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20th Century Composers

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Irvin Berlin

     Irvin Berlin died aged one-hundred-and-one of heart attack on 22nd September 1989 at home in New York City, United States of America and was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.photo of Irvin Berlin
On the evening following the announcement of his death, the marquee lights of Broadway playhouses were dimmed before curtain time in his memory. President George H. W. Bush said Irvin Berlin was "a legendary man whose words and music will help define the history of our nation." Just minutes before the President's statement was released, he joined a crowd of thousands to sing Irvin Berlin's "God Bless America" at a luncheon in Boston, Massachusetts. Former President Ronald Reagan, who co-starred in Irvin Berlin's 1943 musical 'This Is the Army', said, "Nancy and I are deeply saddened by the death of a wonderfully talented man whose musical genius delighted and stirred millions and will live on forever."
     Morton Gould, the composer and conductor who was president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), of which Irvin Berlin was a founder, said, "What to me is fascinating about this unique genius is that he touched so many people in so many age groups over so many years. He sounded our deepest feelings—happiness, sadness, celebration, loneliness." Ginger Rogers, who danced to Irvin Berlin tunes with Fred Astaire, told The Associated Press upon hearing of his death that working with Irvin Berlin had been "like heaven."
     Irvin Berlin was born Israel Isidore Beilin on 11th May, 1888, in the then Russian Empire. Although his family came from the shtetl of Tolochin (today in Belarus), documents say that he was born in Tyumen, Siberia. He was one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilin. His father, a cantor in a synagogue, uprooted the family to America, as did many other Jewish families in the late 19th century.
     On 14th September, 1893 the family arrived at Ellis Island in New York City. When they arrived, irvin was put in a pen with his brother and five sisters until immigration officials declared them fit to be allowed into the city. After their arrival, the name "Beilin" was changed to "Baline" and according to biographer Laurence Bergreen, as an adult Irvin Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia except for one: "he was lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes." As an adult, Irvin Berlin said he was unaware of being raised in abject poverty since he knew no other life.
     The Berlins were one of hundreds of thousands of other Jewish families who emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, escaping discrimination, poverty and brutal pogroms. Other such families included those of George and Ira Gershwin, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Jack Yellen, Louis B. Mayer (of MGM), and the Warner brothers.
     After their arrival in New York City, the Baline family lived briefly in a basement flat on Monroe Street, and then moved to a three-room tenement at 330 Cherry Street. His father, unable to find comparable work as a cantor in New York, took a job at a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons on the side to support his family. He died a few years later when Irving was just thirteen years old.
     Now, with only a few years of schooling, eight-year-old Irving began helping to support his family. He became a newspaper boy, hawking The Evening Journal. One day while delivering newspapers, according to Irvin Berlin's biographer and friend, Alexander Woollcott, he stopped to look at a ship departing for China and became so entranced that he did not see a swinging crane, which knocked him into the river. When he was fished out after going down for the third time, he was still holding in his clenched fist the five pennies he earned that day.
     Irvin's mother took a job as a midwife, and three of his sisters worked wrapping cigars, common for immigrant girls. His elder brother worked in a sweatshop assembling shirts. Each evening, when the family came home from their day's work, Bergreen writes, "they would deposit the coins they had earned that day into Lena's outspread apron.      
     Before Irvin Berlin was fourteen his meager income was still adding less than his sisters' were to the family's budget, which made him feel worthless. He then decided to leave home and join the city's ragged army of other young immigrants. He then lived in the Bowery, taking up residence in one of the lodging houses that sheltered the thousands of other homeless boys in the Lower East Side of New York.
     Having left school around the age of thirteen, Irvin Berlin had few survival skills and realized that formal employment was out of the question. His only ability was acquired from his father's vocation as a singer and he joined with several other youngsters who went to saloons on the Bowery and sang to customers. Itinerant young singers like them were common on the Lower East Side and Irvin Berlin would sing a few of the popular ballads he heard on the street, hoping people would pitch him a few pennies. From these seamy surroundings, he became streetwise, with real and lasting education. Music was his only source of income and he picked up the language and culture of the ghetto lifestyle.
     Irvin Berlin learned what kind of songs appealed to audiences, writes Begreen: "well-known tunes expressing simple sentiments were the most reliable." He soon began plugging songs at Tony Pastor's Music Hall in Union Square and in 1906, when he was eighteen, got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. Besides serving drinks, he sang made-up "blue" parodies of hit songs to the delight of customers.     
     Irvin Berlin continued writing and playing music at Pelham Cafe and developing an early style. He liked the words to other people's songs but sometimes the rhythms were "kind of boggy," and he sometimes changed them. One night he delivered some hits composed by his friend, George M. Cohan, another kid who was getting known on Broadway with his own songs. When Irvin Berlin ended with Cohan's "Yankee Doodle Boy," notes Whitcomb, "everybody in the joint applauded the feisty little fellow."      
     Later, in 1908, when he was twenty, Irvin Berlin took a new job at a saloon named Jimmy Kelly's in the Union Square neighborhood. There, he was able to collaborate with other young songwriters, such as Edgar Leslie, Ted Snyder, Al Piantadosi, and George A. Whiting. In 1909, the year of the premiere of Israel Zangwill's The Melting Pot, he got another big break as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company.
     Irvin Berlin rose as a songwriter in Tin Pan Alley and on Broadway. In 1911, Emma Carus introduced his first world-famous hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band", followed by a performance from Irvin Berlin himself at the Friars' Frolic of 1911. Irving became an instant celebrity, and the featured performer later that year at Oscar Hammerstein's vaudeville house, where he introduced dozens of other songs. The New York Telegraph described how two hundred of his street friends came to see "their boy" on stage:
     Irvin Berlin was "flabbergasted" by the sudden international popularity of Alexander's Ragtime Band, and wondered why it became a sudden hit. He decided it was partly because the lyrics.
     Variety Magazine called "Watch Your Step" the "first syncopated musical," where the "sets and the girls were gorgeous." Irvin Berlin was then twenty-six, and the success of the show was riding on his name alone. Variety said the show was a "terrific hit" from its opening night. It compared Irvin Berlin's newfound status as a composer with that of the Times building: "That youthful marvel of syncopated melody is proving things in "Watch Your Step", firstly that he is not alone a rag composer, and that he is one of the greatest lyric writers America has ever produced.
      Some of the songs Irvin Berlin created came out of his own sadness. For instance, in 1912 he married Dorothy Goetz, the sister of songwriter E. Ray Goetz. She died six months later of typhoid fever contracted during their honeymoon in Havana. The song he wrote to express his grief, "When I Lost You," was his first ballad. It was an immediate popular hit and sold more than a million copies. Irvin began to realize that ragtime was not a good musical style for serious romantic expression, and over the next few years adapted his style by writing more love songs. In 1915 he wrote the hit "I Love a Piano", a comical and erotic ragtime love song.
     By 1918 Irvin had written hundreds of songs, mostly topical, which enjoyed brief popularity. Many of the songs were for the new dances then appearing, such as the grizzly bear, chicken walk, or foxtrot. After a Hawaiian dance craze began, he wrote "That Hula-Hula", and then did a string of southern songs, such as "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabama". During this period, he was creating a few new songs every week, including songs aimed at the various immigrant cultures arriving from Europe. On one occasion, Irvin Berlin, whose face was still not known, was on a train trip and decided to entertain the fellow passengers with some music. They asked him how he knew so many hit songs, and Irvin Berlin modestly replied, "I wrote them."
     An important song that Irvin Berlin wrote during his transition from writing ragtime to lyrical ballads was "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," which became one of Irvin Berlin's "first big guns," says historian Alec Wilder. The song was written for Ziegfeld's Follies of 1919 and became the musical's lead song. Its popularity was so great that it later became the theme for all of Ziegfeld's revues, and the theme song in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld. Wilder puts it on the same level as Jerome Kern's "pure melodies," and in comparison with Irvin Berlin's earlier music, says it's "extraordinary that such a development in style and sophistication should have taken place in a single year."
     During April 1917, after President Woodrow Wilson declared that America would enter World War I, Irvin Berlin felt that Tin Pan Alley should do its duty and support the war with inspirational songs. Irvin wrote the song, "For Your Country and My Country", stating that "we must speak with the sword not the pen to show our appreciation to America for opening up her heart and welcoming every immigrant group." He also co-wrote a song aimed at ending ethnic conflict called "Let's All Be Americans Now."
     At the grand finale Irvin Berlin led the entire 300-person cast off the stage, marching them down the theater's aisles, singing 'We're on Our Way to France,' all to tumultuous applause. The cast carried off their little producer like he was victor ludorum...Tin Pan Alley had joined hands with real life.
     In 1917, Irvin Berlin was drafted into the United States Army, and his induction became headline news, with one paper headline reading, "Army Takes Irvin Berlin!" But the Army wanted Irvin Berlin, now aged 30, to do what he knew best: write songs. While stationed with the 152nd Depot Brigade at Camp Upton, he then composed an all-soldier musical revue titled "Yip Yip Yaphank", written to be patriotic tribute to the United States Army. By the following summer, the show was taken to Broadway where it also included a number of hits, including "Mandy" and "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning", which he performed himself. One song he wrote for the show but decided not to use was introduced twenty years later, it was "God Bless America."
     Irvin Berlin returned to Tin Pan Alley after the war and in 1921 created a partnership with Sam Harris to build the Music Box Theater. He maintained an interest in the theater throughout his life, and even in his last years was known to call the Shubert Organization, his partner, to check on the receipts. In its early years, the theater was a showcase for revues by Irvin Berlin. As theater owner, producer and composer, he looked after every detail of his shows, from the costumes and sets to the casting and musical arrangements.
     According to Irvin Berlin biographer, David Leopold, the theater, located at 239 West 45th St., was the only Broadway house built to accommodate the works of a songwriter. It was the home of Irvin Berlin's "Music Box Revue" from 1921 to 1925 and "As Thousands Cheer" in 1933 and today includes an exhibition devoted to Irvin Berlin in the lobby.
     By 1926, Irvin Berlin had written the scores to two editions of the Ziegfeld Follies and four "Music Box Revues." Irvin Berlin's "Music Box Revues" spanned the years of 1921-1926, premiering songs such as "Say It With Music", "Everybody Step", and "Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil". Life magazine called him the "Lullaby Kid", noting that "couples at country-club dances grew misty-eyed when the band went into "Always", because they were positive that Irvin Berlin had written it just for them. When they quarreled and parted in the bitter-sweetness of the 1920s, it was Irvin Berlin who gave eloquence to their heartbreak by way of "What'll I Do" and "Remember" and "All Alone."  This ballad of love and longing was a hit record for Paul Whiteman and had several other successful recordings in 1924. Twenty-four years later, the song went to number 22 for Nat Cole and number 23 for Frank Sinatra. Written when he fell in love with Ellin Mackay, who later became his wife. The song became a hit twice in its first incarnation. There were four more hit versions in 1944–45. In 1959, Sammy Turner took the song to no. 2 on the R&B chart. It became Patsy Cline's postmortem anthem and hit number 18 on the country chart in 1980, seventeen years after her death, and a tribute musical called "Always... Patsy Cline", played a two-year Nashville run that ended in 1995. Leonard Cohen included a cover of this song on his 1992 album release 'The Future'.
     Written after his first daughter's birth, Irvin Berlin distilled his feelings about being married and a father for the first time with the lyrics: "Blue days, all of them gone; nothing but blue skies, from now on." The song was introduced by Belle Baker in Betsy, a Ziegfeld production. It became a hit recording for Ben Selvin and one of several Irvin Berlin hits in 1927. It was performed by Al Jolson in the first feature sound film, The Jazz Singer, that same year. In 1946, it returned to the top 10 on the charts with Count Basie and Benny Goodman. In 1978, Willie Nelson made the song a no. 1 country hit, 52 years after it was written. An instant standard with one of Irvin Berlin's most "intricately syncopated choruses", this song is associated with Fred Astaire, who sang and danced to it in the 1946 film 'Blue Skies'. In 1939, Clark Gable sang it in the movie 'Idiot's Delight'. In 1974 it was featured in the movie 'Young Frankenstein' by Mel Brooks, and was a number 4 hit for the techno artist Taco in 1983. In 2012 it was used for a flash mob wedding event in Moscow. This waltz-time song was a hit for Rudy Vallée in 1929, and in 1937, updated to a four-quarter-time swing arrangement, was a top hit for Tommy Dorsey. It was on the charts at number 13 in 1953 for The Four Tunes and at number 15 for the Bachelors in 1965, thirty-six years after its first appearance.      
     Irvin Berlin loved his country, and wrote many songs reflecting his patriotism. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau requested a song to inspire Americans to buy war bonds, for which he wrote "Any Bonds Today?" He assigned all royalties to the United States Treasury Department. He then wrote songs for various government agencies and likewise assigned all profits to them: "Angels of Mercy" for the American Red Cross; "Arms for the Love of America", for the Army Ordnance Department; and "I Paid My Income Tax Today," again to Treasury.
     When the United States joined World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Irvin Berlin immediately began composing a number of patriotic songs. His most notable and valuable contribution to the war effort was a stage show he wrote called "This is the Army". It was taken to Broadway and then on to Washington, D.C. , where President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended. It was eventually shown at military bases throughout the world, including London, North Africa, Italy, Middle East, and Pacific countries, sometimes in close proximity to battle zones. Irvin Berlin wrote nearly three dozen songs for the show which contained a cast of 300 men. He supervised the production and travelled with it, always singing "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning". The show kept him away from his family for three and a half years, during which time he took neither salary nor expenses, and turned over all profits to the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
      The grueling tours Irvin Berlin did performing "This Is The Army" left him exhausted, but when his old and close friend Jerome Kern, who was the composer for "Annie Get Your Gun", died suddenly, producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II persuaded Irvin Berlin to take over composing the score. What distinguishes Irvin Berlin is the brilliance of his lyrics. 'You Can't Get a Man With a Gun'—that's as good a comic song as has ever been written by anybody. You look at the jokes and how quickly they're told, and it still has a plot to it. It's sophisticated and very underrated.
     Irvin Berlin's next show, 'Miss Liberty' in 1949 was disappointing, but 'Call Me Madam' in 1950, starring Ethel Merman as Sally Adams, a Washington, D.C. socialite, loosely based on the famous Washington hostess Perle Mesta, fared better, giving him his second greatest success. Irvin Berlin made two attempts to write a musical about his friend, the colorful Addison Mizner, and Addison's con man brother Wilson. The first was the uncompleted The Last Resorts in 1952. Wise Guy in 1956 was completed but never produced, although songs have been published and recorded on 'The Unsung Irving Irvin Berlin' . After a failed attempt at retirement, in 1962, at the age of 74, Irvin returned to Broadway with Mr. President and although it ran for eight months, with the premiere attended by President John F. Kennedy, it was not one of his successful plays. Afterwards, Irvin Berlin officially announced his retirement and spent his remaining years in New York. He did, however, write one new song, "An Old-Fashioned Wedding," for the 1966 Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman.
     Irvin Berlin maintained a low profile through the last decades of his life, almost never appearing in public after the late 1960s, even for events held in his honor. However, he continued to maintain control of his songs through his own music publishing company, which remained in operation for the rest of his life.
In 1927, his song "Blue Skies", was featured in the first feature-length talkie, 'The Jazz Singer', with Al Jolson. Later, movies like 'Top Hat' in 1935 became the first of a series of distinctive film musicals by Irvin Berlin starring performers such as Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, and Alice Faye. 'Top Hat' featured a brand new score, as did several more, including 'Follow the Fleet' in 1936, 'On the Avenue' in 1937, 'Carefree' in 1938 and 'Second Fiddle' in 1939.      Starting with Alexander's Ragtime Band in 1938, Irvin often blended new songs with existing ones from his catalog. He continued this process with the films 'Holiday Inn' in 1942, 'Blue Skies' in 1946 and 'Easter Parade' in 1948, with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, and 'There's No Business Like Show Business' in 1954.     The 1942 film 'Holiday Inn' introduced "White Christmas", one of the most recorded songs in history.
     According to some, it was a ritual for Irvin Berlin to write a complete song, words and music, every day. Irvin Berlin was known to have said that he did not believe in inspiration and felt that although he may be gifted in certain areas, his most successful compositions were the result of work and that he did most of his work under pressure. He would typically begin writing after dinner and continue until 4am or 5am in the morning.
    In later years, Irvin Berlin emphasized his conviction, saying that, it is the lyrics that make a song a hit although the tune is what makes it last. Though Irvin Berlin eventually learned to write music, he never changed his method of dictating songs to a notation secretary.
    Years later in the 1920s, Irvin fell in love with a young heiress, Ellin Mackay, the daughter of Clarence Mackay, the socially prominent head of the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, and an author in her own right. Because Irvin Berlin was Jewish and she was a Catholic of Irish descent, their life was followed in every possible detail by the press, which found the romance of an immigrant from the Lower East Side and a young heiress a good story. They met in 1924, and her father opposed the match from the start. He went so far as to send her off to Europe to find other suitors and forget Irvin Berlin. However, Irvin Berlin wooed her with letters and song over the airwaves such as "Remember" and "All Alone," and she wrote to him daily. .
    Their wedding news made the front-page of The New York Times. The marriage took her father by surprise, and he was stunned upon reading about it. The bride's mother, however, who was at the time divorced from Mackay, wanted her daughter to follow the dictates of her own heart. Irvin Berlin had gone to her mother's home before the wedding and had obtained her blessing.
    There followed reports that the bride's father now disowned his daughter because of the marriage. In response, Irvin Berlin gave the rights to "Always", a song still played at weddings, to her as a wedding present. Ellin Mackay was thereby guaranteed a steady income regardless of what might happen with the marriage. For years, Mackay refused to speak to the Berlins, but they reconciled after they lost their first son on Christmas Eve in 1928, less than one month after he was born. Their marriage remained a love affair and they were inseparable until she died in July 1988 at the age of eighty-five. They had four children during their sixty-three years of marriage.
    In 1916, in the earlier phase of Irvin Berlin's career, producer and composer George M. Cohan, during a toast to the young Irvin Berlin at a Friar's Club dinner in his honor, said, "The thing I like about Irvin is that although he has moved up-town and made lots of money, it hasn't turned his head. He hasn't forgotten his friends, he doesn't wear funny clothes, and you will find his watch and his handkerchief in his pockets, where they belong."
    Irvin Berlin voted for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates but he supported the presidential candidacy of General Dwight Eisenhower, and his song "I Like Ike" featured prominently in the Eisenhower campaign. In his later years he also became more conservative in his views on music. According to his daughter, "He was consumed by patriotism." He often said, "I owe all my success to my adopted country" and once rejected his lawyers' advice to invest in tax shelters, insisting, "I want to pay taxes. I love this country.
     Irvin Berlin was also a Freemason and was a staunch advocate of civil rights. He was honored in 1944 by the National Conference of Christians and Jews for "advancing the aims of the conference to eliminate religious and racial conflict." His 1943 production "This Is The Army", was the first integrated division army unit in the United States. In 1949, the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA) honored him as one the twelve "most outstanding Americans of Jewish faith." While he was ethnically and culturally Jewish, he was religiously agnostic. mage of Irvin Berlin

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music:
'Various Artists: The Very Best of Irving Berlin'