Despite his foreign birth, Berlin became one of the greatest and most American of all songwriters. When he was four years old his family escaped a pogrom and travelled to the USA. His father was a cantor in his homeland, but in their new country he had to earn his living as a meat inspector in New York City, singing in the synagogue only when the regular cantor was unavailable. An indifferent student, Berlin was happier singing, but in 1896, following the death of his father, he was obliged to work. At the age of 14 he began singing in saloons and on street corners. It was while engaged in this latter activity that he was 'discovered' and recommended to songwriter and publisher Harry Von Tilzer, who hired him to sing songs from the balcony of a 14th Street theatre. By 1906 Berlin had not advanced far, working as a singing waiter in Pelham's, a Chinatown restaurant frequented by New York's upper set, but he had taught himself to play piano and had started to write his own material. His first published song (lyrics only, music by Michael Nicholson) was 'Marie From Sunny Italy', from which he earned 37 cents and, apparently through a misprint on the sheet music, acquired the name by which he was thereafter known.
During the next few years Berlin continued to write words and music, but also hung onto his job as a singing waiter. Several of the songs he wrote in these years were in Yiddish, and were popular successes for artists such as Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice. His first real songwriting success was 'My Wife's Gone To The Country' (1909, music by George Whiting), which was featured by Cantor. Like many other songwriters of the day, Berlin was fascinated by ragtime and tried his hand at several numbers, many of which had little to do with the reality of this musical form apart from their titles. In 1911, however, he had his first massive hit with 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', for which he wrote both words and music. It made him a household name, and Berlin capitalized upon the success of this song with others such as 'Everybody's Doing It' (1911) and 'The International Rag' (1913). A talented vaudeville performer, he performed many of these songs himself. As would be the case throughout his career, many of Berlin's early songs were introduced in stage shows and revues. From 1910-13, these included The Jolly Bachelors, Up And Down Broadway, Temptations, Hanky-Panky, and the Ziegfeld Follies. In 1914, he wrote his first complete score for Watch Your Step ( 'Play A Simple Melody'), which featured dancers Vernon And Irene Castle, and followed it a year later with Stop! Look! Listen! ('I Love A Piano', 'The Girl On The Magazine Cover'). Among his non-show songs around this time, were popular numbers such as 'Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree', 'When The Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabama', 'Do It Again', 'Snooky Ookums', 'I Want To Go Back To Michigan', 'When I Lost You' (the first of his many exquisite ballads), and the sentimental 'When I Leave The World Behind' (1915).
During World War I, Berlin was active in the theatre, and wrote several patriotic songs, such as 'I'm Gonna Pin A Medal On The Girl I Left Behind', 'When I Get Back To The USA', and 'For Your Country And My Country'. In 1918 he was drafted into the army and encouraged to write a show for the troops. For this hastily conceived all-soldier production, Yip, Yip, Yaphank, in which he also starred, he produced two memorable songs, 'Mandy' and 'Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning'. Berlin celebrated the end of the war with a satirical piece entitled 'I've Got My Captain Working For Me Now', and continued to write a steady stream of popular songs, mostly for Ziegfeld shows, including 'A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody', 'You'd Be Surprised', 'I Want To See A Minstrel Show', 'The Girl Of My Dreams', 'I'll See You In C-U-B-A', and 'After You Get What You Want You Don't Want It' (1920). In 1919, he established the Irving Berlin Music Co., and two years later, the Music Box Theatre, which he built in association with the producer Sam M. Harris in order to showcase his own music. It opened with the first edition of the Music Box Revue ('Say It With Music', 'Everybody Step', 'They Call It Dancing'). In 1926, Berlin married the socialite Ellin Mackay against her father's wishes, and many of the poignant ballads he wrote during the 20s are said to reflect that event, and other areas of his private life. These included 'All By Myself', 'All Alone', 'What'll I Do', 'Always', 'Marie', 'Russian Lullaby', 'Remember', 'The Song Is Ended' and 'How About Me'. More light-hearted pieces of the late 20s were 'Lazy', 'Shaking The Blues Away', 'Blue Skies' (interpolated into the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart score for Betsy (1927)), and songs such as 'Monkey Doodle Doo' and 'Lucky Boy' for the Marx Brothers' stage musical Cocoanuts.
After contributing to some early talking pictures such as Mammy ('Let Me Sing And I'm Happy') and 'Puttin' On The Ritz' (title song) in 1930, Berlin was inactive for a time during the early Depression years, but was soon back on top form again with the stage musicals Face The Music (1923, 'Soft Lights And Sweet Music', 'Let's Have Another Cup Of Coffee', 'On A Roof In Manhattan') and As Thousands Cheer (1933, 'Easter Parade', 'Heat Wave', 'Suppertime', 'Harlem On My Mind', 'Not For All The Rice In China'), as well as writing other memorable songs such as 'How Deep Is The Ocean' and 'Say It Isn't So'. In the 30s, like so many other Broadway composers, Berlin turned to Hollywood, and wrote the scores for several immensely popular film musicals, including Top Hat (1935, 'Cheek to Cheek', 'No Strings', 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails', 'Isn't This A Lovely Day'), Follow The Fleet (1936, 'Let's Face The Music And Dance', 'I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket', 'Let Yourself Go'), On The Avenue (1937, 'This Year's Kisses', 'I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm', 'The Girl On The Police Gazette', 'You're Laughing At Me'), Carefree (1938, 'Change Partners', 'I Used To Be Colour Blind'), and Second Fiddle (1939, 'I Poured My Heart Into A Song', 'I'm Sorry For Myself'). He also contributed the lovely 'Now It Can Be Told', and 'My Walking Stick', along with a batch of his old numbers, to the highly entertaining Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), which starred Alice Faye and Tyrone Power. With World War II on the horizon, Kate Smith introduced Berlin's 'God Bless America', which became a second US National Anthem, and raised thousands of dollars for the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides Of America. The catchy 'Any Bonds Today', also furthered Berlin's patriotic cause. However, in May 1940, a few months before the USA entered the war, he was back on Broadway with Louisana Purchase ('It's A Lovely Day Tomorrow', 'Outside Of That I Love You', 'You're Lonely And I'm Lonely'), which ran for over a year.
In 1943, Berlin donned World War I army uniform for This Is The Army, another all-soldier show, which he composed, produced and directed. In his small, high-pitched voice (Bing Crosby once said: 'You had to hug him to hear him'), Berlin reprised his 'Oh, How I Hate To get Up In The Morning', and also wrote 'This Is The Army, Mr. Jones','I Left My Heart At The Stage Door Canteen', and others, for the show, which toured the major US cities and American bases in Africa, Europe, and the South Pacific. In the same year, Berlin's score for the movie Holiday Inn, which starred Crosby and Fred Astaire, contained the Oscar-winning 'White Christmas', along with 'Count Your Blessings', 'Be Careful, It's My Heart', 'Let's Start The New Year Right', 'Happy Holiday', and 'I'll Capture Your Heart Singing', and several more new and old Berlin numbers. In 1946, Berlin's score for what is generally considered to be his masterpiece - Annie Get Your Gun - was full of hits, such as 'They Say It's Wonderful', 'Doin' What Comes Natur'lly', 'The Girl That I Marry', 'You Can't Get A Man With A Gun', 'Anything You Can Do', 'I Got The Sun In The Morning' and 'There's No Business Like Show Business', in addition to lesser-known gems like 'I Got Lost In His Arms'. In the same year, the movie Blue Skies introduced 'You Keep Coming Back Like A Song', 'A Couple Of Song And Dance Men' and 'Getting Nowhere'.
In 1948, Fred Astaire was persuaded out of retirement to appear with Judy Garland in Easter Parade. Johnny Green and Roger Edens won Academy Awards for 'scoring of a motion picture', but the real stars were Berlin songs such as 'It Only Happens When I Dance With You', 'A Fella With An Umbrella', 'Steppin' Out With My Baby', 'Better Luck Next Time', and one of the most-played clips in the history of the cinema, 'A Couple Of Swells'. Berlin's last Broadway show of the 40s, Miss Liberty (1949, 'Let's Take An Old-Fashioned Walk', 'A Man Chases A Girl (Until She Catches Him)', 'Just One Way To Say "I Love You"', 'Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor', 'You Can Have Him'), was considered to be a disappointment, but he began his fifth decade as a songwriter with the score for the smash hit Ethel Merman vehicle, Call Me Madam (1950, 'The Best Thing For You', 'You're Just In Love','It's A Lovely Day Today', 'The Hostess With The Mostes' On The Ball', 'Marrying For Love'). After writing several new songs, including 'Count Your Blessings Instead Of Sheep', 'Snow', 'Sisters', 'The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing' and 'Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me', for the movie White Christmas, and seeing many of his old numbers revived on screen in There's No Business Like Show Business, Irving Berlin retired until 1962, when he returned to Broadway with the score for the amusing political musical comedy Mr. President ('Let's Go Back To The Waltz', 'In Our Hideaway', 'Is He The Only Man In The World', 'Empty Pockets Filled With Love'). In spite of initial good notices, it only ran for eight months, and, apart from writing 'An Old Fashioned Wedding' for the 1966 Lincoln Center revival of Annie Get Your Gun, there were no more comebacks for Berlin, especially when the movie Say It With Music, on which he had been working throughout the 60s, was finally abandoned in 1969.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his foreign birth, Berlin was intensely American, both in his personal patriotism and acute sense of what made American popular music distinctive. Five years after he wrote 'They Like Ike' for Call Me Madam, in 1955 Berlin received a gold medal from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 'in recognition of his services in composing many patriotic songs including "God Bless America"'. His other honours included a medal of merit from the US Army for his work on This Is The Army, and a special Tony Award in 1963 for his 'distinguished contribution to the musical theatre these many years'. For the last 30 years of his long life, Berlin lived in semi-seclusion, ignoring media attempts to laud his achievements, even at such significant milestones as his 100th birthday. His unmatched contribution to the world of showbusiness is perhaps best summed up by the following quote, which is attributed to another great composer, Jerome Kern: 'Irving Berlin has no place in American music - he is American music.' In 1995, a musical conceived by George Faison and David Bishop, entitled C'mon & Hear! Irving Berlin's America, played some US provincial theatres, and Varèse Sarabande released Unsung Irving Berlin, comprising '31 hidden treasures' heard for the first time, and performed by some of Broadway's brightest talent, such as Emily Loesser, Crista Moore, Laurie Beechman, Liz Callaway, and Davis Gaines. In the same year, Musica nel Chiostro, the summer opera festival organization based in Tuscany, presented a fund-raising gala performance of Berlin's first full-length show, Watch Your Step, at Her Majesty's Theatre in London. Two years later another production, The Tin Pan Alley Rag, featuring the music of Berlin and Scott Joplin, had its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, California.
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