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Irving Berlin and “White Christmas”

Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989) was an American composer and lyricist of Belarusian Jewish origin, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. Berlin was born Israel Isidore Beilin, on May 11, 1888, one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilin. There are several possibilities concerning his birth city. It could be Tumen or any one of several villages near the city of Mogilyov, in the Russian Empire, now in Belarus. His father, was a cantor in a synagogue and uprooted the family to America, as did many other Jewish families in the late 19th century. In 1893 they settled in New York City. As of the 1900 census, the name “Beilin” had changed to “Baline.”

The family eventually settled on Cherry Street, a “cold-water basement flat with no windows,” in the Yiddish Theater District on the Lower East Side, and had a Yiddish-speaking home. His father, unable to find comparable work as a cantor in New York, took a job at a kosher meat market, gave Hebrew lessons on the side, and struggled to support his family. He died a few years later when Irving was thirteen years old. With only a few years of schooling, Irving found it necessary to take to the streets to help support his family. He became a newspaper boy, hawking The Evening Journal.
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 and found that if he sang some of the songs while selling papers, people would toss him coins in appreciation. By age fourteen, he left home to become a “foot soldier in the city’s ragged army of immigrants.” 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. 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.” Music became his sole source of income and he emerged culturally from the ghetto lifestyle, learning the “language of the street.”

To survive, Irving began to recognize the kind of songs that appealed to audiences. 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. He sang made-up parodies of hit songs to the delight of customers and 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. The sheet music to this song made history because of a printer’s error in the score. The name printed on the cover read: ‘I. Berlin.’

One night Berlin delivered some hits by friend George M. Cohan, another kid who was getting known on Broadway with his own songs, ending with Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy. Max Winslow (c.1883–1942), 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 got him a job with his firm, at age 18. 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, he got his big break as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company. 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 at the Friars’ Frolic of 1911.

The international success of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” gave ragtime new life and sparked a national dasnce 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. Variety called it “The First Syncopated Musical.” In future years Berlin made every effort to write lyrics in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, simple and direct. 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 1915 he wrote the hit, “I Love a Piano,” which was a comical, ragtime love song.

In 1917 Berlin was drafted into the army, and the news of his induction became headline news. 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.” One song he wrote for the show but decided not use, he would introduce twenty years later: “God Bless America.” By 1918 Berlin 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. 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.” 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.

Berlin returned to Tin Pan Alley after the war and in 1921 created a partnership with Sam Harris to build the Music Box Theater. It was the home of Berlin’s “Music Box Revue” from 1921 to 1925. 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,” written in 1925 when he fell in love with Ellin Mackay, who became his wife. 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 on Christmas Day 1928; Mary Ellin, Elizabeth Irving, and Linda Louise. “Blue Skies” was written in 1926 after his first daughter’s birth as a song just for her. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” was written in 1930 and is associated with Fred Astaire, who danced to it in the 1946 film “Blue Skies.” In 1938, Kate Smith’s manager asked Berlin if he had a patriotic song Smith might sing to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day and he brought “God Bless America” back out.

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, such as The Cocoanuts (1929), a light comedy with a cast featuring, among others, the Marx Brothers; Face the Music (1932), a political satire with a book by Moss Hart; As Thousands Cheer (1933) also with book by Moss Hart; and Louisiana Purchase (1940), a satire of a Southern politician obviously based on the exploits of Huey Long. His most notable and valuable contribution to the World War II effort was a stage show he wrote called “This is the Army” (1943). One of his most famous musicals was “Annie Get Your Gun” (1946), loosely based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley with the showstopper song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” 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.

In 1952, Berlin supported the presidential candidacy of General Dwight Eisenhower, and his song “I Like Ike” featured prominently in the Eisenhower campaign. During all this time, he was also writing scores for movies. In 1922, Madame Butterfly was his first composing film debut. Later, Top Hat (1935) became the first of a series of distinctive film musicals by Berlin, including 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. The 1942 film Holiday Inn introduced “White Christmas”, one of the most recorded songs in history. After a failed attempt at retirement, in 1962, at the age of 74, he returned to Broadway with Mr. President. Berlin died in his sleep on September 22, 1989 of natural causes, in New York City at the age of 101 and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.

Composer George Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived,” and composer Jerome Kern concluded that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.” 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” 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. Berlin’s songs have reached the top of the charts 25 times and have been extensively re-recorded by numerous singers. 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.”

My collection includes the following pieces by Berlin.

Alexander’s Rag Time Band (1911).
Blue Skies, from Betsy (1926).
Cheek to Cheek from Top Hat (1935).
Doin’ What Comes Naturally from Annie, Get Your Gun (1946).
Heat Wave from As Thousands Cheer (1933).
How Deep Is the Ocean? (1932) from The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933).
I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm from On the Avenue (1937).
Puttin’ on the Ritz (1929) from Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930).
There’s No Business Like Show Business from Annie, Get Your Gun (1946).
Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails from Top Hat (1935).
White Christmas from Holiday Inn (1942).


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