Irving Berlin – one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
“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.”
Laurence Bergreen (Berlin’s biographer) on Irving Berlin’s only memories of his five years in Russia.
Irving Berlin was born in the village of Tyumen (Russia) on May 11, 1888 as Israel Baline. His family fled to escape the region’s persecution of the Jewish community, eventually settling in New York City in the mid-1890s.
Baline had always been involved in music as a ‘means of expression’ from his early age, working as a street singer in his teens, and by 1906 he had become a singing waiter in Chinatown. With Nick Nicholson penning the music, Baline’s first published tune was 1907’s “Marie From Sunny Italy.”
As the lyricist, Baline’s name was misspelled as “I. Berlin” on the sheet music. He, amused and a little amazed, decided to keep the name, becoming Irving Berlin.
Be it the rough childhood or be it the constant sense of ‘not belonging’, stopping was never an option. He accepted the title, started moving, and never looked back.
Berlin would eventually become one of the most popular songwriters in the United States. His greatest hits include “Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911’s major hit)”, “White Christmas” and “What’ll I Do.” Berlin’s film and Broadway musical work included ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’
“I was thinking and thinking….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.”
–Berlin on his 1911 “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” that swooped the nation.
Berlin was consistent in his writing efforts and was self-taught as a pianist. Never having learned how to read music, he started playing in the key of F-sharp, working with a special transcribing keyboard and assistants to explore other keys.
Nonetheless, by the second decade of the 20th century, he had dozens upon dozens of songs of his own, most of them being commercial super-hits. Berlin worked as a lyricist for the MAJOR music publishing company Waterson & Snyder.
He later collaborated with Victor Herbert on broadway and became a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1914.
In 1919, Berlin founded the Irving Berlin Music Corporation, which gave the musician full control of his copyrights.
No one would ever steal the thunder of honest working musicians again.
Berlin was well aware of the cost of living like a star and the good as well as the bad things behind the curtains of stardom.
Irving Berlin would ultimately be nominated for nine Academy Awards and seven nods in the category ‘Song’, winning in 1943 for “White Christmas.” Many of Berlin‘s songs became popular hits – both in the aspect od quality as well as commercialization – and are considered as a part of the standards canon, and over time, are covered by a multitude of artists who include giants like Shirley Bassey, Diana Krall, Nat King Cole, the one and the only Willie Nelson, Nancy Wilson Linda Ronstadt and Frank Sinatra himself.
After crafting the 1962 musical ‘Mr. President’, Berlin retired, spending ample time in his beautiful home in the Catskill Mountains. Eventually, he withdrew from public appearances completely, living out the rest of his days in peace and away from the ‘stardom’.
Nonetheless, he continued to receive accolades and an overwhelming outpouring of praise for his contributions to the musical landscape.
He passed away on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101.