It was 122 years ago this week that America’s most prolific composer and lyricist was born. Israel Isidore Beilin—who became much better known as Irving Berlin—was born in Mogilev, Russia, (in what is now Belarus) on May 11, 1888. The future composer was 5 years old when his parents moved to New York City.
After his father died when Berlin was 8, he took on many menial jobs to survive, including selling newspapers and bussing tables. He was working as a singing waiter in Chinatown when the proprietor asked him to write an original song for the restaurant. “Marie From Sunny Italy” was the result. When it was published, it earned the writer the princely sum of 37 cents. It not only launched a new career for him, it also gave him a new name, when Israel Beilin was misprinted as “I. Berlin” on the sheet music.
Although he could not read music and could barely play the piano, Berlin went on to compose more than 3,000 songs, including “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” His first No. 1 song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” When it was released in 1911, four different versions took the top four spots on the best-seller list. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” later went on to top the charts in four successive decades—1927 (recorded by Bessie Smith), 1937 (by Louis Armstrong), 1938 (by Bing Crosby), 1947 (by Al Jolson) and 1959 (by Ray Charles).
The 1942 film Holiday Inn featured Berlin’s most-recorded song, “White Christmas.” The first recording by Bing Crosby has sold close to 100 million copies. The song’s immense popularity led to a second movie, White Christmas, which was released in 1954. Berlin won an Academy Award for “White Christmas”—one of seven Oscar nominations he received. He is the only presenter in the history of the Academy Awards to read off his own name when he opened the envelope to announce the winner in the Best Song category.
It’s hard to dispute the tribute paid him by fellow songwriter Jerome Kern, who said, “Irving Berlin is American music.” Today most schoolchildren have never heard of America’s most successful songwriter. But they know all the lyrics to Gnarls Barkley’s songs.
Some would say this is not an improvement.