Remembering Berlin--Always : ‘If You’re a Pro You Write What You Gotta Write’
I had the good fortune to work on an almost daily basis with Irving Berlin for close to two years at one time, and for other shorter spans. We had many conversations, some of which I managed to record. This was no minor accomplishment inasmuch as Berlin, a wiry, supercharged individual, aspired to assert complete control over any project with which he was associated.
He was almost always in motion, seldom remaining seated for more than a few minutes unless he was at the piano. He preferred to patrol the executive corridors at Paramount Studios, where we worked, or pace nervously in circles around his office, frequently in shirt sleeves, lost in introspection, hands clasped behind his back, torso bent slightly forward as he moved. Like an ice skater.
He was a genial man, as sharp a businessman as he was a beguiling and perceptive poet.
Berlin once told me, with his customary candor, that some of his output “was trash.” Nonetheless, his ability to churn out songs so enchanting and timeless that their appeal spans generations and socioeconomic strata and national and racial boundaries is unrivaled in the annals of American music.
“Some songs just write themselves,” Berlin said. “Take ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ for instance. It is quite a long, involved song. I wrote it for Astaire and Rogers in ‘Top Hat.’ I did it after dinner one evening while staying at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
“On the other hand, I was not satisfied lyrically with ‘Always.’ I had the tune finished for months but couldn’t get the lyric right. Then one day I just ad-libbed it and it worked. For me, lyrics are the hardest part.”
“There’s no special recipe for success,” Berlin told me. “Some very good songs never got off the ground.
“Sometimes the timing is wrong and a good song dies. It happens to all writers. In my opinion, Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ is one of the greatest pieces of music written by anybody. It was in a show called ‘Jubilee’ many years ago and it was a failure until much later Artie Shaw, the big-band leader, made a recording and everyone suddenly discovered it is a classic.
“I wrote ‘White Christmas’ because I had to write a song about Christmas for the show. I was a good songwriter so I wrote a good song.”
“There are certain basic emotions, not only in songwriting and play writing but also in making speeches or writing stories. There’s self-pity, which is ‘All Alone’ or ‘Remember’ . . . where you feel sorry for yourself. There’s happiness. There’s the straight love song, like ‘Always.’ There’s the homesick song--songs about Dixie. There’s the patriotic song, such as ‘God Bless America.’
“Of course, I’ve written songs that were failures. You can be so clever that you write around your subject and become oblique. Your pencil becomes so sharp that you write from the outside rather than the inside.
“We’re all amateurs until we write a hit, and there are no basic rules. When I started, we were confined to an octave and maybe a note, although ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ went beyond that. Then Jerome Kern came along and wrote two octaves, or an octave and three quarters. It didn’t make a darn bit of difference because Jerome Kern had talent and a heart of gold and he just wrote great melodies.
“I can give you all sorts of rules, but you may go home and break them all and write the biggest hit ever written.
“If you’re a pro you write what you gotta write. Someone needs a ballad, you write a ballad. It’s a matter of talent. Some of the biggest hits I’ve had were written because we needed a ballad in the publishing house. I’ve written many songs because the situation called for a boy and a girl to sing a love song.
“Take ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ Herbert and Dorothy Fields wrote the book about Annie Oakley, who was a fantastic rifle shot. The situations called for a love song, so I wrote ‘They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful.’ I thought that would be the big hit. We all felt ‘I Got the Sun in the Mornin’ would be a rhythm smash.
“ ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ has 16 songs. It’s a true story. Frank Butler was the world’s greatest marksman with a rifle. But when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, in which Butler starred, came to town, little Annie Oakley beat him. Buffalo Bill asked Annie to join his show but she didn’t want to leave home.
“I had to write a song that would sell her on the idea of coming along . . . the glories of riding on a train. The excitement. I tried to wrap it up in one phrase, and the phrase was ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business.’ I wrote it as a throwaway song to advance the story line.
“I didn’t plan it as an anthem for show business. But, according to my ASCAP survey, it is my most-performed song. Not the biggest record seller, but the most-performed.”
“If you’re a professional songwriter, you write. You write in the morning, you write at night, you write in a taxi or on the subway. You have it in your mind until you’re finished, and even after it’s finished. It may turn out to be very bad. I have songs written years ago that I’d still like to change.
“A professional songwriter doesn’t work business hours. He subconsciously gathers material and ideas all the time. I don’t have a notebook filled with titles or these ideas, but they’re tucked away somewhere in memory.
“There’s one thing about longevity in this business. You don’t get holier-than-thou. You don’t give something to the public with the attitude that, well, here it is and you damn better like it. You try to guess what they want and then try to please them.”
"(George M. Cohan) was my ideal,” Berlin said. “I tried to write like him. He was the fellow who supplied special material to the guys who sang in the saloons when I was a kid. I started by writing parodies of current songs by other composers--at first I just wrote lyrics.
“When I was a bit older I became a singing waiter, and I want you to know I was a pretty good one. At least, I thought I was pretty good until we made the movie version of ‘This Is The Army’ at Warner Brothers in which I sang ‘Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.’ An electrician heard my prerecording and said that if the guy who wrote that song could hear this fellow sing it he’d turn over in his grave.”
“My interest is principally in the creation of songs,” Berlin once told me. “But we live in a country and society that is based on free enterprise. Just try buying a painting by Picasso or Cezanne and see what you’ll be charged.” Around 1944, Berlin bought up copyrights to all his songs. They are still owned by his estate. He refused more than one offer in the hundreds of millions of dollars for his catalogue, claiming he would not know what to do with the money and the would-be purchasers would not know what to do with his music.
At his death, Berlin was still living in the house on Beekman Place in New York which he purchased in 1946 from its builder and original owner, the late James Forrestal, one-time Navy Secretary.
“We wanted to rent it but we couldn’t, so we bought it,” he remembered. “It’s on the East River in what is supposed to be a fashionable neighborhood. But the East River doesn’t impress me because they picked me out of the East River when I was a kid . . . a little lower downtown, perhaps, but still the same river, tugboats and all.”
During his life Berlin stubbornly resisted all offers to use his life story as the basis for a Broadway musical or film. He told me that when he died his children could make such a decision, if they chose.
“My private life is private, but I’ll be very happy to talk about it,” he said puckishly. “We have a nice corner house in New York. We spend out summers in the Catskills, and we go there in winter, too. There’s lots of deer up there. And snow.
“I seldom relax. My hobby is songwriting. My wife and I used to go dancing, but we’d sooner sit and talk. I’m not a good dancer. I’m a very big eater. I like good food. I like to cook but they tell me I cook badly. I’ve found if you buy good meat you should leave it alone--the same as with a good song. Don’t do too big of an arrangement.”
Berlin said the most important advice he would offer aspiring songwriters was, “Never throw anything away.”
“During World War I, I wrote a song at Camp Upton for a soldier show called ‘Yip, Yip Yaphank’,” he said. “I intended it as the finale but we didn’t use it. It went into the trunk.
“In 1938 I was in London for the opening of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’ It was September, near the time Neville Chamberlain came back from meeting Hitler with his piece of paper about peace in our time.
“I was distraught about the threat of war, and when I returned to New York I wanted to write a patriotic song. I wrote one called ‘Thanks, America,’ but it was a very sad song.
“But the word ‘America’ recalled the song I wrote 20 years earlier at Camp Upton. I hauled it out of the trunk and rewrote it. The first 16 bars and the last eight are exactly as they were written originally, but I changed the middle because I wanted to write a song about peace, not about war.
“A short time afterwards, when Kate Smith asked me to write a patriotic song for her, I just gave her the revised version of the old song.”
Thus was “God Bless America” rescued from the scrap heap.
“It is my personal favorite song.”
When last we talked, Berlin seemed interested in dispelling a myth about his keyboard ability.
“People think I can only play that special piano with the movable keyboard. I play in the key of F sharp, which are the black keys. Years ago all fakers played that way. We played by ear, and the publishing companies had these transposing pianos because we could not transpose. We really could not write music.
“For me F sharp happened because the black keys are right under your fingers. But as I progressed, I got to know the relative keys. I took lessons once or twice but I wasn’t any good.
“George M. Cohan had a couple of transposing pianos. He played in the key of C, which is also supposed to be easy.
“Eventually, I began composing away from the piano. I developed a system whereby I envisioned the keyboard in my mind, and I could encode the proper notes on paper. I work mainly with ideas. I write words and music together, one phrase at a time. But I can play any piano.”
Today Berlin’s old moveable piano stands mute in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.