Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989) was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in history.
His first hit song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band", became world famous. The song sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as Russia, which also "flung itself into the ragtime beat with an abandon bordering on mania." Over the years he was known for writing music and lyrics in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, simple and direct, with his aim being to "reach the heart of the average American" whom he saw as the "real soul of the country."
He wrote hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, which made him "a legend" before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films, with his songs nominated eight times for Academy Awards. Many songs became popular themes and anthems, including "Easter Parade", "White Christmas", "Happy Holiday", "This is the Army, Mr. Jones", and "There's No Business Like Show Business". His Broadway musical and 1942 film, This is the Army, with Ronald Reagan, had Kate Smith singing Berlin's "God Bless America" which was first performed in 1938. After the September 11 attacks in 2001, Celine Dion recorded it as a tribute, making it #1 on the charts.
Berlin's songs have reached the top of the charts 25 times and have been re-recorded countless times by singers including Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Ethel Waters, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, Diana Ross, Bing Crosby, Rita Reys, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Al Jolson, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Composer Douglas Moore sets Berlin apart from all other contemporary songwriters, and includes him instead with Stephen Foster, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg, as a "great American minstrel" – someone who has "caught and immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about, and what we believe." Composer George Gershwin called him "the greatest songwriter that has ever lived",:117 and composer Jerome Kern concluded that "Irving Berlin has no place in American music - he is American music."
Life in Russia
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Baline. His birthplace is Tyumen, in Eastern Russia. His father, a cantor in a Jewish synagogue, uprooted the family to America, as did many other Jewish families in late 19th century. In 1893 they settled in New York City. According to his biographer, Laurence Bergreen, as an adult Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia except for one: "he was lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes.":10
Author and music historian Ian Whitcomb described Berlin's life in Russia:
Life might have seemed irksome to Israel Baline:God was watching you everywhere. From the dawn bath to the night straw cot, everything was of religious significance. God was in the food and in the clothing. When Moses caught Israel pulling on his little shoes in a manner proscribed by the Talmud he beat him…
The floor of the Baline hut-home was of hard black dirt. Outside, the squiggly streets of Tyumen were either mud or dust according to the season. Lining the squiggles were horrid wooden huts. Sometimes wild pigs would rage into town and bite children to death…It was not a setting to sing about…Instead, cantor Moses took his children to the synagogue where, in soothing sing-song readings from the Talmud, the cares of the day were eased away. Life in Tyumen sounds pretty awful but, in later years, Irving Berlin said he was unaware of being raised in abject poverty. He knew no other life and there was always hot food on the table, even if it was God-riddled.
Whitcomb also describes further the turning point in Berlin's early life:
But, suddenly one day, the Cossacks rampaged in on a pogrom... they simply burned it to the ground. Israel and his family watched from a distant road. Israel was wrapped in a warm feather quilt. Then they made a hasty exit. Knowing that they were breaking the law by leaving without a passport ( Russia at that time was the only country requiring passports), the Balines smuggled themselves creepingly from town to town, from satellite to satellite, from sea to shining sea, until finally they reached their star: the Statue of Liberty.:19
The new Tsar of Russia, notes Whitcomb, had revived with utmost brutality the anti-Jewish pogroms, which created the spontaneous mass exodus to America. The pogroms were to continue until 1906, and thousands of other families besides the Balines would also escape, including those of George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, L. Wolfe Gilbert ("Waiting for the Robert E. Lee"), Jack Yellen ("Happy Days Are Here Again"), and Louis B. Mayer (MGM).:14
Settling in New York City
They eventually settled on Cherry Street, a "cold-water basement flat with no windows," on the Lower East Side. His father, unable to find comparable work as a cantor in New York, took a job at a Kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons on the side, and struggled to support his family. He died a few years later when Irving was eight years old. With only two years of schooling, he found it necessary to take to the streets to help support his family. He became a newspaper boy, hawking The Evening Journal. On his first day on the job, according to Berlin’s biographer and friend, Alexander Woollcott, the boy “stopped to look at a ship about to put out for China. So entranced was he that he failed to notice a swinging crane, and he was knocked into the river. When he was fished out, after going down for the third time, he was still holding in his clenched fist the five pennies that constituted his first day's receipts, his contribution to the family budget.” His mother took jobs as a midwife, and three of his sisters worked wrapping cigars, common for immigrant girls. His older brother worked in a sweatshop assembling shirts. Each evening, when the family came home from their day's work, Bergreen writes, "they would deposit the coins they had earned that day into Lena's outspread apron.":11
Music historian Philip Furia writes that when eight-year-old "Izzy" quit school to sell newspapers in the Bowery, he no doubt would "hear the hits of the day drift through the doors of saloons and restaurants" that lined the streets of New York. He found that if he sang some of the songs while selling papers, people would toss him coins in appreciation, which gave him a vision of things to come. One night to his mother, he "confessed his life's ambition—to become a singing waiter in a saloon.":48
Before turning fourteen, according to Woollcott, he began to realize that "he contributed less than the least of his sisters... and he was sick with a sense of his own worthlessness." Bergreen writes that it was at this point that he left home to become a "foot soldier in the city's ragged army of immigrants." Berlin entered a lifestyle along the Bowery where an entire subindustry of lodging houses had sprung up to shelter the thousands of homeless boys choking the Lower East Side streets. "They were not settlement houses or charitable institutions; rather, they were Dickensian in their meanness, filth, and insensitivity to ordinary human beings.":15
With few survival skills and little education, he realized that formal employment was out of the question. His only ability was acquired from his father's vocation: singing. He joined with a few other youngsters and went to saloons on the Bowery to sing to customers. These itinerant young singers, were common on the Lower East Side. He would sing a few of the popular ballads he heard on the street, hoping that customers would "pitch a few pennies in his direction." As Bergreen notes, "it was in these seamy surroundings that the runaway boy received his real and lasting education." Music became his sole source of income and he emerged culturally from the ghetto lifestyle, learning the "language of the street."
To survive he began to recognize the kind of songs that appealed to audiences: "well-known tunes expressing simple sentiments were the most reliable.":17 He began plugging songs at Tony Pastor's Music Hall in Union Square and finally, in 1906 when he was 18, working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. Besides serving drinks, he sang made-up "blue" parodies of hit songs to the delight of customers. Berlin biographer Charles Hamm writes that "in his free time he taught himself to play the piano." When the bar closed for the night, young Berlin would sit at a piano in the back and pick out tunes. His first attempt at songwriting was "Marie From Sunny Italy," written in collaboration with the Pelham's resident pianist, Mike Nicholson, and at the same time he began using the name Irving Berlin, being easier for others to remember. (Berlin never learned to play in more than one key and used a custom-made 1940 Weser Brothers piano with a transposing lever to change keys.)
Berlin admired the words to the songs but the rhythms were "kind of boggy". One night he delivered some hits by friend George M. Cohan, another kid who was getting known on Broadway with his own songs. When Berlin ended with Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Boy," notes Whichtomb, "everybody in the joint applauded the feisty little fellow. Some tarts said they felt proud to be American; a couple of thugs, who specialized in chewing off ears and breaking legs, gave Izzy the nod. And Connors, the saloon's Irish owner, said, 'You know what you are, me boy? You're the Yiddishe Yankee Doodle!'":26
Rudyard Kipling, living up the coast during that period, "was shocked and intrigued by the screeching squalor he found in the dirty gray tenement canyons of immigrant New York," writes Whitcomb. "He thought it worse than the notorious slums of Bombay. But he was impressed and moved by the Jews, noting the little immigrant boys saluting the Stars and Stripes." Kipling wrote, "For these immigrant Jews are a race that survives and thrives against all odds and flags.":20
Recognition as songwriter
Max Winslow, a staff member at music publisher Harry Von Tilzer Company, noticed Berlin's singing on many occasions and became so taken with his talent that he tried to get him a job with his firm. Von Tilzer described an episode in his autobiography:
Max Winslow came to me and said, "I have discovered a great kid, I would like to see you write some songs with." Max raved about him so much that I said, "Who is he?" He said a boy down on the east side by the name of Irving Berlin... I said, "Max, How can I write with him, you know I have got the best lyric writers in the country?" But Max would not stop boosting Berlin to me, and I want to say right here that Berlin can attribute a great deal of his success to Max Winslow.":viii
In 1908, at the age of 20, Berlin took a new job at a saloon in the Union Square neighborhood. There, he was able to collaborate with other young songwriters, such as Edgar Leslie, Ted Snyder, Al Piantadosi, and George A. Whiting, and in 1909, the year of the premiere of Israel Zangwill's The Melting Pot, he got his big break as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company.
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911)
From this early position, Hamm writes, his "meteoric rise as a songwriter" in Tin Pan Alley and then on Broadway, began with his first world-famous hit song, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," in 1911. As a result of his instant notoriety, he was the feature performer later that year at Oscar Hammerstein's vaudeville house, where he introduced dozens of other songs to the audience. The New York Telegraph wrote a story about the event, reporting that a "delegation of two hundred of his friends from the pent and huddled East Side appeared... to see 'their boy.'" The news story added that "all the little writer could do was to finger the buttons on his coat while tears ran down his cheeks--in a vaudeville house!":ix
Richard Corliss, wrote about the song in a Time magazine profile of Berlin in 2001:
"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 and subsequent releases, the song was consistently near the top of the charts: Bessie Smith, in 1927, and Louis Armstrong, in 1937; # 1 by Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell; Al Jolson, in 1947. Johnny Mercer in 1945, and Nellie Lutcher in 1948. Add Ray Charles's big-band version in 1959, and "Alexander" had a dozen hit versions in a bit under a half century.
Despite its success, the song was not initially recognized as a hit: at a private audition of the song to Broadway producer Jesse Lasky, Lasky’s response was uncertain, although he did put it in his “Folies” show. After a number of performances as an instrumental, the song did not impress audiences, and was soon dropped from the show’s score, causing Berlin to regard it as a “dead failure.” But later that year, after writing lyrics to the music, it played again in another Broadway Review, and Variety news weekly proclaimed the song "the musical sensation of the decade.":68 Composer George Gershwin, foreseeing its influence, said, "The first real American musical work is 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.' Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.":117
Sparking a national dance craze
Enjoying early success circa 1911
Berlin was "flabbergasted" by the sudden international popularity of the song, and began to ask himself "Why? Why?" Berlin later wrote,
And I got an answer. The melody... started the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking. The lyric, silly though it was, was fundamentally right.:69
- "Watch Your Step"
Furia writes that the international success of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" gave ragtime "new life and sparked a national dance craze." Two dancers who expressed that craze were Irene and Vernon Castle. In 1914, Berlin wrote a ragtime revue, "Watch Your Step," which starred the couple and showcased their talents on stage. That musical revue became Berlin's first complete score and Furia notes that "its songs radiated musical and lyrical sophistication." Berlin's ragtime songs, he adds, had "quickly come to signify modernism, and Berlin caught the cultural struggle between Victorian gentility and the purveyors of liberation, indulgence, and leisure with songs such as "Play a Simple Melody." That particular song, according to Furia, also became the first of his famous "double" songs in which two different melodies and lyrics are counterpointed against one another.
Variety called it "The First Syncopated Musical," where the "sets and the girls were gorgeous." But most of the success or otherwise of the show was riding on the Berlin name, according to Whitcomb. He notes that Variety... marked the show as a "terrific hit" from opening night alone:
Irving Berlin stands out like the Times building does in the Square. That youthful marvel of syncopated melody is proving things in 'Watch Your Step', firstly that he is not alone a rag composer, and that he is one of the greatest lyric writers America has ever produced.... Besides rags Berlin wrote a polka that was very pretty, and he intermingled ballads with trots, which, including the grand opera medley, gives 'Watch Your Step' all the kind of music there is.:173
Whitcomb also points out the irony that Russia, the country Berlin's family was forced to leave, flung itself into "the ragtime beat with an abandon bordering on mania":
... like a display of medieval religious frenzy; some seemed to be doing a dance of death. Lady Diana Manners, at a London ball reviving the Age of Chivalry, was escorted by Prince Felix Yusupov. This young man, a recent Oxford undergraduate, had an impeccable Russian noble lineage: a descendant of Frederick of Prussia, he was heir to the largest estate in Russia, he would be richer than the Tsar. He was exquisite and heavily bejewelled, but Lady Diana was irritated by his 'wriggling around the ballroom like a demented worm, screaming for 'more ragtime and more champagne'.:183
Lady Diana Manners was apparently not alone in her dislike of ragtime. A newspaper clipping found in Berlin's scrapbook included an article titled, "Calls Ragtime Insanity Sign":
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" is a public menace.... The authority for these statements is Dr. Ludwig Gruener of Berlin, a German [doctor] who has devoted twenty years' study to the criminally insane.... He says, 'Hysteria is the form of insanity that an abnormal love for ragtime seems to produce. It is as much a mental disease as acute mania—it has the same symptoms. When there is nothing done to check this form it produces idiocy'. He also stated that 90 percent of the inmates of the American asylums he has visited are abnormally fond of ragtime.:23
Simple and romantic ballads
In future years he made every effort to write lyrics in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, simple and direct, once stating:
My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.
Berlin also created songs out of his own sadness. In 1912, he married Dorothy Goetz, the sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz. She died six months later of typhoid fever contracted during their honeymoon in Havana. The song he wrote to express his grief, "When I Lost You," was his first ballad. It was an immediate popular hit and sold more than a million copies. In 1916, he collaborated with Victor Herbert on the score of "The Century Girl."
He began to realize that the slang of ragtime would be an "inappropriate idiom for serious romantic expression," and over the next few years would begin to adapt his style by writing more love songs. In 1915 he wrote the hit, "I Love a Piano," which was an erotic, but comical, ragtime love song (Read lyrics).
By 1918 he had written hundreds of songs, mostly topical, which enjoyed brief popularity. Many of the songs were for the new dances then appearing, such as the "grizzly bear," "chicken walk," or fox trot. After a Hawaiian dance craze began, he wrote "That Hula-Hula," and then did a string of southern songs, such as "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam." During this period he was creating a few new songs every week, including numerous rags and songs aimed at the various immigrant cultures arriving from Europe. Furia tells of a train trip Berlin was on where he decided to entertain the fellow passengers. Later on they asked him how he knew so many hit songs, and Berlin would modestly reply, "I wrote them.":53
One of the key songs that Berlin wrote in his transition from ragtime to lyrical ballads was "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," which was considered one of Berlin's "first big guns," according to historian Alec Wilder. The song was written for Ziegfeld's Follies of 1919 and became the musical's leading song. Its popularity was so great that it became the theme for all of Ziegfeld's revues, and later the theme song in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld (Watch). Wilder puts it "on a level with Jerome Kern's "pure melodies," and in comparison with Berlin's earlier music, finds it "extraordinary that such a development in style and sophistication should have taken place in a single year.":53
World War I
On 1 April 1917 President Woodrow Wilson declared that America would enter World War I, and, as Whitcomb writes:
The beleaguered Allies would be rescued from the evil Central Powers
by a noble American game-plan and a barrel of morals.... The whistle was blown, the game was on. There must be no shirkers or doubters in the team. Americans must pull together as one man or else. Said President Wilson: 'Woe to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way in this day of high resolution!' Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, and, especially, German-Americans, must now be plain, straight-ahead Americans.
Tin Pan Alley would do its duty and support the slogan at the time that "Music is essential to win the war." Berlin joined the effort and wrote, "For Your Country and My Country," adding "we must speak with the sword not the pen to show our appreciation to America for opening up her heart and welcoming every immigrant group." He then joined with George Meyer and his old colleague Edgar Leslie in a song that demanded an end to ethnicity: "Let's All Be Americans Now.":197
- "Yip Yip Yaphank"
In 1917 Berlin was drafted into the army, and the news of his induction became headline news: "Army Takes Berlin!" one paper read. However, the army only wanted Berlin, now aged 30, to do what he knew best: to write songs of patriotism. Hence, while stationed at Camp Upton in New York, he composed an all-soldier musical revue titled "Yip Yip Yaphank", written to be patriotic tribute to the United States Army. By the following summer the show was taken to Broadway where it also included a number of hits, including "Mandy" and "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which he performed himself. The shows earned $150,000 for a camp service center. One song he wrote for the show but decided not use, he would introduce twenty years later: "God Bless America."
According to Whitcomb, "at the grand finale, General Bell made a thank-you speech from his box, while Sergeant Berlin, on stage, declined to utter a word. Then, under orders from the War Department, Sergeant Berlin led the entire 300-person cast off the stage, marching them down the theater's aisles, singing 'We're on Our Way to France,' all to tumultuous applause. The cast carried off their little producer like he was victor ludorum." Berlin's mother, having seen her son perform for the first (and last) time in her life, was shocked. The soldier-actors continued out into the downtown street and up the plank to the waiting troop carrier. "Tin Pan Alley had joined hands with real life," writes Whitcomb.:199Watch
1920 to 1940
Berlin returned to Tin Pan Alley after the war and in 1921 created a partnership with Sam Harris to build the Music Box Theater. He maintained an interest in the theater throughout his life, and even in his last years was known to call the Shubert Organization, his partner, to check on the receipts. In its early years, the theater was a showcase for revues by Berlin. As theater owner, producer and composer, he looked after every detail of his shows, from the costumes and sets to the casting and musical arrangements.
According to Berlin biographer David Leopold, the theater, located at 239 West 45th St., was the only Broadway house built to accommodate the works of a songwriter. It was the home of Berlin's "Music Box Revue" from 1921 to 1925 and "As Thousands Cheer" in 1933 and today includes an exhibition devoted to Berlin in the lobby.
Various hit songs
By 1926, Berlin had written the scores to two editions of the Ziegfeld Follies and four "Music Box Revues." Life magazine called him the "Lullaby Kid," noting that "couples at country-club dances grew misty-eyed when the band went into "Always," because they were positive that Berlin had written it just for them. When they quarreled and parted in the crepuscular bitter-sweetness of the 1920s, it was Berlin who gave eloquence to their heartbreak by way of "What'll I Do" and "Remember" and "All Alone."
- "What'll I Do?" (1924)
This ballad of love and longing was a #1 hit for Paul Whiteman and had five other top-12 renditions in 1924. Twenty-four years later, the song went to #22 for Nat Cole and #23 for Frank Sinatra.
- "Always" (1925)
Written when he fell in love with Ellin Mackay, who later became his wife. The song became #1 twice (for Vincent Lopez and George Olsen) in its first incarnation. There were four more hit versions in 1944-45. In 1959 Sammy Turner took the song to #2 on the R&B chart. It became Patsy Cline's postmortem anthem and hit #18 on the country chart in 1980, 17 years after her death, and a tribute musical called "Patsy Cline ... Always," played a two-year Nashville run that ended in 1995.
- Blue Skies" (1926)
Written after his first daughter's birth as a song just for her. In it he distilled his feelings about being married and a father for the first time: "Blue days, all of them gone; nothing but blue skies, from now on." #1 for Ben Selvin with five other hits in 1927 besides being the first song performed by Al Jolson in the first feature sound film, "The Jazz Singer," that same year. In 1946 it returned to the top 10 on the charts with Count Basie and Benny Goodman. In 1978, Willie Nelson made the song a #1 country hit—52 years after it was written.
- "Marie" (1929)
This waltz-time hit went to #2 with Rudy Vallee and in 1937 reached #1 with Tommy Dorsey. It was again on the charts at #13 in 1953 for The Four Tunes and at #15 for the Bachelors in 1965–36 years after its first appearance.
- "Puttin' on the Ritz" (1930)
An instant standard with one of Berlin's most "intricately syncopated choruses," this song is associated with Fred Astaire, who danced to it in the 1946 film "Blue Skies." It was first sung by Harry Richman in 1930 and became a #1 hit, and in 1939 Clark Gable sang it in the movie "Idiot's Delight." It was also featured in the movie Young Frankenstein by Mel Brooks and a #4 hit for the techno artist Taco in 1983.
- "Say It Isn't So" (1932)
Rudy Vallee performed it on his radio show, and the song was a #1 hit for George Olsen and awarded top-10 positions with versions by Connee Boswell and Ozzie Nelson's band. In 1963 Aretha Franklin produced a single of the song in 1963–31 years later. Furia notes that when Rudy Vallee first introduced the song on his radio show, the "song not only became an overnight hit, it saved Vallee's marriage: The Vallees had planned to get a divorce, but after Vallee sang Berlin's romantic lyrics on the air, "both he and his wife dissolved in tears" and decided to stay together.
- "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" (1937)
Performed by Dick Powell in the 1937 film "On the Avenue." Later it had four top-12 versions, including by Billie Holiday and Les Brown, who took it to #1.
"God Bless America" (1938)
Singing "God Bless America" at the Pentagon
memorial dedication, September 11, 2008
Written by Berlin twenty years earlier, he filed it away until 1938, when Kate Smith's manager asked Berlin if he had a patriotic song Smith might sing to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day. It was "a simple plea for divine protection in a dark time — a plangent anthem in just 40 words," writes Corliss. It quickly became the second National Anthem after America entered World War II and over the decades has earned millions for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to whom Berlin assigned all royalties. The phrase "God Bless America" was taken from Berlin's mother:
While he was growing up on the Lower East Side, she would say "God bless America" often, to indicate that, without America, her family would have had no place to go.The Economist magazine wrote that by writing "God Bless America", Berlin was "producing a deep-felt paean to the country that had given him what he would have said was everything. It is a melody that still makes his fellow countrymen want to stand up and place their hands over their hearts." 
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, U.S. senators and congressmen stood on the capitol steps and sang it after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Two nights later, when Broadway turned its lights back on, the casts of numerous shows led theatergoers in renditions of the same song.
Richard Corliss notes that the next day, at an official requiem at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., it was played by the U.S. Army Orchestra. The following Monday, to mark the reopening of the New York Stock Exchange, New York Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani joined traders in singing it. That evening, as major league baseball games resumed around the country it replaced "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as the theme song of the seventh-inning stretch. Over the following weeks, everyone—Celine Dion, Marc Anthony, New York City Police Department officer Daniel Rodriguez, the whole country—sang "God Bless America".
Describing the mood at the time and the significance of the song, Corliss wrote in Time magazine that December:
In times of crisis, the nation loses its short-term cultural memory—puts aside idiot movie comics, suicidal rock lyrics, must-see reality TV and the pursuit of the moral triviality that is Gary Condit—and, like a senior citizen finding solace in the distant past, rekindles that old feeling. In pop culture, at least for a while, many Americans traded in cool pop culture for warm, sarcasm for sentiment, alienation for community. In the blink of a national tragedy, we went from jaded to nice, just like that.
The popularity of the song, when it was first introduced in 1938, was also related to its release near the end of the Depression, which had gone on for nine years. As a result, one writer concludes that the song's introduction at that time "enshrines a strain of official patriotism intertwined with a religious faith that runs deep in the American psyche. Patriotic razzle-dazzle, sophisticated melancholy and humble sentiments: Berlin songs span the emotional terrain of America with a thoroughness that others may have equaled but none have surpassed."
The song has also been adopted by various sports teams over the years. The Philadelphia Flyers hockey team started playing it before crucial contests and won some 80% of those games—including all three when Kate Smith arrived to sing it in person. "Many credited Smith for lifting the crowd and the team to new heights," notes columnist John Bacon. When the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team pulled off the "greatest upset in sports history," referred to as the "Miracle on Ice", the players spontaneously broke into a chorus—not of "The Star Spangled Banner," but "God Bless America," with ESPN TV noting, "Americans were overcome by patriotism."
Though most of his works for the Broadway stage took the form of revues — collections of songs with no unifying plot — he did write a number of book shows. The Cocoanuts (1925) was a light comedy with a cast featuring, among others, the Marx Brothers. Face the Music (1932) was a political satire with a book by Moss Hart, and Louisiana Purchase (1940) was a satire of a Southern politician obviously based on the exploits of Huey Long. As Thousands Cheer (1933) was a revue, also with book by Moss Hart, with a theme: each number was presented as an item in a newspaper, some of them touching on issues of the day. The show yielded a succession of hit songs, including "Easter Parade" sung by Marilyn Miller and William Gaxton, "Heat Wave" (presented as the weather forecast), "Harlem on My Mind", and "Supper Time", a song about racial bigotry that was sung by Ethel Waters.
1941 to 1962
World War II patriotism - "This is the Army" (1943)
When the U.S. joined World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, Berlin immediately began composing a number of patriotic songs. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau requested a song to inspire Americans to buy war bonds, for which he wrote "Any Bonds Today?" He assigned all royalties to the United States Treasury Department. He then wrote songs for various government agencies and likewise assigned all profits to them: "Angels of Mercy" for the American Red Cross; "Arms for the Love of America," for the Army Ordnance Department; and "I Paid My Taxes Today," again to Treasury.
But his most notable and valuable contribution to the war effort was a stage show he wrote called "This is the Army". It was taken to Broadway and then on to Washington, D.C. (where President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended). It was eventually shown at military bases throughout the world, including London, North Africa, Italy, Middle East, and Pacific countries, sometimes in close proximity to battle zones. Berlin wrote nearly three dozen songs for the show which contained a cast of 300 men. He supervised the production and traveled with it, always singing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning". The show kept him away from his family for three and a half years, during which time he took neither salary nor expenses, and turned over all profits to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.:81 The play was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1943, directed by Michael Curtiz, costarring Joan Leslie and Ronald Reagan, who was then an army lieutenant. Kate Smith also sang "God Bless America" in the film with a backdrop showing families anxious over the coming war. The show became a hit movie and a morale-boosting road show that toured the battlefronts of Europe. The shows and movie combined raised more than $10 million for the Army, and in recognition of his contributions to troop morale, Berlin was awarded the Medal of Merit by President Harry S. Truman. His daughter, Mary Ellin Barrett, who was 15 when she was at the opening-night performance of "This is the Army" on Broadway, remembered that when her father, who normally shunned the spotlight, appeared in the second act in soldier's garb to sing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," he was greeted with a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. She adds that he was in his mid-50's at the time, and later declared those years with the show were the "most thrilling time of his life."
"Annie Get Your Gun" (1946)
After returning home from three and a half years on the road doing "This is the Army," he was exhausted, and being fifty-eight years old, in need of rest. But his old and close friend Jerome Kern, who was the composer for "Annie Get Your Gun," suddenly died of a heart attack. Producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II persuaded Berlin to take over composing the score.
Loosely based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the music and lyrics were written by Berlin, with a book by Herbert Fields and his sister Dorothy Fields. At first he refused to take on the job, claiming that he knew nothing about "hillbilly music", but the show ran for 1,147 performances and became his most successful score. It is said that the showstopper song, "There's No Business Like Show Business", was almost left out of the show altogether because Berlin mistakenly thought that Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't like it. However, it became the "ultimate uptempo show tune." One reviewer stating that "Its tough wisecracking lyrics are as tersely all-knowing as its melody, which is nailed down in brassy syncopated lines that have been copied -but never equaled in sheer melodic memorability - by hundreds of theater composers ever since." McCorkle writes that the score "meant more to me than ever, now that I knew that he wrote it after a grueling world tour and years of separation from his wife and daughters.":81
Historian and composer Alec Wilder noted the difference between this score and Berlin's much earlier works:
To hear... that "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) was the hit of Vienna and probably every large city of Europe by late 1912, and then to realize that the writer of this song, forty years later, wrote the nearly perfect score of Annie Get Your Gun, comes as a profound shock.:94
Apparently the "creative spurt" in which Berlin turned out several songs for the score in a single weekend was an anomaly. According to this daughter, he usually "sweated blood" to write his songs.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. The song "There's No Business Like Show Business" became "Ethel Merman's trademark."
Berlin's next show, Miss Liberty (1949), was disappointing, but Call Me Madam in 1950, starring Ethel Merman as Sally Adams, a Washington, D.C. socialite, loosely based the famous Washington hostess Perle Mesta, fared better, giving him his second greatest success. After a failed attempt at retirement, in 1962, at the age of 74, he returned to Broadway with Mr. President. Although it ran for eight months, (with the premiere attended by Democratic President John F. Kennedy,) it did not become a successful show. But as Richard Corliss points out, it did at least prove that Berlin was still the "uncomplicated lover of the country that had adopted and enriched him . . . [and] his feelings were most directly expressed" by the lyrics to the song, "This Is a Great Country:"
- Hats off to America,
The home of the free and the brave —
If this is flag waving,
Do you know of a better flag to wave?
Berlin subsequently retired from songwriting and spent his remaining years in New York City.
1920s - 1950s
In 1922, Madame Butterfly was his first composing film debut. In 1927, his song "Blue Skies", was featured in the first feature-length talkie, The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson. Later, movies like Top Hat (1935) became the first of a series of distinctive film musicals by Berlin starring performers like Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, and Alice Faye. They usually had light romantic plots and a seemingly endless string of his new and old songs. Similar films included On the Avenue (1937), Gold Diggers in Paris (1938), Holiday Inn (1942), Blue Skies (1946), and Easter Parade (1948), with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire.
"White Christmas" (1942)
The 1942 film Holiday Inn introduced "White Christmas", one of the most recorded songs in history. First sung in the film by Bing Crosby, it sold over 30 million records and stayed #1 on the pop and R&B charts for 10 weeks. Crosby's single was the best-selling single in any music category for more than fifty years. Music critic Stephen Holden credits this partly to the fact that "the song also evokes a primal nostalgia—a pure childlike longing for roots, home and childhood—that goes way beyond the greeting imagery."
Richard Corliss also notes that the song was even more significant having been released soon after America entered World War II: [it] "connected with... GIs in their first winter away from home. To them it voiced the ache of separation and the wistfulness they felt for the girl back home, for the innocence of youth...." Poet Carl Sandburg said, "Way down under this latest hit of his, Irving Berlin catches us where we love peace."
"White Christmas" won Berlin the Academy Award for Best Music in an Original Song, one of seven Oscar nominations he received during his career. In subsequent years, it was re-recorded and became a top-10 seller for numerous artists: Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Ernest Tubb, The Ravens, and The Drifters. It would also be the last time a Berlin song went to #1 upon its release.
Talking about Irving Berlin's "White Christmas", composer–lyricist Garrison Hintz stated that although songwriting can be a complicated process, its final result should sound simplistic. Considering the fact that "White Christmas" has only eight sentences in the entire song, lyrically Mr. Berlin achieved all that was necessary to eventually sell over 100 million copies and capture the hearts of the American public at the same time.
According to Saul Bornstein, Berlin's publishing company manager, "it was a ritual for Berlin to write a complete song, words and music, every day.:92 Berlin has said that he "does not believe in inspiration," and feels that although he may be gifted in certain areas, his "most successful compositions were the "result of work." In an interview in 1916, when he was 28, he said:
I do most of my work under pressure. When I have a song to write I go home at night, and after dinner about 8 I begin to work. Sometimes I keep at it till 4 or 5 in the morning. I do most of my writing at night, and although I have lived in the same apartment four years there has never been a complaint from any of my neighbors.... Each day I would attend rehearsals and at night write another song and bring it down the next day.
Not always certain about his own writing abilities, he once asked a songwriter friend, Mr. Herbert, whether he should study composition. "You have a natural gift for words and music," Mr. Herbert told him. "Learning theory might help you a little, but it could cramp your style." Berlin took his advice. Herbert later became a moving force behind the creation of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In 1914, Berlin joined him as a charter member of the organization that has protected the royalties of composers and writers ever since.
Years later, he was asked whether he ever studied lyrical writing:
I never have, because if I don't know them I do not have to observe any rules and can do as I like, which is much better for me than if I allowed myself to be governed by the rules of versification. In following my own method I can make my jingles fit my music or vice versa with no qualms as to their correctness. Usually I compose my tunes and then fit words to them, though sometimes it's the other way about.
In later years he would emphasize his conviction, saying that "it's the lyric that makes a song a hit, although the tune, of course, is what makes it last.":234
According to music historian Alec Wilder, it was well known that Berlin, unable to write his own music, paid a professional musician to harmonize and write his music, but always did so under his close supervision. He notes that "though Berlin may seldom have played acceptable harmony, he nevertheless, by some mastery of his inner ear, senses it, in fact writes many of his melodies with this natural, intuitive harmonic sense at work in his head, but not in his hands.":93
As a result, Wilder concludes that many admirers of the music of Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter were unlikely to consider Berlin's work in the same category. But he feels that was due primarily to "forgetfulness and confusion," making them inclined to minimize his talent. He writes:
They forget "Soft Lights and Sweet Music,' 'Supper Time,' and 'Cheek to Cheek' because they are confused by his also having written 'What'll I Do?' and 'Always.' The solid, straightforward pop songs of Berlin are minor masterpieces of economy, clarity, and memorability. But they give little hint of the much more sophisticated aspects of his talent as it is revealed in his theater and film music.
Wilder tries to describe the source of Berlin's gift for songwriting: "In his lyrics as in his melodies, Berlin reveals a constant awareness of the world around him: the pulse of the times, the society in which his is functioning. There is nothing of the hothouse about his work, urban though it may be."
Music critic Stephen Holden writes that composer Jerome Kern recognized that the essence of Irving Berlin's lyrics was his "faith in the American vernacular" and was so profound that his best-known songs "seem indivisible from the country's history and self-image." He adds that where the songs of Kern, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter brought together Afro-American, Latin American, rural pop, and European operetta, Berlin's music "did not strive to be lofty in that way." He adds that "The best of it is a simple, exquisitely crafted street song whose diction feels so natural that one scarcely notices the craft.... For all of their innovation, they seem to flow straight out of the rhythms and inflections of everyday speech." Wilder also explains Berlin's style of writing:
Whatever idealism some of his songs revealed, the core of his work has been eminently practical: his has been truly a body of work... his approach to songwriting is that of a craftsman rather than a composer.... I have been searching assiduously for stylistic characteristics in Berlin, but I can't find any. I find great songs, good songs, average songs, and commercial songs. But I find no clue to a single, or even duple, point of view in the music.:76
Berlin did state a stylistic goal early in his career: to write a "syncopated operetta." He said, "If I were assigned the task of writing an American opera I should not follow the style of the masters, whose melodies can never be surpassed. Instead I would write a syncopated opera, which, if it failed, would at least possess the merit of novelty. That is what I really want to do eventually - write a syncopated operetta." Two decades later, composer George Gershwin wrote, "I have learned many things from Irving Berlin, but the most precious lesson has been that ragtime—or jazz, as its more developed state was later called—was the only musical idiom in existence that could aptly express America.":117
Many musicians and music historians have attempted to define the qualities about Berlin's songs that made them unique. Gershwin once tried:
His music has that vitality - both rhythmic and melodic - which never seems to lose any of its exuberant freshness; it has that rich, colorful melodic flow which is ever the wonder of all those of who, too, compose songs; his ideas are endless.:117
Among Berlin's contemporaries was Cole Porter, whose music style was often considered more "witty, sophisticated, [and] dirty," according to musicologist Susannah McCorkle. Of the five top songwriters, only Porter and Berlin wrote both their words and music. However, she notes that Porter, unlike Berlin, was a Yale-educated and wealthy Midwesterner whose songs were not successful until he was in his thirties. However, she notes that it was "Berlin [who] got Porter the show that launched his career.":76
During the early 1940s, Berlin became an enthusiastic reader of works by the 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope. He had a genuine "enthusiasm for Pope's lean, compact heroic couplets." He felt that Pope would have made a "brilliant lyric writer."
In 2000, composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim reflected on the greatest songs in the American Songbook, noting "What distinguishes Berlin is the brilliance of his lyrics. 'You Can't Get a Man With a Gun' -- that's as good a comic song as has ever been written by anybody. You look at the jokes and how quickly they're told, and it still has a plot to it. It's sophisticated and very underrated." 
In 1912, he married Dorothy Goetz, the sister of the songwriter E. Ray Goetz. She died six months later of typhoid fever, which she contracted during their honeymoon in Havana. The song he wrote to express his grief, "When I Lost You," was his first ballad.
With wife Ellin, circa 1920s
Years later in the 1920s, he fell in love with a young heiress, Ellin Mackay, the daughter of Clarence Mackay, the socially prominent head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company. Because Berlin was Jewish and she was Catholic, their life was followed in every possible detail by the press, which found the romance of an immigrant from the Lower East Side and a young heiress a good story.
They met in 1925, and her father opposed the match from the start. He went so far as to send her off to Europe to find other suitors and forget Mr. Berlin. However, Berlin wooed her over the airwaves with his songs, "Remember" and "Always." His biographer, Philip Furia, writes that "even before Ellin returned from Europe, newspapers rumored they were engaged, and Broadway shows featured skits of the lovelorn songwriter...." During the week after her return, both she and Berlin were "besieged by reporters, sometimes fifty at a time." Variety reported that her father had vowed their marriage "would only happen 'over my dead body.'" As a result they decided to elope and were married in a simple civil ceremony at the Municipal Building away from media attention.
A front-page story in the New York Times about the wedding stated, "Although Broadway for months had expected the one-time newsboy and Bowery singer of songs to wed the prominent young society girl... the marriage took Clarence H. Mackay, father of the bride, completely by surprise. He was reported to have been stunned when he learned from a third person of the Municipal Building ceremony." However, the bride's mother, who was divorced from Mr. Mackay, was apparently not of the same mind according to the story: "in fact, some quarters pictured her as desirous of seeing her daughter follow the dictates of her own heart. It was reported that the couple motored to the home of Mrs. Blake [her mother], early in the evening and obtained her blessing."
There were also reports that her father disowned his daughter because of the marriage. Berlin then assigned all rights to a number of popular songs, including "Always," a song still played at weddings, thereby guaranteeing her a steady income regardless of what might happen with their marriage. For some years, Mr. Mackay was not on speaking terms with the Berlins; however, during the Depression five years later, Berlin is said to have bailed out his father-in-law when he suffered because of the stock market crash.
Their marriage remained a love affair and they were inseparable until she died in July 1988 at the age of 85. They had four children during their 63 years of marriage: Irving, who died in infancy; Mary Ellin Barrett and Elizabeth Irving Peters of New York, and Linda Louise Emmett, who lived in Paris.
In 1916, in the earlier phase of Berlin's career, producer and composer George M. Cohan, during a toast to the young Berlin at a Friar's Club dinner in his honor, described Berlin:
The thing I like about Irvie is that although he has moved up-town and made lots of money, it hasn't turned his head. He hasn't forgotten his friends, he doesn't wear funny clothes, and you will find his watch and his handkerchief in his pockets, where they belong.
It has been noted by Furia that "throughout his life he had a habit of returning to his old haunts in Union Square, Chinatown, and the Bowery, a habit easily indulged in a city where no matter how far up—or down—the ladder of success you had climbed, you could reach your antipodes by walking a few blocks." Berlin would always remember his childhood years when he "slept under tenement steps, ate scraps, and wore secondhand clothes," describing those years as hard but good. "Every man should have a Lower East Side in his life," he said. He used to visit The Music Box Theater, which he founded and which still stands at 239 West Forty-Fifth St.
George Frazier of Life magazine found Berlin to be "intensely nervous," with a habit of tapping his listener with his index finger to emphasize a point, and continually pressing his hair down in back and "picking up any stray crumbs left on a table after a meal." While listening, "he leans forward tensely, with his hands clasped below his knees like a prizefighter waiting in his corner for the bell.... For a man who has known so much glory," writes Frazier, "Berlin has somehow managed to retain the enthusiasm of a novice."
Berlin's daughter later wrote in her memoir that "she found her father a loving, if workaholic, family man who was 'basically an upbeat person, with down periods,' until his last decades, when he retreated from public life...." She adds that her parents liked to celebrate every single holiday with their children. "They seemed to understand the importance, particularly in childhood, of the special day, the same every year, the special stories, foods, and decorations and that special sense of well-being that accompanies a holiday.":80
A political conservative, Berlin supported the presidential candidacy of General Dwight Eisenhower, and his song "I Like Ike" featured prominently in the Eisenhower campaign. In his later years he also became more conservative in his views on music. According to his daughter, "He was consumed by patriotism." He often said, "I owe all my success to my adopted country" and once rejected his lawyers' advice to invest in tax shelters, insisting, "I want to pay taxes. I love this country.":80
Berlin died in his sleep on September 22, 1989, in New York City at the age of 101 and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York. He was survived by three daughters: Mary Ellin Barrett and Elizabeth Irving Peters of New York, and Linda Louise Emmet, who lives in Paris. He is also survived by nine grandchildren.
On the evening following the announcement of his death, the marquee lights of Broadway playhouses were dimmed before curtain time in his memory. President George H. W. Bush said Mr. Berlin was "a legendary man whose words and music will help define the history of our nation." Just minutes before the President's statement was released, he joined a crowd of thousands to sing Berlin's "God Bless America" at a luncheon in Boston. Former President Ronald Reagan, who costarred in Berlin's 1943 musical This Is the Army, said, "Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the death of a wonderfully talented man whose musical genius delighted and stirred millions and will live on forever."
Morton Gould, the composer and conductor who is president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), of which Mr. Berlin was a founder, said, "What to me is fascinating about this unique genius is that he touched so many people in so many age groups over so many years. He sounded our deepest feelings - happiness, sadness, celebration, loneliness." Ginger Rogers, who danced to Berlin tunes with Fred Astaire, told The Associated Press upon hearing of his death that working with Mr. Berlin had been "like heaven." 
Legacy and influence
The New York Times, after his death in 1989, wrote, "Irving Berlin set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century." An immigrant from Russia, his life became the "classic rags-to-riches story that he never forgot could have happened only in America." During his career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs and was a legend by the time he turned 30. He went on to write the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films, with his songs nominated for Academy Awards on eight occasions. Music historian Susannah McCorkle writes that "in scope, quantity, and quality his work was amazing."
Berlin receiving Medal of Merit from President Eisenhower, 1954
During his six-decade career, from 1907 to 1966, he produced sheet music, Broadway shows, recordings, and scores played on radio, in films and on television, and his tunes continue to evoke powerful emotions for millions around the world. He wrote songs like "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Cheek to Cheek", "There's No Business Like Show Business", "Blue Skies" and "Puttin' On the Ritz." Some of his songs have become holiday anthems, such as "Easter Parade", "White Christmas", and "Happy Holiday". "White Christmas" alone sold over 50 million records, won an ASCAP and an Academy Award, and is one of the most frequently played songs ever written. According to McCorkle, of the top five songwriters in America, only Berlin and Cole Porter wrote both their words and music.
In 1938 "God Bless America" became the unofficial national anthem of the United States, and on September 11, 2001, members of the House of Representatives stood on the steps of the Capitol and solemnly sang "God Bless America" together. The song returned to #1 shortly after 9/11, when Celine Dion recorded it as the title track of a 9/11 benefit album. The following year, the Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp of Berlin. By then, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of New York had received more than $10 million in royalties from "God Bless America" as a result of Berlin's donation of royalties. According to music historian Gary Giddins, "No other songwriter has written as many anthems.... No one else has written as many pop songs, period... [H]is gift for economy, directness, and slang, presents Berlin as an obsessive, often despairing commentator on the passing scene.":405
In 1934 Life Magazine put him on its cover and inside hailed "this itinerant son of a Russian cantor" as "an American institution." And again in 1943 Life described his songs as follows:
They possess a permanence not generally associated with Tin Pan Alley products and it is more than remotely possible that in days to come Berlin will be looked upon as the Stephen Foster of the 20th century.
At various times his songs were also rallying cries for different causes: He produced musical editorials supporting Al Smith and Dwight Eisenhower as presidential candidates, he wrote songs opposing Prohibition, defending the gold standard, calming the wounds of the Great Depression, and helping the war against Hitler, and in 1950 he wrote an anthem for the state of Israel. Biographer David Leopold adds that "We all know his songs... they are all part of who we are."
At his 100th-birthday celebration in May 1988, violinist Isaac Stern said, "The career of Irving Berlin and American music were intertwined forever—American music was born at his piano," while songwriter Sammy Cahn pointed out: "If a man, in a lifetime of 50 years, can point to six songs that are immediately identifiable, he has achieved something. Irving Berlin can sing 60 that are immediately identifiable... [Y]ou couldn't have a holiday without his permission." Composer Douglas Moore added:
It's a rare gift which sets Irving Berlin apart from all other contemporary songwriters. It is a gift which qualifies him, along with Stephen Foster, Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg, as a great American minstrel. He has caught and immortalized in his songs what we say, what we think about, and what we believe.
ASCAP's records show that 25 of Berlin's songs reached the top of the charts and were re-recorded by dozens of famous singers over the years, such as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Rosemary Clooney, Diana Ross, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. In 1924, when Berlin was 36, his biography, The Story of Irving Berlin, was being written by Alexander Woollcott. In a letter to Woollcott, Jerome Kern offered what one writer said "may be the last word" on the significance of Irving Berlin: