Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Berlin, Irving (originally, Baüne, Israel)

hit music songs song

Berlin, Irving (originally, Baüne, Israel), adaptable Russian-born American songwriter; b. Mohilev, May 11, 1888; d. N.Y., Sept. 22, 1989. The most sucessful songwriter of the first half of the 20th century, Berlin counted among his 1, 500 published songs such standards as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” “Always,” “Blue Skies,” “Russian Lullaby,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Change Partners.” Writing for Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood, he developed his style from the ethnic novelty lyrics and ragtime music popular in the early part of the century to the more sophisticated compositions expected of songwriters of the 1920s and 1930s. Several of his songs transcended even the status of standards to become definitive expressions of popular culture: “God Bless America” is universally accepted as a second U.S. national anthem; “There’s No Business Like Show Business” became the theme song for the field of popular entertainment; and “White Christmas,” the best-selling record of all time, spoke for millions during World War II, becoming as much a part of the holiday season as Santa Claus. Writing any one of those songs would have marked Berlin as a major figure; writing all of them made him the most pervasive figure in popular music.

Berlin and his five older siblings were brought to the U.S. in September 1893 by his parents, Moses (b. January 1846; d. July 19, 1901) and Lena Lipkin Baline (b. August 1849; d. July 21, 1922), settling in N.Y. His father had been a cantor in Russia; in the U.S. he found only part-time work as a kosher-poultry inspector. Berlin, who had no formal musical training, left school and home at 13. He became a street entertainer, a song plugger, and finally a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in Chinatown. After gaining attention for the often risqué parodies of popular songs he sang, he was asked to collaborate with the cafe’s pianist, Nick Michaelson, on a song. The result was his first published effort, “Marie from Sunny Italy” (1907), for which he changed his name to Irving Berlin.

Berlin began his long relationship with publisher composer Ted Snyder with his second publication, “Dorando” (1908), the first song for which he wrote both words and music. It was published by Ted Sny-der’s Seminary Music Company (later, [Henry] Waterson and Snyder)—a company in which Berlin would become a partner three years later—and before long Berlin was working for and collaborating with Snyder. (Unable to read or write music, Berlin composed by playing the black keys on the piano, using a special lever to transpose from one musical key to another; his compositions were transcribed by an assistant.)

”She Was a Dear Little Girl” (1909; music by Snyder) was Berlin’s first song to be interpolated into a Broadway musical. Berlin’s first major record hit came that October with “My Wife’s Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!” (music by Snyder, lyrics by Berlin and George Whiting). A string of Berlin hits in 1910 included most notably “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune” (the tune in question was “Spring Song”). Meanwhile, Berlin and Snyder appeared together in the revue Up and Down Broadway (N.Y., July 18, 1910), performing their songs “That Beautiful Rag” and “Sweet Italian Love.”

Beginning a relationship with the noted Broadway impressario Florenz Ziegfeld, Berlin contributed several songs to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911 (N.Y., June 26, 1911), the most successful of which was “Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree” (lyrics by Vincent Bryan), written for blackface performer Bert Williams and generating a hit recording for him two years later.

”Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911), the most successful song of Berlin’s early career, was popularized by vaudeville star Emma Cams, leading to a series of popular recordings. The song’s stirring music and mild syncopation made it more of a march than a ragtime tune, strictly speaking, but it ushered in a fashion for ragtime and crowned its songwriter as king of the genre; he quickly took advantage of the situation by churning out more ragtime-styled songs. A sheet-music million-seller, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was successfully revived on record by Bessie Smith in 1927, the Boswell Sisters in 1935, and Louis Armstrong in 1937. Thanks to its success, in December 1911, Berlin was made a partner in his publishing firm, which was renamed Waterson, Berlin and Snyder. (In June 1919 he formed his own publishing company, Irving Berlin Inc., and in 1944 the Irving Berlin Music Corporation.)

In February 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, the sister of one of his collaborators. The couple honeymooned in Cuba, where Mrs. Berlin was taken ill with typhoid fever; she died at the age of 20 on July 17. Henry Burr scored a massive hit in April 1913 with “When I Lost You,” unmistakably a musical comment on Berlin’s bereavement and his first important ballad; the song also sold over two million copies of sheet music.

Berlin’s major effort for 1914 was his first full score for a Broadway revue, Watch Your Step , which starred the popular dance team Vernon and Irene Castle. Running for 175 performances, the show produced three hits. Also in 1914, composer Victor Herbert encouraged Berlin to join the newly formed American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) as a charter member; Berlin remained active in ASCAP for decades to come. He had great success in 1915 with songs from the revue Stop! Look! Listen! , including “I Love a Piano” and “The Girl on the Magazine Cover.”

Berlin joined the Army in 1917 as the U.S. entered World War I. Stationed at Camp Upton on Long Island, he maintained his ties to Tin Pan Alley and Broadway but devoted most of his time to writing an army show, Yip! Yip! Yaphank . He appeared in the show, singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning/’ which was second only to George M. Cohan’s “Over There” as the most memorable song of World War I. The show’s other major hit was “Mandy,” though it did not take off until after it was included in Berlin’s score for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 , subsequently selling a million copies of sheet music. “God Bless America,” written for the show, mysteriously was dropped by Berlin; it was put “in the trunk” for later use.

Ben Selvin’s recording of “Mandy” began with an excerpt from the major song Berlin wrote for the 1919 Follies, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” which became a best-selling record on its own and the theme song for all future Follies .”You’d Be Surprised/’ a comic song added after the show’s opening and also interpolated into other shows, was a third hit from the 1919 Follies , a sheet-music million-seller and a popular record for Eddie Cantor, who sang it in the show. The success of Berlin’s songs in the 1919 Follies led Ziegfeld to commision him to again write the bulk of the score for the next year’s edition, whose best-remembered hit is “The Girl of My Dreams.”

The year 1921 brought “All by Myself,” one of Berlin’s all-time biggest hits, which enjoyed enough record covers to sell a million records as well as a million copies of sheet music. But Berlin was spending most of his time preparing for the opening of the Music Box Theatre, which he and producer Sam H. Harris had built in N.Y. The first edition of the Music Box Revue ran 440 performances and generated three hits, most notably “Say It with Music.” Three more Revues would run through 1925, but none was as successful as the first one. During this period, Berlin had hits with “What’ll I Do?,” a wistful ballad interpolated into the third Revue that sold over a million copies on disc and in sheet music, and “All Alone,” the biggest record hit of 1925. Meanwhile, Berlin’s score for the musical comedy The Cocoanuts was overshadowed by the antics of the Marx Brothers, who helped carry the show to a run of 377 performances.

It has been suggested that the romantic mood of songs like “All by Myself,” “What’ll I Do?,” “All Alone,” and “Remember” were influenced by the ups and downs of Berlin’s romance with Ellin Mackay, the daughter of millionaire Clarence Mackay, who opposed the match. For months their courtship and marriage were fodder for the tabloids, who milked the Jewish immigrant-weds-millionaire-heiress angle. There can be no doubt that “Always,” his next ballad hit, was written for her: he assigned rights for the song to her as a wedding present. They were married Jan. 4, 1926, and had three daughters as well as a son who died in infancy. “Always” went some way toward recompensing Mrs. Berlin for the loss of her inheritance. (She and Berlin were later reconciled with Mackay, who was ruined in the 1929 stock market crash.) Its theme of romantic contentment was continued in Berlin’s other hits of 1926, notably the standard “Blue Skies,” written for Belle Baker to sing in the musical Betsy (N.Y., Dec. 28, 1926) and subsequently a best-selling record for many artists.

In 1927, Berlin became the first songwriter to compose all the songs in an edition of the Follies . The revue, which ran a disappointing 167 performances, brought two record hits to its star, Ruth Etting, particularly “Shaking the Blues Away,” also an instrumental hit for Paul Whiteman. Jolson sang “Blue Skies” in October in The Jazz Singer , the first motion picture with synchronized sound, which opened the door to film music for many songwriters. Berlin was quick to jump on the movie bandwagon, abandoning Broadway for more than four years. However, Berlin eventually was frustrated by his treatment in Hollywood, where songs were used rather indiscriminately in films good, bad, and indifferent, and many songs written were dropped from the finished product. In the face of such cavalier treatment, Berlin left Hollywood in 1931, not writing for another movie for four years.

Berlin returned to Broadway in 1931 with Face the Music , a modestly successful musical satire that ran for 165 performances. He had greater success with 1933’s As Thousands Cheer , a revue mounted at the Music Box, which, at 400 performances, was Berlin’s longestrunning show yet. Its hits were “Easter Parade” (which reused the music of “Smile and Show Your Dimple”), recorded by Clifton Webb, from the show, on vocals, and “Heat Wave,” recorded by Ethel Waters, also featured in the show, among others.

Berlin returned to Hollywood in 1935 for the As-taire-Ginger Rogers film musical Top Hat . All five of the songs he wrote for the film became record hits for Astaire. “Cheek to Cheek” topped the hit parade for weeks and was also recorded by Phil Ohman and His Orch., Duchin, Lombardo, and the Boswell Sisters, on its way to becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. It was Berlin’s first song to be nominated for an Academy Award. He wrote seven more songs the next year for the Astaire-Rogers film Follow the Fleet , and Astaire had five more hits, including the film’s most popular song, “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.”

Like other Broadway songwriters, Berlin had expressed reservations about the Swing-band arrangements employed on some of the covers of his songs. The most radical of these had to be Tommy Dorsey and His Orch.’s uptempo revival of “Marie” in March 1937, complete with slang interjections shouted by the band. But the record became a massive hit, selling a million copies. Many more Berlin songs entered the jazz repertoire, either as instrumental or vocal hits.

Berlin wrote the original story on which the 1938 film Alexander’s Ragtime Band was based, earning himself an Oscar nomination in the process. He was also nominated again in the best song category for “Now It Can Be Told,” but most of the songs used were vintage Berlin compositions like the title song, which became a best-seller all over again in a recording by Crosby and Connee Boswell.

Carefree reunited Berlin with Astaire and Rogers with the usual felicitous results: Four of the five songs Berlin wrote became hits (even though only three of them were actually sung in the film). Astaire topped the hit parade with “Change Partners,” even though a version by Jimmy Dorsey and His Orch. with Bob Eberly on vocals was equally popular.

In November 1938, Berlin responded to a request to write a patriotic song for the 20th anniversary observance of Armistice Day by giving “God Bless America,” a song written for but not used in Yip! Yip! Yaphank , to Kate Smith to sing on her radio show. Smith’s recording of the song became a hit in April 1939 and enjoyed revivals in 1940 and 1942, but it was less important as a record hit than as an acknowledged national treasure. Berlin assigned his publishing royalties to the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and the Campfire Girls. He was awarded a medal of honor by Congress for writing the song.

Berlin returned to Broadway for the first time in six-and-a-half years with Louisiana Purchase , a politically tinged satirical musical that ran 444 performances (the longest run of the 1939–40 season). Berlin’s activities slowed in the war years; he had a new film and a new show to work on in 1941, though neither were ready until mid-1942. In the meantime, ’Taster Parade” enjoyed another revival and earned a gold record in an instrumental performance by Harry James and His Orch. at Eastertime in 1942.

The 1942 service show This Is the Army , which again featured Berlin singing “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” ran for 113 performances on Broadway before taking off for a tour of the war zones over the next few years. The month after This Is the Army opened on Broadway, Holiday Inn opened in movie theaters. Given the summer season, the first hit from the film was not “White Christmas” but “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” recorded both by Crosby, who starred in the picture, and by Tommy Dorsey, with vocals by his departing boy singer, Frank Sinatra. But at the start of the fall, Crosby’s recording of “White Christmas” began to assert its seasonal dominance for the first time, becoming a chart-topping gold record and the biggest hit of 1942. That, of course, was only the beginning. Sinatra had a gold-selling chart record with it in 1944, and Jo Stafford’s 1946 cover reached the Top Ten. But it was the Crosby recording, reissued year after year, that was the most successful, topping the charts again in 1945 and 1946 (with a new version cut in 1947), earning another gold record during the 1955 Christmas season and continuing to chart nearly every year for more than 40 years.

On his fifth try, Berlin won the Academy Award for Best Song of 1942 for “White Christmas.” In 1974, Crosby’s recording was among the first entered in the NARAS Hall of Fame. The release of the film Christmas Holiday in December 1944 revived interest in “Always,” which was featured in the film, leading to four hit recordings.

The death of Jerome Kern, who had been scheduled to write the songs for a musical based on the life of Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley, left the assignment to Berlin. Annie Get Your Gun ran for 1, 147 performances on Broadway, making it the biggest hit of the 1945-46 season and the biggest show hit of Berlin’s career. It generated five chart hits; the show’s cast album, prominently featuring Ethel Merman, also charted. Oddly, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” did not become a record hit but has become one of Berlin’s best-known compositions. The film version of Annie Get Your Gun was one of the biggest box office hits of 1950, and its soundtrack album also became a chart hit, as did the soundtrack of a 1957 TV version starring Mary Martin. The show became a long-running success on tour, returning to Broadway for revivals in February 1952 and May 1966, the latter again starring Merman.

Like Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies (1946), starring Crosby and Astaire, and Easter Parade (1947), starring Astaire and Judy Garland, contained a combination of Berlin evergreens and a handful of newly written songs. Berlin’s catalog continued to bring current success, as indicated by the surprising revival of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” in the winter of 1948–49. Les Brown recorded an instrumental version in 1946, and when it was reissued in late 1948 it topped the charts, attracting successful cover records by the Mills Brothers among others.

At 308 performances, the 1949 Broadway show Miss Liberty was a relative disappointment for Berlin, although the musical spawned three moderate hits and the original cast album sold well. Berlin returned to Broadway a year later with unusual speed, reteaming with Merman for another political satire, Call Me Madam , which ran a more satisfying 644 performances and launched the hit “You’re Just in Love.”

Berlin was less active in the 1950s, but he had two films in release in the last quarter of 1954, both combining new songs with past favorites. Paramount’s White Christmas became the highest-grossing motion picture of the year and brought a Top Ten hit to Eddie Fisher and a seventh Best Song Oscar nomination to Berlin for “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep).” 20th Century-Fox’s There’s No Business Like Show Business produced a Top Ten soundtrack album. From this point on, Berlin was more or less in retirement.

In 1962, at age 74, Berlin returned to work for a final Broadway show, Mr. President , considered a disappointment, though it ran for 265 performances and had a cast album that stayed in the charts nearly six months. Berlin spent the remainder of his life in growing seclusion. Unable to adapt to popular trends, he guarded his own works carefully. Although a 100th birthday gala was held for him in N.Y., he declined to attend. He died of natural causes at the age of 101.

Berlioz, (Louis-) Hector [next] [back] Berio, Luciano

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or