated to America. Growing up on New York's Lower East Side, young Berlin sang for pennies on the streets, then moved up the performing scale to become a singing waiter. Though he never learned to read music, Berlin had taught himself piano sufficiently enough to write his first song, "Marie of Sunny Italy," in 1907; his first hit was 1911's "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Because he was only able to compose his songs in the key of F sharp major, he had a special key-transposing piano built to order. Berlin contributed songs to several editions of The Ziegfeld Follies (the 1919 edition featured his "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody"), and to dozens of Broadway musicals. Unlike such composers as Jerome Kern and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Berlin wrote his songs independently of the libretto; as a result, it is possible to compile a list of Berlin's hits without knowing, or caring, what shows they were written for (he would not compose a genuine "integrated" musical--with songs specifically written to advance the plot--until 1945's Annie Get Your Gun). So prolific and successful was Berlin that some of his rivals circulated the rumor that he was not the author of his songs, but that in fact Berlin was exploiting an anonymous, underpaid black composer whom he kept hidden somewhere in Harlem! Berlin's association with movies began literally at the dawn of the talkie era: his "Blue Skies" was performed by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). The first of his Broadway musicals to be adapted for films (and the only one without a hit song) was the 1929 Marx Bros. vehicle The Cocoanuts. Berlin wrote both the score and the original story for Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Reaching for the Moon (1931), but when the producers decided to cut all but one of the songs before the film's release, the experience soured Berlin to the extent that he would not work in Hollywood again for another three years. Fortunately for us all, he returned to pen the tunes for such films as Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), On the Avenue (1936), Second Fiddle (1939), Easter Parade (1948), and of course Holiday Inn (1942), whence came the composer's most popular song, the Oscar-winning "White Christmas." Though Berlin's life story (his escape from Russia, his rise to fame, the tragic death of his first wife, his later elopement with a WASP heiress, etc.) had enough drama for ten films, he steadfastly refused to allow a biopic to be filmed. As compensation, Hollywood turned out several "catalogue" musicals in which Berlin's previously written songs were presented chronologically to reflect the social and political changes in 20th-century American society: Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Blue Skies (1946), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954). Berlin himself appeared on camera to sing (more or less) his own "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," in This is the Army (1943), a film which also featured Kate Smith singing God Bless America, Berlin's favorite song--and the one for which he never earned a penny (he donated all royalties to the Boy Scouts of America). Berlin's last film work was his title song for 1957's Sayonara; five years later, he retired from Broadway with the disappointing Mr. President. Despite his hermit-like existence in his later years, Berlin continued to govern the activities of his own music-publishing company (formed in 1919) with an iron hand. In 1961, he briefly emerged from his cocoon to unsuccessfully sue the publishers of Mad magazine for printing parody lyrics to several of his more popular works. Twenty-five years later, he showed up in Washington DC to accept the Medal of Liberty from President Reagan. Irving Berlin's last public appearance was at a star-studded celebration given in honor of his 100th birthday.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Father was a cantor; the family emigrated to the United States in 1893.
- The family's last name in Russia was Beilin; it was changed to Baline at Ellis Island.
- His first hit ballad was called "When I Lost You," which he wrote after the death of his first wife, who died of typhoid contracted on their honeymoon.
- Drafted into the army at the age of 30 during World War I, he worked writing patriotic songs.
- One of the founders of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).
- Never learned to read and write music; had a special piano made that changed keys with a lever and had someone else transcribe his songs.
- Had proceeds from the royalties of "God Bless America" donated to the Boys and Girl Scouts of America.