Irving Berlin, the Dean of American Songwriters, was born 124 years ago today, but what if anything do you know about the man who gave the world 'White Christmas' and many other memorable songs?
Irving Berlin's songwriting career began entirely by accident. In 1906, Al Piantadosi, resident pianist at Callahan's saloon in New York, wrote an Italian dialect song called My Mariuccia (Take a Steamboat). According to Berlin biographer Laurence Bergreen, it had lyrics by the bar's bouncer, Big Jerry, although the sheet music credits them to George Ronkyln. It is difficult for mere mortals to appreciate just how bad My Mariuccia...is, or it would be, unfortunately, several recordings have survived, although to be scrupulously fair, the instrumental version is passable.
Nine years after producing this truly awful song, Piantadosi would come up with I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, the world's first commercially successful anti-war song, but his 1906 composition led to the start of Berlin's songwriting career.
At that time, the young Izzy Baline was working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Café, which was not a café at all but a dance hall, known colloquially as Nigger Mike's. It should be borne in mind that this was at a time when the dreaded N word did not cause the mass hysteria it does today, but Mike was a Russian Jew, as was Baline, technically, although he had arrived in New York City as a five year old refugee with his parents and siblings.
After Piantadosi's pitiful effort, Mike Salter asked Baline to try his hand at writing a similar song, and he came up with Marie From Sunny Italy, the music of which, and some of the words, were contributed by Mike Nicholson, Salter's resident pianist. This was not only the first song of his career but arguably the worst, which meant that from then on things could only get better, and they did.
Joseph W. Stern bought the song for seventy-five cents, and it was published in May 1907 with M. Nicholson credited for the music only, and the words to I. Berlin, the first of countless songs from a name that would soon become known all over the world.
The first phase of Berlin's songwriting career is documented by another biographer, Charles Hamm in IRVING BERLIN: Songs from the Melting Pot: The Formative Years 1907-1914.
In 1909, Berlin was hired as staff lyricist by the Ted Snyder Company, and in the period 1907-14, he and Snyder wrote 42 songs together. It was though an early solo effort that would propel him to stardom. Alexander's Ragtime Band was neither Berlin's first hit, nor the first to attract international attention, but it garnered more publicity than any other song of the decade.
Written in 1911, it was registered under the name of Ted Snyder Co following its publication on March 18, and was absolutely massive. It does though have what might be called a politically incorrect origin.
Alexander's Ragtime Band descends from a long line of “Alexander songs” that were instigated by Harry Von Tilzer in 1902. These were coon songs, which according to Bergreen: “emphasized the sexual prowess of blacks, along with their instinctive musical ability”, interpreting this as a form of bigotry, although it remains to be seen why any man would consider it bigoted to to be thought of as both sexuality proficient and naturally talented musically.
Berlin had already written an Alexander song before his 1911 hit. Alexander And His Clarinetwas published by Ted Snyder the previous year, and although far more professionally crafted than Marie From Sunny Italy is likewise probably best forgotten.
As far as coon songs go, Alexander's Ragtime Band was far from typical, and it was technically not a ragtime song either. Probably because of its phenomenal success, a few myths grew up around it, one being that it had actually been written by the black pianist Lukie Johnson, which was news to Johnson as much as it was to Berlin.
The black classical composer and King of Ragtime Scott Joplin claimed Berlin had stolen the music for the song from his opera Treemonisha, but although the two men do appear to have met, Joplin's biographer Edward A. Berlin (no relation) made a careful comparison between Alexander's... and A Real Slow Dragfrom Treemonisha. He found similarities, but they are clearly two different songs - two of many that were being churned out in that style at the time. Also, Berlin's song was copyrighted two month's earlier. Some years before, Joplin had contracted an illness that affected his reasoning, so that may account for his dogged persistence with this claim. He died in relative obscurity in 1917.
Although Alexander's... was Berlin's biggest hit of 1911, it wasn't the only one; there was also Everybody's Doin' It Now, which became “the standard tune of the dance craze”. As Berlin himself said: “It was an idea out of the air. I wanted a dance song; everybody was doing it. I just sat down and wrote the thing as it was. It was the dance craze put to music and words.”
In 1915, he produced a song that would have caused hysteria today in a certain quarter: Cohen Owes Me Ninety Seven Dollarswas written for Belle Baker, another Russian Jew. The song sees a wealthy Jewish businessman on his death bed telling his son to collect an outstanding debt. When the son does so, the businessman makes a remarkable recovery. If nothing else, this song proved that Berlin could laugh at his own inheritance. People who can't laugh at themselves have no right to laugh at anyone else. One contemporary artist who has no compunction about performing this politically incorrect song is Janet Klein. If Abraham Foxman saw her act, he'd drop dead from a heart attack.
It has to be stressed though that like coon songs, dialect songs were primarily for entertainment. Whatever nonsense is written nowadays about racism and stereotypes, minstrelsy provided a good living for many black performers and songwriters, including the greatest of them all, James Bland, the spiritual heir of Stephen Foster.
Irving Berlin died September 22, 1989 at the age of 101, and between his first big hit in 1911 andAn Old-Fashioned Wedding in 1966, he wrote well over a thousand songs including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films.
In 1914, he was a founder member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers; today, ASCAP has a worldwide membership of well over 400,000.
In 1918, he wrote God Bless America for the show Yip-Yip-Yaphank but decided not to use it, and filed it away until 1938 when it was recorded by Kate Smith with updated lyrics. Not everyone was impressed with this flag waving song, in particular that darling of the American left Woody Guthrie, and in response he pennedThis Land Is Your Land, which like many of his songs, was ripped off.
Guthrie's bitterness was as understandable as Berlin's delight. Berlin had come to the US as an immigrant and had lived the American dream. Another foreign born Jew, Ayn Rand, did the same, who unlike Berlin experienced first hand the Communist menace that had enslaved the land of their birth. On the other hand, the native born Guthrie had gone through hard times in the Great Depression, and had seen the land of the free from a worm's eye view. Many of his songs, especially the Dust Bowl Ballads, reflect this.
Berlin had arrived in the US the son of dirt poor immigrants, but once he had achieved his first success at a young age, he never looked back, and the only heartbreaks he experienced in his long life were personal tragedies that transcended politics. His father died when Berlin was thirteen; In 1912, his first wife died after only six months of marriage, a tragedy that inspired his first ballad: When I Lost You.
And his mother died July 22, 1922, which led him to write All By Myself, All Alone and What'll I Do?
Berlin's second wife was somewhat younger than him, but he still outlived her; she died in July 1988, aged 85.
Two of Berlin's finest compositions were written in counterpoint: the 1914 Play A Simple Melody and the 1950 You're Just In Love, the original recording of which featured the extraordinary voice of Ethel Merman. The aforementioned An Old-Fashioned Wedding is the third of his counterpoint songs. He wrote this for the revival of his 1940s hit show Annie Get Your Gun.
Berlin's biggest hit, bigger than even Alexander's Ragtime Band, was White Christmas, which was recorded initially by Bing Crosby. It was used in the film Holiday Inn, and won Berlin an Academy Award for Best Original Song. White Christmas has since been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Bob Marley and even Lady Gaga.
Berlin was not a performer, and his formal musical training was, shall we say, sorely lacking? Far more so than Paul McCartney. He had a piano fitted with a special device which allowed him to change key while playing only the black notes, and in spite of his brief career as a singing waiter, his voice left much to be desired, at least by the time he appeared in This Is The Army, the musical and film he was commissioned to write after the United States entered World War II. Berlin's cameo role saw him sing Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning. He had actually written this song in 1918, at which time he was serving at Camp Upton in New York, composing songs for the war effort.
After his initial success with Ted Snyder, Berlin formed his own publishing company. Today, his massive catalogue is owned by the Rodgers & Hammerstein organisation.
In 1997, Berlin's daughters donated some of his papers - those relating to his relationship with President Eisenhower - to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum.
Other Berlin papers are held by the Library of Congress.
From his earliest commercial success, Berlin was known for his personal generosity, and later he added philanthropy to this, but towards the end of his life, his personality underwent a transformation that is understandable in people who have grown old, bitter and disillusioned, but less so in someone who had achieved such monumental success. In an article published originally in The Mississippi Rag, Phillip D. Atteberry comments on this, and the reasons - his genius aside - people today may not view Berlin in as favourable a light as he deserves.
He was however persuaded to step back into the limelight for his centenary, which was celebrated in grand style with a two hour gala at New York's world famous Carnegie Hall. Those paying tribute included Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Madeline Kahn, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope - the latter of whom also lived to a great age; he died in July 2003, aged 100.
Currently the man from SongFacts has only 28 entries for Berlin compositions in his database, but more are in preparation.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com