The Year of Tony Bennett is happy to honor Irving Berlin as the Songwriter of the Month for May 2016.
Irving Berlin was born in Russia as Israel Isidor Baline on May 11, 1888. Some say his family was from Siberia; other say he was born in what is now Belarus. His father, a cantor, relocated his family to New York City in 1893. The Baline’s story was similar to those of many other Russian Jewish families; their house was burned to the ground by Cossacks and the Baline family had to sneak themselves out of Russia to America.
The family, whose last name had become Berlin by the 1900 census, settled in a cold-water flat in the Yiddish Theater District on the Lower East Side. Irving’s father found work in a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons to support his family. Young Irving helped out by selling the evening paper while his mother became a midwife. His siblings worked in various jobs, including his brother who worked in a clothing sweatshop.
Young Irving found that he could sell more newspapers if he sang while selling and helped him discover his first job ambition: that of a singing waiter. He had little formal education and his only real skill was his singing. He taught himself to play the piano, though for remainder of his career, he could only play in a single key. He was a song plugger during the day and a singing water at night; in the meantime, he began to write songs. His first published song was “Marie From Sunny Italy,” for which he earned 37 cents.
Gradually, his work began to be noticed and his work as a song plugger introduced him to other young songwriters. His big break came in 1911 when he published “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song that is well=known to this day. George Gershwin called “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” the ‘first real American work.’ He continued to write songs of great popularity, including “I Love a Piano.”
He was drafted into service during World War I. His songwriting supported the war theme, including the score to Yip Yip Yaphank, an all-soldier musical. From this came one of my favorite of his songs, “Oh How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning.”
After he returned from the war, his career began to boom as he wrote for revues and the two editions of the Ziegfeld Follies. The string of hits during the 20s and 30s was astounding: “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” and “God Bless America.”
In the 1940s, Berlin turned to Broadway, with his 1946 score for Annie Get Your Gun. For Hollywood, he wrote for films such Easter Parade and Holiday Inn.
Berlin died on September 22, 1989 at the age of 101. He left behind a body of work that is the foundation of the American Songbook.
About That Piano
Irving Berlin never had any formal training on playing the piano. Completely self-taught, he could only play in one key, F#, and only used the black keys. He used what is known as a “transposing piano,” which used levers to play in the correct key. This video has Mr. Berlin explaining his piano on the Dinah Shore television show.