Irving Berlin’s career spanned sixty years from his first song in 1907, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” to “An Old Fashioned Wedding,” written in 1966 for a revival of Annie Get Your Gun. In truth, Berlin kept writing songs into the 1970s though none was performed. Along the way he kept abreast of America’s changing tastes in popular song. We are so familiar with the giant careers of our greatest songwriters, Berlin, Gershwin, Arlen, Porter, etc., that we forget what a monumental achievement it is to sustain a career through decades of change. This ability to connect with the common man over many years requires a special talent that the great songwriters themselves are very likely unaware of.
A 1910 newspaper article quotes Berlin about staying in favor: “Songwriting all depends on the public. The thing it likes one minute, it tires of the next. Just now for some reason the public wants to have some fun with the marriage relation. Get up a song panning the husband or the wife, roast them, have some fun with them, show up some of the little funny streaks in domestic life and your fortune is made, at least for the moment. Pretty soon the public will tire of these and then you must be able to switch your lyre to something else. If not a new writer will take your place and your star which rose so suddenly will set as rapidly as it came up.”
The one period during which the great songwriters attempted to appropriate foreign (to them) musical styles was when the rock era arrived—and the experiment was an abject failure. In the sixties, Berlin wrote “The Washington Twist” for his last show, Mr. President; Cole Porter gave us “The Ritz Roll and Rock” for the film version of Silk Stockings; Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green parodied stupid pop songs with Do Re Mi’s “What’s New at the Zoo.” Or was it a parody?
Berlin was the Elvis of American popular song, in that he borrowed black musical idioms and transformed them into music that the average white guy could accept. His use of black ragtime syncopations caused a sensation—but he was just doing what came natur’lly as he had been exposed to a variety of non-traditional musical forms during his childhood. When Berlin was five, his family left Russia and settled on the Lower East Side of New York. After the death of his father, when he was eight, he left school and by his teens was singing in Bowery saloons and restaurants. Songwriting was just becoming a big business, and he began writing lyrics for others’ tunes and plugging songs for publishers. His first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy,” had music by Mike Nicholson.
Although he never learned to read music, Berlin was on the way to becoming a professional songwriter. In 1909, he was hired as a staff lyricist by the Ted Snyder Company, and soon Berlin was matching his words to his own music. The next year he performed in vaudeville, quickly moving on to musical comedy in Up and Down Broadway. His first success, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” catapulted Berlin to the top of his field. Some would argue that he never lost his perch as the greatest American songwriter. (KB)
One of the top 25 holiday songs of all time, “White Christmas” was written in New York City by Irving Berlin who was inspired by thinking back to his years in Hollywood and how he would long to be in New York for the holidays. He wrote the song in one day, plus a few more hours for polishing the melody and lyric. Introduced by Crosby in the film Holiday Inn, the song continues to be a remarkable success, boasting over 500 recordings that have sold over 30 million copies. More than 21 million of those were Crosby’s version.White Christmas
When faced with the deaths of his wife and mother, Irving Berlin decamped to the Ritz Hotel in Atlantic City. He wrote “All Alone” as an expression of his sadness.All Alone
Berlin’s musical secretary, Arthur Johnston (who would later become a successful songwriter in his own right), had a girlfriend named Mona. She asked Berlin to write a song for her and Berlin obliged with a song titled, “I’ll Be Loving You, Mona.” Years later, in 1925, Berlin amended the song for the Marx Brothers stage vehicle The Cocoanuts, substituting the word “always” for “Mona.” The rest of the lyrics were inspired by Berlin’s love for Ellin Mackay, soon to be his wife.Always
Never has a romance resulted in more great standards than that of Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay. His three greatest songs were written at the beginning of the affair, when Berlin was trying desperately to overcome the objections of Ellin’s powerful father. Mackay decided to send his daughter on a cruise, figuring that a long ocean voyage and crisp salt air would drive that skinny, Jewish songwriter right out of her heart.Remember
The music to “Easter Parade” was born as “Smile and Show Your Dimple” in 1917. Berlin took out the saccharine and slowed down the tempo to create “Easter Parade” for the show As Thousands Cheer.Easter Parade
This is the longest song written by Irving Berlin.Cheek to Cheek
One of the rejected songs from As Thousands Cheer, “Cheek to Cheek” took only a day to write, but it was one of Berlin’s most infectious songs. Fred Astaire sang in to Ginger Rogers later, in Top Hat.Cheek to Cheek
“God Bless America” was written in 1918 as part of the score for Irving Berlin’s army show, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, but he decided that it was a little too patriotic and put it in the proverbial trunk. In the fall of 1938, with the demise of the Munich Pact, Berlin returned from Europe knowing there would be a war. He wanted to come up with a patriotic song and remembered “God Bless America.” Among the changes he made was the addition of a verse that went, “When the storm clouds gather far across the sea, let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.”
Kate Smith’s manager seized on it as the perfect patriotic song for her Armistice Day broadcast. Smith wanted to sing it with a marshal beat but Berlin prevailed upon her to sing it more lyrically. Smith sang the song per Berlin’s instructions and it went over fantastically. Berlin was so excited he went down to the network to hear Smith sing it again for the West Coast feed. Originally, Smith sang “From the green fields of Virginia to the gold fields out in Nome. Make her victorious on land and foam.” Berlin subsequently changed the lyric.
Hearing Kate Smith sing the song, Congress was urged by thousands of citizens to make the song the new National Anthem. Berlin and Smith said no.
Smith sang the song on December 11, 1969, before a Philadelphia Flyers hockey games which they won. She was made an unofficial mascot of the team and sang the song prior to many games including two Stanley Cup finals (which the Flyers won). Her career record for the flyers: 64-15-3.
“God Bless America” was the last song she sang, on a Bicentennial special.God Bless America
Mary Ellin Barrett, daughter of Irving Berlin recalls, “I was eleven years old when I first heard “God Bless America.” Now, to me, this was a very strange Irving Berlin song because I knew my father as this jazzy, sophisticated or earthy vernacular writer of songs like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Cheek to Cheek.” And then it began creeping up on me. I came to understand that it wasn’t “God bless America, land that we love.” It was “God bless America, land that I love.” It was an incredibly personal statement that my father was making, that anybody singing that song makes as they sing it. And I understood that that song was his thank-you to the country that had take him in. It was the song of the immigrant boy who made good.”God Bless America
Though it is considered a ragtime song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” bears little relationship to traditional ragtime. After the huge success of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, the first white songwriter to capitalize on the new rhythms and counterpoint was Joseph E. Howard, in the song “Hello, Ma Baby,” which he wrote that very same year. In 1902, Hughie Cannon wrote the ragtime tune “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.” It took Berlin longer to absorb the rag influences but when he finally did he was generally accepted as the first white songwriter to incorporate ragtime. Songs like “Play Some Ragtime” (1910), “Stop That Rag,” and “Yiddle on Your Fiddle” helped establish his reputation.Alexander’s Ragtime Band
One of the most famous songs to come from a Rodgers and Hart show wasn’t even written by them. Berlin’s “Blue Skies” was interpolated into the show Betsy and sung by Belle Baker. The opening-night reception was tumultuous, with Baker enjoying 24 encores—the last with composer Irving Berlin, who was summoned up from the audience. Talk about stopping the show!Blue Skies
Irving Berlin to Ed Sullivan: “I never wanted to be a songwriter. All I wanted in those days was a job in which I could earn $25.00 a week. That was my idea of heaven. But a bartender in another Bowery saloon, Al Piantadosi, had written a song, an Italian type of tune, and ‘Nigger Mike’ sneered at us and asked us why we didn’t write something. So Mike Nicholson and myself wrote 'Marie from Sunny Italy,' and split it 33 cents apiece. That was in 1907, Joe Schenck, the drug clerk around the corner, bought a copy. I think he was the only one.”Marie from Sunny Italy
Irving Berlin: “‘My Wife’s Gone to the Country’ was my first big hit and I got the idea of that from a Chicago fellow: He and I were having a little drink and chat near dinner time and, noting the clock, I said to him, ‘Almost supper time. Suppose you’ve got to be beating it home?’ He said, ‘Oh, no! My wife’s not in the city.’ Now you’ll probably laugh, but right then and there it occurred to me that ‘My Wife’s Gone to the Country’ would be a capital name for a popular song. The music buzzed into my head. I got somebody to write it and there I was.”My Wife's Gone to the Country (Hurrah! Hurrah!)
“What’ll I Do” came to Berlin when he was slightly drunk on champagne and feeling sorry for himself at a birthday party. It seems Berlin wasn’t good enough for Clarence Mackay, the industrialist father of Ellin Mackay, Berlin’s intended. Eventually, Berlin got the girl and a hit song in the bargain.What'll I Do
Tommy Dorsey wrote in the June 1938 Metronome, “We were playing a theatre in Philly once upon a time, and there was a colored band playing the same show called the Sunset Royal Serenaders [led by Doc Wheeler]. They had this arrangement of ‘Marie’ and all of us in the band liked it; in fact, after a couple of days we all knew it by heart. I figured that we could do more with it than they could, and so I traded them about eight of our arrangements for one of theirs.
“The funny part of it is that I tried to get Eli Oberstein to let us record it. Eli couldn’t see it, and so I tried it out on our studio audience after one of our commercials. It went over so big that I tried it out on the program. We got so many requests that we had to repeat it the next week. It was then that Oberstein let us record it.” The song was a huge hit for Victor.Marie
"But if there never has been a real song hit in a show of mine, at least I once came close. Back in 1925 Irving Berlin and I teamed up on a deep study of psychology called The Cocoanuts, for the Marx Brothers. Most of the work was done in a hotel suite in Atlantic City, and long after I went to bed each night Irving would be busy at the piano. At exactly five o’clock one morning he woke me up.
"'I’ve got it!' he cried. 'Come on out to the piano!'
"Business was business, even that hour, so I pulled myself together and obeyed. Once at the piano, Irving played and sang for me a little number entitled ‘Always.’
"Even my deficient musical sense recognized that here was a song that was going to be popular. I listened to it two or three times, then took a stab at it myself, and as dawn came up over the Atlantic, Irving and I were happily singing ‘Always’ together—its first performance on any stage.
"I went back to bed a happy man and stayed happy until rehearsals started, when it turned out that ‘Always’ had not been written for our show at all, but purely for Irving’s music-publishing house. In its place in The Cocoanuts was a song called 'A Little Bungalow,' which we never could reprise in Act Two because the actors couldn’t remember it that long.… Ah, me!”George S. Kaufman
“Irving Berlin sat down at a piano and said, ‘Listen to this.’ I listened. I couldn’t hear any tune at all. I asked him to play it again. It sounded just as bad, and while he played I kept telling myself that this was Irving Berlin and I must be crazy. It couldn’t be as awful as it sounded. And then I had an idea. ‘Irving,’ I said, ‘will you please play “Remember?’ He played it, and then I knew what was wrong. Because ‘Remember’ sounded just as terrible. It was his piano-playing. And the tune he had first played turned out to be ‘Soft Lights and Sweet Music,’ which turned out to be the hit song of Face the Music. After that I managed to learn how to hear anything he played in spite of his piano-playing, and I learned something else, too. I apparently had the faculty of picking a good tune. I say this not immodestly, because it has been my ruination. Berlin didn’t like ‘Soft Lights and Sweet Music,’ but I fought for it, and it stayed in the show. When we were writing As Thousands Cheer, he played me ‘Easter Parade’ one day, and then tossed it into the wastebasket. I fought for it. He fought against it. I won, but actually I lost. Because when ‘Easter Parade’ turned out to be the hit of As Thousands Cheer I knew I was a ruined man.
“From that moment on, I knew I was lost. There is a subtle lure in hearing a score for the first time—an enormous concession to one’s vanity in picking correctly. Composers never know their own strength. Richard Rodgers can be talked out of any song—he is the most frightened composer of them all. One harsh look and he completely believes his song is no good.”Moss Hart
“My father was a complex man with a difficult as well as a bright side to him, especially in the late years. Certainly he was always full of paradox, that tight-fisted businessman who gave away millions. Most importantly, he was a very fine human being, a man of warmth and charm and integrity who earned the love and respect of many, many people in and out of the family. As I wrote in my own book, his capacity for enthusiasm was as boundless as his capacity for melancholy.”Mary Ellin Barrett