With words and music.
Please listen and we'll begin
Introducing Irving Berlin.
That song-writing fellow
Wants to say hello,
So we will help him along
To say it with a beautiful song.
The Revelers sing on the "Good Gulf Program," May 13, 1934
His songs are not remembered as having the romance of Jerome Kern's, the wit of Cole Porter's, the lilt of Richard Rodgers', the sophistication of George Gershwin's. But his songs are surely remembered and as more than exhibits in the museum of old tunes. "God Bless America," "Easter Parade" and "White Christmas" and a couple dozen others run through the mental juke boxes of people who don't care who wrote them or how long ago they were first popular. Like a pretty girl (in another Berlin lyric), his melodies haunt you night and day. They are the 20th century's enduring folk music, and Berlin was the Stephen Foster of his age, and ours.
Like Foster, Berlin adapted some of his early hits from Negro music. And in his first flush of success, 90 years ago, he wrote so prolifically (averaging a new published song a week) that it was rumored "a little colored boy" was the real composer of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and other syncopated hits. (Berlin's response, noted in Lawrence Bergreen's excellent biography "As Thousands Cheer": "Do you realize how many little nigger boys I'd have to have?") The simple fact is that he wrote fast. In 1946, when he accepted the job of doing the music for the Broadway show "Annie Get Your Gun," Berlin went off for a weekend and returned with five songs "Anything You Can Do," "The Girl That I Marry," "My Defenses Are Down," "Doin' What Comes Naturally" and "I Got the Sun in the Morning" all instant standards.
The "little colored boy" rumor was just one of many that arose from his rivals' envy or astonishment at the quantity, quality and range of Berlin's output. Another was that he picked out his songs with one finger. To disprove this one, Berlin arranged in 1926 to play for the Herald Tribune's Paul N. Stone, who reported: "It was a simple demonstration, but it did take in eight fingers and two thumbs."
THE BERLIN MIRACLE
It's true that Berlin, an emigre from Czarist Russia, had no formal training in composition. He could not read music. He employed arrangers to transcribe the pulsing melodies and often complex harmonies that poured out of his head and through his clumsy fingers. He could play in only one key, banging out his numbers on a special piano (he called it "the Buick") that, with the push of a pedal, could transpose keys. Even on his own machine, Berlin was a lousy salesman of his music; his ragged vocal and instrumental technique could undermine his best work. In 1934, Fred Astaire and the "Top Hat" production team gathered to hear the numbers Berlin had written for the movie. "And then he would sing the song," Hermes Pan, Astaire's choreographer, told Bergreen, "and we were all asking ourselves, Is this any good? I remember 'Cheek to Cheek' especially: the way he sang and played, it sounded so awful."
"Is this any good?" It's a question Berlin kept bugging himself with. He was obsessed with writing hits, and if he was absent from the top of the charts for a year or so, he'd drive himself nuts wondering if his long run as America's troubadour was suddenly over. One dry spell came in 1930. He hadn't had a #1 song in three years; now he'd gone to Hollywood to write a musical for Douglas Fairbanks, "Reaching for the Moon," and after discouraging previews the studio had cut most of the songs. "I developed the damnedest feelings of inferiority," Berlin said. "I got so I called in anybody to listen to my songs stockroom boys, secretaries. One blink of an eye and I was stuck."
He wasn't stuck long. Another 1930 movie tune, "Puttin' On the Ritz," went to #1, and within two years Berlin was hot on Broadway, with hit shows ("Face the Music" and "As Thousands Cheer") that birthed "Heat Wave," "Easter Parade" and that perk-me-up Depression cheer, "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee." Ethan Mordden's analysis of the song, in his book "Broadway Babies," gets to the heart of Berlin's staying power: "Part of being essential to pop culture is staying adaptable. In days of rag, the jazz age, and now in hard times, Berlin not only anticipated the general feeling but styled it attractively, gave advice that most people wanted to take." Berlin was clever, but not too too clevah. His songs had a plebian sophistication the wit everybody could get.
His achievements are incomparable. He wrote what could be called the first modern pop hit ("Alexander's Ragtime Band"). He wrote the most popular song in history ("White Christmas") and the longest-lived pop anthem ("God Bless America"). A one-man synthesis of American assimilation, he helped define American pop with three other gents from all over the map: New York Jew Al Jolson, Omaha German-American Fred Astaire and Tacoma, Wash., Catholic Bing Crosby.
Berlin never topped the work he did for Astaire on three 30s film musicals; neither did anyone else. The 13 Berlin songs Astaire sang and recorded from "Top Hat," "Follow the Fleet" and "Carefree" all landed in the pop charts' top 15. Three ("Cheek to Cheek," "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," "Change Partners") got to #1. Two others ("Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "Let Yourself Go") hit #2. "Isn't This a Lovely Day" reached #3. And all have lingered like a perfume that never goes stale. The range and artistry, the vigor and virtuosity of just these few tunes assure Berlin of a perch in the Pantheon.
Two years ago, when TIME's editors were choosing "the" song of the 20th century, my suggestion was "Cheek to Cheek" a dance-and-romance tune composed in an ambitious, 64-bar structure. Berlin pitched it smartly to Astaire's frail but persuasive tenor voice; for example, in the phrase "And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak," the melody zigzags up to a note Astaire can hardly sing. The song's daring swings of rhythm and emotion consecutively express three moods of a lover in pursuit bliss ("Heaven, I'm in heaven"), jauntiness ("Oh, I love to climb a mountain...") and desperate ardor ("Dance with me!") which Astaire's dance of seduction with Ginger Rogers sublimely dramatizes. It's a miraculous piece of music, and Berlin wrote it all in a day.
Berlin's mix of sentiment and a brash, welcoming wit made him the favorite composer of the people but maybe not of other top composers. I wonder if he was ever considered a member of their club, of whether he considered himself one. Oh, they were all chummy. Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were his producers on "Annie Get Your Gun"; he took over from Kern, who had died suddenly. (Twenty years earlier, Rodgers was not so pleased when, at the request of the star Belle Baker, Berlin had written a song for her to interpolate into an otherwise all-Rodgers-and-Hart score for the Broadway musical "Betsy." The song, "Blue Skies," was the show's biggest hit.) George Gershwin's death inspired a thoughtful poem from the bereft Berlin.
Often he showed his collegiality the best way he knew, by writing in the style of other composers' work. As a bon-voyage gift to Cole Porter before a 1935 sailing, Berlin roguishly parodied Porter's recent hit "You're the Top: "You're the burning heat/ Of a bridal suite/ In use,/ You're the breasts of Venus/ You're King Kong's penis/ You're self-abuse!" In 1948, for a Bob Hope Christmas tour in support of the Berlin airlift, he adapted the Ralph Rainger-Leo Robin "Thanks for the Memory." The bridge went: "Thanks to the fighting Air Force/ That daily took its toll;/ Now it's a humane Air Force/ With heart and soul,/ Dropping wheat and coal." (If Hope were touring today, he could sing the lyric in Afghanistan.)
One pop composer had no love for him. This was Harry Warren, the Italian-born song-plugger who became Hollywood's top song-maker. In 1944, during the Allied air assault on Germany, Warren snapped, "They bombed the wrong Berlin." Edward Jablonski, Berlin's biographer and a confidant for many years, attributes the slur to jealousy "at a time when Warren's own Hollywood career was in decline." This is way off: Warren had five #1 songs in the 40s (including "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe"); Berlin had only one (all right, it was "White Christmas," but still...) Besides, Berlin doesn't seem to have let Warren's feelings get in the way of another song quote. His 1947 "The Freedom Train" includes the lines: "It's a song about a train/ Not the Atchison, Topeka/ Or the Chattanooga choo-choo..."
Oddly, or aptly, Warren was the composer Berlin most resembled in immigrant background (Warren was born in Brooklyn of Italian parents), natural melodic gift and lack of formal musical training. Most of the others Kern, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Larry Hart were of German Jewish stock from the educated middle-class; Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant, raised on the Lower East Side, quickly out of school and into the showbiz fringe as a singing waiter. Their music came from honing a natural talent with years of study; his songwriting gift was a freak of nature. No wonder he fretted that this knack would desert him; its origin was as much a mystery as its longevity.
Most important, they wrote music people thought was important. Kern and Hammerstein made the Broadway musical respectable with "Show Boat." George and Ira Gershwin were the first songwriters to win a Pulitzer Prize for a musical ("Of Thee I Sing"). Berlin did some work for Broadway in this period, but mainly he ground out one-off songs. You could say that he made nothing but hits and money. He talked grandly about writing a "folk opera" (Gershwin finally did); Puccini supposedly wanted to collaborate with him on an opera. But Berlin was compelled to keep writing in a form that could guarantee hit status for nearly every song. "His narrow field of activity," Bergreen writes, "resulted from both his own musical limitations and his enslavement to the musical marketplace. He was, in a broad sense, a victim of his success, doomed to replicate it ad infinitum."
And his swellegant, elegant friends must have thought Irving was sooo square! He may even have believed the cornball emotions in his songs. In 1925, Berlin was polishing his song "Always" (which originally began, "I'll be loving you, Mona") around the time he was working with director George S. Kaufman on the Marx Brothers show "The Cocoanuts." Kaufman said he thought "'Always' was a long time for a romance" and suggested to Berlin "that the opening line might be a little more in accord with reality something like "I'll be loving you Thursday.' But Irving would have none of it."
Berlin didn't always anticipate the musical fashion of the time. Often he imitated it. As a glance at "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" reveals, he wrote a zillion rag tunes ("That Mysterious Rag," "Ragtime Violin!", "Ragtime Mockingbird," "Ragtime Jockey Man," "Ragtime Soldier Man," "That International Rag") before and after "Alexander." He based whole songs on other people's airs ("That Mesmerizing Mendelsohn Tune," from Mendelsohn's "Spring Song"). He'd drop a snatch of a public-domain song in one of his (the bugle call and "Swanee River" in "Alexander's Ragtime Band"; "There's No Place Like Home" and "Farmer in the Dell" in "He Ain't Got Rhythm")
And when he wasn't borrowing from others, he'd steal from himself. A hit song would generate an answer song: "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was followed by "Alexander's Bagpipe Band," "Everybody's Doin' It" by "They've Got Me Doin' It Now." If a number wasn't a memorable hit the first time, he would rewrite it into one. Thus the 1918 "That Sterling Silver Moon" became "Mandy" a year later; "Smile and Show Your Dimple," a top ten tune in 1918, morphed into "Easter Parade" in 1933. He appropriated four lines of the chorus of "To My Mammy" (1920) for "How Deep Is the Ocean" (1932). He rescued the pushcart plaint "Any Love Today" (written in 1931 but not recorded), tweaked it into "Any Yams Today" for Ginger Rogers in the 1938 "Carefree," then reworked it again as "Any Bonds Today," a hit for the Andrews Sisters, and a big fund raiser for the wartime Treasury Department.
Berlin's musical dexterity was both obvious and ingratiating. He heard Gershwin play with syncopation in "Fascinatin' Rhythm," then executed his own elaborate, fairly daring ricochet rhythms in "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Monkey Doodle Doo" and "Everybody Step." Profligate with melody, he tossed extra bridges into "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" and his longest (64-bar), finest construction, "Cheek to Cheek." The strange chord shift in bridge to "You're Laughing at Me" has endeared the song to jazzmen.
Lyrically, he could be sloppy: rhyming "m" and "n" sounds, cheating by using "piano" as a two-, then a three-syllable word in "I Love a Piano." A devilishly intricate rhyme a la Stephen Sondheim ("We'll have Leontyne Price to sing a/ Medley from 'Der Meistersinger'") was not Berlin's style to Sondheim's caviar, his lyrics were Spam but in "Annie Get Your Gun" he did a triple rhyme ("You can't shoot a male in the tail like a quail") whose comic force quickly escalates musically and in the singer's volume. And he could pay cheeky tribute to friend Kaufman's failed play "The Deep Tangled Wildwood" in a complex rhyme for the song "Lazy": "I want to peep/ Through the deep/ Tangled wildwood,/ Counting sheep/ 'Til I sleep/ Like a child would." Pretty tangled. Pretty wild.
One problem in writing to suit the fashion is that fashions go out of fashion. In 1910 and beyond, there was a rage for "coon songs," which were to be sung as if by black performers often by whites in blackface. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" is such a song, the name of the bandleader tipping listeners of the day to his race. Berlin wrote numbers popularized in blackface by Eddie Canton ("Mandy"), Al Jolson ("To My Mammy") and Bing Crosby ("Abraham" in "Holiday Inn"). Some of Berlin's coon songs offered what now seems like subversive social commentary. Beneath its jarring title and setting, the 1915 "A Pair of Ordinary Coons" could be making an early argument for people of color (unlike whites) as part of the human majority: "In Honolulu we pass as Hawaiian... And in Araby we make them think we're Arabians/ We pass through all these places/ On the faces/ Of a pair of ordinary coons."
As sensibilities matured over the decades, Berlin adjusted some songs to avoid offense. The 1927 "Shakin' the Blues Away" begins: "Every darkie believes that trouble won't stay if you shake it away." Later it was changed to "Everybody believes..." "Puttin' on the Ritz" was originally about Manhattan whites going uptown: "Why don't you go where Harlem sits/ Puttin' on the Ritz/ Spangled gowns upon a bevy/ Of high browns from down the levee/ All misfits/ Puttin' on the Ritz." By the time Fred Astaire sang the tune in 1946, it had become another of Berlin's twittin'-the-rich tunes: "Why don't you go where fashion sits/ Puttin' on the Ritz..."
Social conventions change. What seems obvious to one generation will mortify the next. Today, most whites are embarrassed by the condescension toward and grotesque stereotyping of blacks in early 20th century mainstream culture. But Berlin probably did not recognize the hurt he and others inflicted on blacks by the racial characterizations in their songs. A political conservative and life-long Republican, he was a social liberal, as he proved during World War II. When he took his military show "This Is the Army" on the road, his troupe was the only integrated company in uniform. Everyone traveled together, and if a hotel wouldn't allow blacks, the whole unit stayed in a black hotel.
Berlin surely thought himself an outsider as well. There were Jews in the music business when he started, but not as many as there soon would be. During a 1913 Friars Club tribute, Berlin's predecessor and rival George M. Cohan described Berlin as "a Jew boy who named himself after an English actor [Henry Irving] and a German city." One can read as much affection as coarseness into the Irishman's epithet. Vaudeville and pop songs of the period were full of spiked ethnic jokes (Jewish, black, Irish, Italian); they were the hot bubbles from the American melting pot. To the musical brew Berlin was happy to add Hebrew, as in his 1909 song "Yiddle on Your Fiddle Play Some Ragtime." But over the years this hardscrabble Semite would endure more than his share of religious and class prejudice.
Berlin was a Jew whose love for America included a love for two gentile women: his wives. First Dorothy Goetz, the sister of songwriter Ray Goetz. Her marriage to Berlin was brief: she died of pneumonia barely five months past her wedding day. The song he wrote to commemorate her, "When I Lost You," became his second #1 hit. (Berlin couldn't help turning grief into greenbacks.)
His second marriage, to socialite-journalist Ellin Mackay (she wrote for a new magazine called The New Yorker), earned more headlines: the Lower East Side Jew marrying the Upper East Side Catholic, with her father bitterly opposed to the union. It was the first big showbiz-society merger. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a retrospective piece on the early 20s, noted that at that time "society and the native arts had not yet mingled Ellin Mackay was not yet married to Irving Berlin." The two wed in 1926 and honeymooned abroad. The Social Register refused to mention the couple's return to New York because "Irving Berlin has no position in Society"
Anathema to snooty WASPs, Berlin was the anthemist of Christian holy days ("White Christmas," "Easter Parade") and had a lot to do with turning them into secular holidays. The wandering Jew had embraced middle-America in his songs and his life, agreeing that his and Ellin's three daughters should be raised as Protestants. Whatever temptations celebrity and chorines might offer, Berlin was a doting and apparently faithful husband for 62 years; Ellin died in 1988, he a year later. Yet, when their first child Irving Jr., died after only 25 days on Christmas some of Ellin's friends supposedly whispered, "It's God's punishment for marrying a Jew."
NICE GUY, TOUGH GUY
No composer, perhaps no figure in show business, gave more money away: to the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Army Emergency Relief Fund and several cabinet agencies. (The royalties to "Always" were a wedding gift to Ellin.) He could be generous to his colleagues as well. On "Annie Get Your Gun" Berlin was to receive 5% of the royalties for his score, to 4% for the libretto by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Grateful for the clever song cues in the musical's book, he gave the brother-and-sister writing team a half point of his share, so they'd be even.
Berlin could also battle for what he thought he was due. "It took longer to write one of his contracts than a whole script," producer Arthur Freed recalled, adding that, afterward, he'd "give you anything you wanted." Avid to see his name above the title, he demanded and got possessive credit on many of his films: "Irving Berlin's 'On the Avenue,'" "Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas,'" Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies,'" "Irving Berlin's 'There's No Business Like Show Business'" and the grammatically confounding "Irving Berlin's 'Alexander's Ragtime Band.?" Even in the service, he needed to own things; the unit for his World War II show had as its official title "Irving Berlin's This Is the Army, Provisional Task Force, Service Supply Force, U.S. Army."
Even Berlin could not assume that every song he offered the fickle masses would be received with rapture. So he kept his old music in the public ear through revivals and movie knapsacks the five Greatest Hits films "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Blue Skies," "Easter Parade," "White Christmas" and "There's No Business Like Show Business." All this perpetuated "Irving Berlin" as a product with no expiration date. He was second only to Walt Disney at branding, and extending the brand. Both men were media visionaries; they saw that such seemingly ephemeral items as cartoons and pop songs had a potentially infinite shelf-life. They were the best and fiercest curators of their achievement.
As the publisher of his own songs, he controlled who recorded or licensed them. And as he aged, he got pickier about interpretations a rare misstep for the master marketer; he should have understood that the life of an old song, like that of a Shakespearean play, is extended, not obliterated, by even the most radical new readings. It is said he was so annoyed by Elvis Presley's 1957 version of "White Christmas" that he financed a call-in campaign to have the song pulled from radio stations. In the late 80s Berlin turned down Steven Spielberg's pleas to use "Always" as the theme for a film of the same title, saying that he had his own plans for the song. The composer was 90 at the time. (Spielberg substituted Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.")
Berlin's ability to generate new hits had long since been sapped. Indeed, after Astaire's run of mid-30s hits, Berlin's only chart-toppers were instant nostalgia items, some actual oldies (Les Brown's 1949 version of the 1937 "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm"), some that only seemed that way ("White Christmas"). "Annie Get Your Gin" spawned three top-10 songs but no #1's. His last charter was another secular spiritual, "Count Your Blessings" #5 for Eddie Fisher in 1954.
Berlin was by then at retirement age. But he was never comfortable "sittin' in the sun, countin' my money," to quote the title of a Berlin tune that Louis Armstrong took to #30 in 1953. Around that time he prepared a musical, never produced, about Wilson and Addison Mizner (a Sondheim musical on the Mizner brothers, "Wise Guys," has languished for years). His last produced musical, the 1962 "Mr. President," meant to capitalize on the fascination with Jack and Jackie Kennedy but ran only eight months. He spent more than a decade on a sixth trunk-song film, "Say It With Music," which was finally killed in 1970.
Toward the end he often soured into rancor and vindictiveness. He laid a paranoid rant on Alec Wilder when the esteemed musicologist asked permission to quote snatches of Berlin songs for his study "American Popular Music." And though Berlin enjoyed writing parodies of other composers' songs, he sued Mad magazine for a 1962 folio of song parodies, including several of his ("Always," "A Pretty Girl..."). The suit was eventually dismissed. Finally he believed that a cultural environment that ignored his contributions was no culture at all. "Show business?" he told a friend. "There's no more show business! We whistle in the wind."
MY FANTASY BERLIN CD
I can't leave Berlin stewing, and me depressed. I have to forgive him for living past his currency, and remember the terrific music he created. So here's my own fantasy album of songs (in alphabetical order), culled from the dozens of CDs I've listened to with pleasure over the past six weeks that Irving Berlin songs have wallpapered my life:
Happy listening, everyone. And Happy New Year.
Next time: A Year of Old Feelings