Irving Berlin was born Israel Isidore Baline on May 11, 1888, in Tyumen, Russian Empire. He was one of eight children born to his parents. In 1893 his family immigrated and settled in New York City. By the age of eight, he’d quit school and was selling newspapers. While selling papers he would hear the music at the nearby saloons and restaurants. He left home when he was fourteen years old.
Needing a way to support himself, he began going to saloons to sing, a skill he’d learned from his father. During this time he gained his musical education from playing in these locales. He also learned the “language of the street.” He learned the songs people enjoyed and became a singing waiter when he was eighteen. During this time he taught himself to play the piano and wrote his first song “Marie From Sunny Italy”. On this first piece of music, his name was misspelled I. Berlin, the name he’d use from thus forth. He soon began collaborating with other writers and by the age of twenty-one was on staff as a lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company.
“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” became his first hit in 1911. The song made him an instant success. George Gershwin said at the time “The first real American musical work is ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ Berlin had shown us the way; it was now easier to attain our ideal.”
In 1912 he married Dorothy Goetz, but she contracted typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba. Sadly six months after they were married she died. He turned his grief to his music with such songs as “When I Lost You” and “I Love a Piano”.
In 1914, his score for the revue “Watch Your Step” became his first complete score. Berlin wrote in the American vernacular. He said: “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American… My public is the real people.”
In 1917 he was drafted into the army and wrote patriotic songs to lift the country’s morale. During this time he wrote “God Bless America” but the song was not introduced to the public for another twenty years during another war. Irving Berlin once said that, “a patriotic song is an emotion and you must not embarrass an audience with it, or they will hate your guts.”
In 1919 his ballad “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” became such a hit that the Ziegfeld Follies adopted the song as their theme.
In 1924, songwriter Jerome Kern observed “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music.” In 1925 he met Ellin MacKay, but her father objected to their relationship. Berlin would not be hindered and wrote the songs “Remember” and “Always” to woo her. The couple married and were inseparable for the sixty-three years of their marriage. They had four children together.
“Blue Skies” was written in 1926 for the birth of their oldest daughter. Al Jolson performed the song for the first feature sound film “The Jazz Singer.”
“Puttin’ on the Ritz” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” became some other hits of the next decade. By 1933 he was drawn to the motion pictures. He would write the songs for a number of popular musicals over the coming decades.
“God Bless America” was first publicly played in 1938. The phrase “God Bless America” was taken from his own mother. World War II began and Berlin wrote and produced the musical “This is the Army”. The show was taken from Broadway to Washington, DC and later made into a movie. He was able to raise over ten million dollars for the Emergency Relief Fund with his musical.
After the war, his attention again turned to the stage and film with productions such as “Annie Get Your Gun “, “Call Me Madam”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. More hit songs also followed including “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade”. The song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” became Ethel Merman’s trademark. “Annie Get Your Gun” was praised for the integration of score, script and character development.
Berlin said he wrote most of his songs at night and under pressure. He never learned to play in more than one key and used a custom-made 1940 Weser Brothers piano with a transposing lever to change keys. He would pay a musician to write his music down for him and add the harmonization.
Berlin’s wife, Ellin, died in July 1988. He died September 22, 1989, in New York City. He was 101 years old. Broadway dimmed the lights the night he died. President George H. W. Bush said he “a legendary man whose words and music will help define the history of our nation.”
Irving Berlin will always remain the epitome of American music.