- 1888-05-11 - 1989-09-22
Israel Beilin, known as Irving Berlin, is widely regarded as one of the best and most prolific American composer-lyricists ever. Although born in Russia, his father brought the family to the US in 1893 to escape the widespread religious persecution in Russia during that period. The family, like many Jewish immigrants of the time, was extremely poor. Berlin worked to help support his family from the age of 8, hawking newspapers and singing for spare change. It was in those jobs that he learned what kind of music people wanted to hear and picked up the "ghetto" language and culture for which his work would become famous. As a teenager he began plugging songs at Tony Pastor's Music Hall, and in 1906 he was hired as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe. He apparently taught himself to play piano after hours by copying and improvising on popular songs.
After working as a song plugger for Harry Von Tilzer for several years, in 1911 Berlin finally wrote and published the song that would catapult him into the spotlight: "Alexander's Ragtime Band". He rode the song's popularity, writing a ragtime musical revue in 1914 called "Watch Your Step". It was his first complete musical score. He soon transitioned into writing a string of lyric ballads as well as hundreds of briefly popular topical songs. In 1919 Berlin made headlines again when he wrote "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" for Florenz Ziegfeld's "Follies of 1919"; the song would be used as the opening theme for every Follies after that, as well as the 1936 movie "The Great Ziegfeld".
Berlin felt strongly that even Tin Pan Alley should support the US during times of conflict; when the US entered World War I in 1917, he wrote the song "For Your Country and My Country" and, after being drafted that same year, created the revue "Yip Yip Yaphank" as part of the 152nd Depot Brigade. The revue would end up on Broadway the next year, with Berlin performing. One notable song that didn't make it into the revue, but that he would finally publish in 1938, was "God Bless America".
After the end of World War I, Berlin created the Music Box Theater with Sam Harris to help showcase his songs. Between the wars, he published a steady stream of what would become popular standards: "Always," "Blue Skies," "Puttin' on the Ritz," and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." He also headed several revues, including "As Thousands Cheer," which added "Heat Wave" and "Supper Time" to his growing list of standards. He also wrote scores and songs for major film musicals, including "Top Hat" (1935), "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), "Holiday Inn" (1942), "Blue Skies" (1946) and "Easter Parade" (1948). "Holiday Inn," of course, was the vehicle for one of the best-selling songs of all time: "White Christmas," sung by Bing Crosby.
Berlin immediately returned to his patriotic writing after the attack on Pearl Harbor, creating another stage show called "This Is the Army." He supervised the 300-man production as it ran on Broadway and in Washington, DC, and then continued to travel with it overseas for over 3 years. He personally performed "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," originally written for "Yip Yip Yaphank," at nearly every show. He took no wages the entire time, and donated all the show's profits to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
Almost immediately upon his return to the US, Berlin was approached by Rodger and Hammerstein to compose the music for their upcoming musical "Annie Get Your Gun"; Jerome Kern had been hired to write the score, but his sudden death left the pair stranded until Berlin reluctantly accepted. Despite his reluctance, "Annie Get Your Gun" includes some of Berlin's most famous Broadway songs: "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "Anything You Can Do." Berlin went on to write several more shows, the most successful of which was another Ethel Merman vehicle, "Call Me Madam." After writing "Mr. President" in 1962, Berlin officially renounced his retirement and stuck to it, very rarely appearing at public events and only writing one more new song, "An Old-Fashioned Wedding," for the Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun" in 1966.
Berlin died in his sleep at the age of 101.