Irving Berlin

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Berlin, one of the most prolific and recognized American songwriters, has had the exceptional ability to make his tunes and rhythms conform to the style and mood of the times in which he has lived.

Early Life

In Siberia, at the time when Irving Berlin was born (as Israel Baline), Jewbaiting was a popular local entertainment. Hordes of Russians, often from other villages, would surge through Jewish communities, looting homes and businesses, raping Jewish women, burning synagogues, beating and murdering while the police stood idly by. Such atrocities fed the anger of some of the czarist system’s bitterest foes, who were determined to destroy it and all it represented; others, such as Berlin’s father, chose to forsake their homeland for the uncertain future of life in the Lower East Side slums of New York. Moses Baline’s decision was particularly understandable: As a cantor in the local synagogue, he was especially targeted for persecution. Therefore, in 1892, a year of increased legal restrictions against the Jews, he took his wife and most of his eight children and headed westward.

The Baline family set up housekeeping in a three-room, windowless apartment on Monroe Street. The father, unable to find work as a cantor, worked in a kosher slaughterhouse and earned extra money by giving Hebrew lessons. After three years, at the time when young Israel entered public school, the family was able to move to slightly better quarters on Cherry Street. In 1896, the elder Baline died, and, shortly afterward, Israel left school to help support the family. His first job was selling newspapers, a task he tried to make less onerous by singing songs on the street corners, songs that he heard played in the local saloons. Sometimes passersby, liking what they heard, would toss him a few pennies.

When he was fourteen, he left home, supporting himself by casual employment as a singing waiter in a beer hall or by making the rounds of various Bowery haunts, belting out songs on his own. He also worked for a time publicizing songs for a sheet-music seller. His first regular job came in 1908, when he was hired as a singing waiter by Pelham’s café. At Pelham’s, he earned seven dollars a week singing the favorites of George M. Cohan and other popular tunes which he frequently parodied with his own words. While at Pelham’s, he wrote the lyrics to a song, composed by the café’s piano player, Nick Nicholson, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” earning seventy-five cents in royalties. His name was listed on the title page as I. Berlin, a result, no doubt of a mistranslation of an incorrect pronunciation, but he liked the change so much that he decided to keep it, changing his first name as well. Irving sounded more impressive, and less biblical, than Israel.

Berlin continued to work as a singing waiter, now at a bar in Times Square, and continued to write lyrics for other people’s songs, but he also started to write his own tunes. None of these early efforts, such as “Queenie, My Own” and “She Was a Dear Little Girl,” was particularly memorable. Nor did his background seem to prepare him for his future success in musical comedy. He had only two years of formal schooling, none at all in music, which he could not read. He played the piano a bit, but his skill, such as it was, was restricted to using only the black keys in F sharp. Yet, by 1909, his compositions, which others transcribed, were becoming well-known, and he obtained a job as a staff composer at the Seminary Music Company, where he earned twenty-five dollars a week.

His chief assignment there was as lyricist with Ted Snyder, the firm’s director, who usually provided the music. Berlin’s desire to compose his own music led him, in 1911, to write the song that would establish him as one of the most famous popular composers of his day. When “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” first appeared as an instrumental, its success was limited, but then Berlin added words, which he took from another of his unsuccessful songs, and it became a sensation, establishing ragtime as the popular musical idiom of the time. It was one of the first songs of Tin Pan Alley to have its verse and refrain in different keys. Berlin now became a full partner of the firm in which he worked, Waterson, Berlin and Synder Company. The firm’s logo was a target with an arrow pinpointing the center, Berlin’s name appearing over the bull’s-eye.

Life’s Work

In 1912, at the age of twenty-four, Berlin had achieved a degree of success that few musicians attain in a lifetime. His output was enormous. He could write a song a day (although his average was closer to one a week); he had made his stage debut on Broadway in a revue entitled Up and Down Broadway (1910), in which he sang many of his own songs; he had written the score for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1911; and he was making about $100,000 a year. Berlin’s life was marred by a personal tragedy, however, when his bride of five months died of typhoid fever, contracted while on their honeymoon to Cuba; Berlin’s first ballad, “When I Lost You,” which became a national hit, was a product of this period. Berlin also began working on a revue in which he composed, for the first time, both the words and the music. Watch Your Step (1914) contained the famous contrapuntal song “Play a Simple Melody.” The show featured the darlings of the Broadway stage, the dancing Castles, Vernon and Irene, and was featured in London the following year. Berlin was at that time involved with two other stage productions in New York City.

Berlin’s theatrical career seemed to come to a temporary halt when he was inducted into the army during World War I and sent to Camp Yaphank on Long Island for training. “The U.S. Army Takes Berlin” was how one newspaper headline read. Yet Berlin’s commanding officer considered the recruit’s talents to be too special for combat. General Franklin Bell wanted to build a base community house for the visiting relatives of the soldiers, and he needed to raise thirty-five thousand dollars. He offered, and Berlin accepted, the proposal to put on an all-soldiers’ show as a fund-raiser. Berlin demanded and received an ensemble of three hundred, half in the cast, the remainder comprising the orchestra, the production, and backstage personnel; he conducted the auditions, directed the publicity, and booked the theater. Yip, Yip, Yaphank opened in August, 1918, at the Century Theatre in New York City, scheduled for eight performances; it ran for thirty-two. Berlin sang two numbers, “Poor Little Me—I’m on K.P.” and the showstopping “Oh, How I Hate to...

(The entire section is 2750 words.)