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Irving Berlin Biography

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Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888 – September 22, 1989), born Israel Isidore Baline, in Tyumen, Russia (according to other sources possibly Mogilev, now Belarus), was an American composer and lyricist, one of the most prodigious and famous American songwriters in history.

Berlin, who was Jewish, was one of the few Tin Pan Alley/Broadway songwriters who wrote both lyrics and music for his songs. Although he never learned to read music beyond a rudimentary level, he composed over 3,000 songs, many of which, including "God Bless America", "White Christmas", "Alexander's Ragtime Band", and "There's No Business Like Show Business," left an indelible mark on American music and culture. He produced 17 film scores and 21 Broadway scores, in addition to his individual songs.

Irving Berlin's family immigrated to the United States in 1891. His parents were Leah (Lena) Yarchin and Moses Baline; his father was a rabbi who obtained work certifying kosher meat. Following the death of his father in 1896, Irving found himself having to work to survive. He did various street jobs, including selling newspapers and busking. The harsh economic reality of having to work or starve was to have a lasting effect on the way Berlin treated money. While working as a singing waiter at Pelham's Cafe in Chinatown, Berlin was asked by the proprietor to write an original song for the cafe because a rival tavern had had their own song published. "Marie from Sunny Italy" was the result, and it was soon published. Although it only earned him 37 cents, it gave him a new career, and a new name: Israel Baline was misprinted as "I. Berlin" on the sheet music.

Many of his earliest songs, among them "Sadie Salome (Go Home)," "That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune," and "Oh How That German Could Love," enjoyed modest success in sheet music form, as recordings, on the vaudeville stage, or as interpolations into stage shows, but it was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," written in 1911, that launched his career as one of Tin Pan Alley's brightest stars. Richard Corliss, in a Time Magazine profile of Berlin in 2001, wrote:

After the success of "Alexander," Berlin was rumored to be writing a "ragtime opera," but instead he produced his first full-length work for the musical stage, "Watch Your Step" (1914), starring Irene and Vernon Castle, the first musical comedy to make pervasive use of syncopated rhythms. A similar show entitled "Stop! Look! Listen!" followed in 1915.

In 1917, during World War I, he entered the United States Army and staged a musical revue Yip Yip Yaphank while at Camp Upton in Yaphank, New York. Billed as "a military mess cooked up by the boys of Camp Upton," the cast of the show consisted of 350 members of the armed forces. The revue was a patriotic tribute to the United States Army, and Berlin composed a song entitled "God Bless America" for the show, but decided against using it. When it was released years later, "God Bless America" proved so popular that suggestions were made that it should become the National Anthem. It remains to this day one of his most successful songs and one of the most widely-known in the United States. A particularly famous rendition occurred after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when members of the United States Congress stood together on the steps of the Capitol building and sang Berlin's song. Some songs from the Yaphank revue were later included in the 1943 movie This Is the Army featuring other Berlin songs, including the famous title piece, as well as a rendition of "God Bless America" by Kate Smith.

After the war, Berlin built his own theater, the Music Box, as a showplace for annual revues featuring his latest songs; the first of these was "The Music Box Revue of 1921." The theater is still in use, incidentally. 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. The Cocoanuts (1925) was a light comedy, with a cast featuring, among others, the Marx Brothers. Face the Music (1932) was a political satire with a book by Moss Hart, and Louisiana Purchase (1940) was a satire of a Southern politician, obviously based on the exploits of Huey Long. As Thousands Cheer (1933) was a revue with a theme; each number was presented as an item in a newspaper, some of them touching on issues of the day. The show yielded a succession of hit songs, including "Easter Parade," "Heat Wave" (presented as the weather forecast), "Harlem on My Mind," and perhaps his most powerful ballad, "Supper Time," a haunting song about racial bigotry that was unusually weighty for a musical revue and was sung by Ethel Waters in a heartrending rendition.

During World War II, after receiving permission from General George Marshall, Berlin organized an all-soldier revue in the spirit of Yip Yip Yaphank. This Is the Army opened on July 4, 1942, with a cast of over 300 servicemen, and ran for three years, first on Broadway, then on tour in the United States, and then abroad.

Berlin's most successful Broadway musical was Annie Get Your Gun (1946), produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Loosely based on the life of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, the music and lyrics were written by Berlin, with a book by Herbert Fields and his sister Dorothy Fields. Berlin had taken on the job after the original choice, Jerome Kern, died suddenly. At first he refused to take on the job, claiming that he knew nothing about "hillbilly music," but the show ran for 1,147 performances. It is said that the showstopper song, "There's No Business Like Show Business," was almost left out of the show altogether because Berlin wrongly got the impression that Rodgers and Hammerstein, did not like it. Annie Get Your Gun is considered to be Berlin's best musical theatre score not only because of the number of hits it contains, but because its songs successfully combine character and plot development.

Berlin's next show, Miss Liberty (1949), was a relative flop. Call Me Madam (1950), with Ethel Merman portraying the famous Washington hostess Perle Mesta, fared somewhat better, but his last show, Mr. President (1962), was such an unmitigated disaster that Berlin essentially retired from the public eye.

In 1927, one of Berlin's songs, "Blue Skies," a hit from 1926, was featured in the first talkie (motion picture with sound), The Jazz Singer, in which it was sung by Al Jolson. Top Hat (1935) was the first of a series of distinctive film musicals pioneered by Berlin that featured popular and attractive performers (such as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Ginger Rogers), light romantic plots, and a seemingly endless string of his new and old songs. Others films of this sort included On the Avenue (1937), Holiday Inn (1942), Blue Skies (1946, and Easter Parade (1948). The film version of This Is the Army (1943), which featured Berlin himself singing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," was a success, but film versions of several of his stage musicals, including Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Call Me Madam (1953), were somewhat less successful than his written-for-Hollywood shows.

Holiday Inn introduced "White Christmas," one of the most-recorded songs in history. First sung in the film by Bing Crosby, it sold over 30 million copies when released as a record. The song was re-used as the title theme of the 1954 musical film, White Christmas, which starred Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. Crosby's single of "White Christmas" was recognized as the best-selling single in any music category for more than 50 years until 1997, when Elton John's tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, "Candle In the Wind," overtook it in a matter of months. However, Crosby's recording of "White Christmas" has sold additional millions of copies as part of numerous compilation albums, including his best-selling album Merry Christmas, which was first released as an LP in 1949.
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