May 11, 1888 - September 22, 1989
Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin) was an American composer, one of the greatest and most prolific songwriters in American history, authoring nearly 1500 songs, scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films, and gathering 8 Academy Awards nominations during his 60-year career.
Irving Berlin – The Singing Newspaper Boy Who Lived His American Dream
Irving Berlin was one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilin, living - depending on the sources - either in Tyumen, Siberia, or in a village near the city of Mogilyov, now Belarus. His father, a cantor in a synagogue, moved to New York City in 1893, escaping widespread pogroms of the late XIX in the Russian Empire, and changing the surname to the easier-to-spell "Berlin".
Irving quit school at the age of 8 to sell newspapers in the Bowery. During that time the boy, hearing latest music hits from the doorways of saloons, had a bright idea: he started hawking newspapers while singing popular tunes, getting extra coins from delighted customers. He even cherished a dream of becoming a singing waiter at a restaurant!
In 1906, when he was 18, his dream came true: he started working as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown, making up parodies of hits and learning to play the piano during his breaks. Not long afterwards he got his break, when, having become well known in songwriter circles, he was invited as a staff lyricist with the Ted Snyder Company.
Very quickly Irving rose to the top of the trade thanks to his inborn sense of tempo and rhyme, and his incredible productivity: he would make it his custom to write a song every evening after work! By his own words, Berlin did not believe in inspiration, but believed in working under pressure as the best way of writing music...
"Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911), a song both popular in the broad masses and scolded by purists of the era, was the hit that made him internationally famous, starting a veritable dance craze on both sides of the Atlantic, and as far east as Russia!
On one occasion an heir of one of the most influential Russian aristocratic families, visiting New York with his fiancee, got into trouble with his highborn relatives by surrendering to the beat in one of the Big Apple's fashionable night hotspots, dancing like a madman to the "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and shouting "More rag, and more champaign!"
Another one of his greatest hits was "Puttin' on the Ritz" (1930), sung/danced by Fred Astaire in the iconic Blue Skies movie (1946), and covered by the techno artist Taco in 1983, making Berlin the oldest songwriter to have a current top Ten hit!
Berlin's musical scores are featured prominently in dozens of films, including "White Christmas" from Holiday Inn (1942) - one of the most recorded songs in history, as well as the soundtrack for There's No Business Like Show Business movie (1954).
Despite the tumultuous life, Berlin was married only twice. His first wife Dorothy Goetz died of typhoid fever only 6 months after the marriage, in 1912. He then married Ellin Mackay (1925), the daughter of a well-known and strictly Catholic New York magnate, who first disavowed the marriage of his daughter to a Jewish man, but then, during the Great Depression, turned to his son-in-law for help and was bailed out by Berlin.
Irving, wishing to secure his wife's future in case of his death or a forced divorce, transferred to her name the rights to some of his most profitable songs, including "Always", which is still played at weddings today!
Berlin died in his sleep on September 22, 1989 in New York City at the age of 101, survived by three daughters and nine grandchildren both in America and across the Atlantic.
Mary Ellin Barrett (1995). Irving Berlin: a daughter's memoir. Simon & Schuster
“Irving Berlin, Nation's Songwriter, Dies” New York Times, September 23, 1989
"Pop View; Irving Berlin's American Landscape" New York Times, May 10, 1987
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