Irving Berlin, King of U.S. Songwriters, Dies in Sleep at 101

From Reuters

Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant who never learned to read or write music and became the king of American songwriters with melodies that won the heart of his adopted country, died in his sleep at his Manhattan home Friday. He was 101.

Berlin gave the world more than 1,000 songs including “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” which became veritable U.S. institutions. He was so durable he even outlived the copyright on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” 75 years after he wrote it.

That copyright expired in 1986 when he was 98 years old. On his 99th birthday, a longtime associate said the maestro was alert enough to call the Irving Berlin Music Corp. “from time to time” to check up on business.

He marked his 100th birthday in May, 1988, with a spectacular gala at Carnegie Hall, where luminaries from the musical world, ranging from Leonard Bernstein to Willie Nelson to Frank Sinatra, saluted him. Berlin himself, though still healthy and alert at the time, was too frail to attend.

In an era in which American light music reached its greatest heights, Berlin’s songs and lyrics sketched the changing moods of the nation. He was the most prolific and enduring popular composer of the century.


“Irving Berlin has no place in American music--he is American music,” said Jerome Kern, another major songwriter.

Berlin wrote the scores for numerous musicals on stage and screen, achieving perhaps his most flawless feat with the varied repertoire of “Annie Get Your Gun” in which almost every song was a show-stopper from the rousing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” to the tender refrain “The Girl That I Marry.”

“He’s very sharp and very kind,” popular music historian Edward Jablonski recalled on Berlin’s birthday in 1987. “He’s interested not only in world affairs but the lives of his friends.”

Many of his works were made famous by the performing giants of his heyday, including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman.

One of eight children, he was born Israel Baline, the son of a cantor in the eastern Russian village of Temun on May 11, 1888. He fled the pogroms with his parents, Moses and Leah Baline, in 1893 to settle in New York City’s Lower East Side.

When his father died three years later, Berlin dropped out of school to help support his mother and siblings.

Finished Education

The man who would receive two honorary Doctor of Music degrees and a gold medal from the U.S. Congress for his patriotic songs had finished his formal education at age 8.

One of his earliest jobs was as a guide for a “busker,” or singing beggar, Blind Sol, who would give the boy a few cents for helping him get about the Bowery.

The saloons of the Bowery became Berlin’s playground, and it was not long before he was earning money singing in such establishments.

From 1905 to 1907, he worked as a singing waiter at a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown where he first learned to plunk out tunes on a piano.

Played in One Key

Because he could play only in one key--F sharp--throughout his life he used pianos equipped with a clutch so he could switch keys automatically. He never learned to read or transcribe music.

With the publishing of his first song, “Marie From Sunny Italy,” in 1907, Izzy Baline became I. Berlin, the name that appeared, because of a printer’s error, as the score’s composer. He collected 37 cents for his first effort.

For his skill with dialect in “Dorando,” a song about an Italian marathon runner, Berlin was hired as a lyricist by a songwriting firm in 1909 at $25 a week, plus royalties.

At 21, he had earned his membership on Tin Pan Alley, that mythical home of American songwriters. Years later, it was written that wherever Berlin is is Tin Pan Alley.

First Big Hit

His first big hit was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which he wrote for the first annual Friars Club frolics in 1911, the same year he wrote “Everybody’s Doing It.”

He was one of the first composers to make the syncopations of ragtime and jazz rhythms popular across American culture.

An accomplished vaudeville performer, Berlin first appeared on Broadway in the 1910 revue “Up and Down Broadway” and four years later composed the first of his 19 Broadway show scores, “Watch Your Step.”

He began writing for Florenz Ziegfeld’s Follies in 1911 and his “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” composed for Ziegfeld in 1919, became forever identified with the style, glamour and grace of the Ziegfeld girls.

Revue Was Updated

With his induction in 1917 into the army as an infantry private, Berlin produced an original revue, “Yip-Yip-Yaphank,” for which he wrote “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in The Morning.”

In 1942, he updated the revue into “This Is the Army” with a cast of 200 professional entertainers drawn from army ranks.

He became an independent force in music publishing as early as 1919, when he founded his own publishing house.

Two years later, he joined two childhood friends, theatrical producer Sam Harris and movie magnate Joseph Schenck, in building the Music Box theater on 45th Street just off Broadway.

The Music Box became a personal showcase for Berlin, with its own theme song, “Say It With Music.”

List of Hits

The 1920s saw such solid hits as “All Alone,” “What’ll I Do?,” “Remember,” “Always” and “Blue Skies.” The 1930s brought Broadway scores for “Face The Music” and “As Thousands Cheer,” which contained the perennial favorite “Easter Parade.”

Berlin’s first film score was the 1935 “Top Hat,” in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang and danced their way through “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” and “Cheek To Cheek.”

The decade ended with Kate Smith introducing “God Bless America.’

In the 1940s Berlin was in top form, penning “Putting On the Ritz,” “Heat Wave,” “Shaking the Blues Away,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “White Christmas,” sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 film “Holiday Inn.”

Greatest Success

His greatest stage success came in 1946--"Annie Get Your Gun” starring Ethel Merman as lady gunslinger Annie Oakley.

Merman returned to Broadway to star in another Berlin hit in 1950 when she played a U.S. ambassador in “Call Me Madam.”

Berlin first married in 1913, but his bride, Dorothy Goetz, died the same year after contracting typhoid fever. In 1926, he married Ellin Mackay whose father, a Roman Catholic, opposed the marriage. They had three daughters and nine grandchildren. She died of a stroke in July, 1988, after 62 years of marriage.