It is impossible to overstate how important Berlin was to American music in the first half of the twentieth century. He wrote hit songs for over fifty years. If you stop and think of it, given the quicksilver capriciousness of American popular tastes, the feat seems impossible. No one’s ever come close to that range of success. Think about it…ten years, twenty years, yes. But no one stays in style for 50 years! The key to Berlin’s success was that he kept evolving, he kept assimilating new influences and reflecting them in his work, from ragtime to the era of Rogers and Hammerstein. There is no other comparable achievement in American popular song. Everything he ever did was excellent. Almost everything he did was a hit.
Berlin’s role in vaudeville was twofold. One, he was a performer himself in the early days. And two, he wrote songs for so many of the great vaudevillians. His name probably pops up more times in this book than anybody else’s. By 1924 he had already lived such a life that Alexander Woollcott wrote a biography of him. And he was to live another 65 years!
Born a cantor’s son in Russia in 1888, he came with his family to the U.S. when he was five when their village was burned down in a pogrom. He grew up on the Lower East Side. Early experience included a gig as a singing waiter at “Nigger Mike’s” (where he knew Eddie Cantor), and song plugging for Harry von Tilzer from the balcony at Tony Pastor’s.
He was bitten early by the songwriting bug himself. In 1907 he co-wrote “Marie from Sunny Italy”. Success first came in 1909, with “My Wife’s Gone to the Country”. Also that year, the equally unknown Fanny Brice commissioned him to write “Sadie Salome, Go Home.” For Polly Moran he wrote “Yiddle on the Fiddle” (later sung by Eddie Cantor), “Play some Ragtime”, “Next to Your Mother, Who Do You Love?” For Mae Irwin, he wrote “My Wife Bridget”
When rags caught on, he rode that bandwagon. Get some of these titles: “Stop that Rag (Keep on Playing Honey)”, “Play Some Ragtime”, “Make-a-Rag-a-time Dance Wid Me”, “Draggy Rag”, “That Opera Rag”, “The Whistling Rag”, “That Mysterious Rag”, “The Ragtime Jockey Man”, “Ragtime Soldier Man”, and “Ragtime Violin.”
Though he had started out playing the saloons, by 1911, he was playing Hammerstein’s Victoria. That year, he composed the first song most Americans still recognize, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, which became an enormous hit when Al Jolson sang it in The Merry Whirl. Berlin was only 21. “When I Lost You” was written in 1912, inspired by the death of his first wife. In 1914, Belle Baker and Ruth Roye both sang Berlin songs on the same bill at the Palace. That year, he completed his first full-length theatrical score, Watch Your Step, for Vernon and Irene Castle. On May 15, 1915 at the Palace an all-time, all-Berlin record was set when three acts plus the orchestra did Berlin numbers, and then Berlin himself was called to the stage to perform.
Berlin did his bit in World War I, enlisting in the army, where he wrote and produced the show Yip! Yip! Yaphank! which contained the hit “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”. In 1919, Eddie Cantor made a hit of “You’d Be Surprised”. The early 20s saw a collaboration with former Cohan partner Sam Harris, resulting in the construction of the Music Box Theatre, and several editions of The Music Box Revue, all penned by Berlin. In 1925, he wrote the score for the Marx Brothers second full-length stage vehicle The Coconuts. The one song cut from the show (at George S. Kaufman’s behest) was to become a hit on its own “Always.” Berlin also collaborated with Flo Ziegfeld. The Follies unofficial theme song “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” was written by Berlin. The Berlin classic “Blue Skies” was written for Belle Baker to sing at the 1926 Follies. The following year, he compose the entire Follies score.
His long Hollywood career began in 1928 with the score for the Jolson pic Mammy. In 1929, he wrote the title song for the Harry Richman picture Putting On The Ritz.
He did several scores for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films in the 30s: Top Hat (featuring “Cheek to Cheek” and the title song “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”), Follow the Fleet; and On the Avenue. 1927 saw the release of the film Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Stage shows from the 30s included Face the Music (1932) and As Thousands Cheer, which yielded the hits “Heat Wave” and “Easter Parade.”
In 1938, Kate Smith introduced his song “God Bless America” on the radio for an Armistice Day broadcast. He had written the song during the war for Yip! Yip! Yaphank! but had never quite finished it. The song became an instant standard. The 1942 films Holiday Inn included the song “White Christmas”. These two songs alone merit Berlin’s inclusion on Mount Rushmore.
The war years saw a grueling tour of a show called “This is the Army” that he took to American troops all over the world. He started in 1942. he did not return until the war was over. The postwar years saw the creation of two more hit shows Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and the film Easter Parade (1947). His first flop was Miss Liberty (1949). Not bad after forty years! He was back on his game the following year with Call Me Madam and a movie of White Christmas. After a twelve year hiatus he re-emerged with Mr. President and was still trying to hustle a film project called Say it With Music in 1969. When he couldn’t get that off the ground, he said to hell with it. After all, he was eighty years old.
Certain of his songs never stopped being hits. After all, “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” are attached to holidays. They are guaranteed annual resurrection. Crazy like a fox! Others like “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, and “Putting on the Ritz” are emblematic of an entire era, and aren’t likely to die anytime soon. In the 1970s, a disco version of the latter song hit the charts! When Berlin died in 1989, at age 100, he had lived so long that the copyright to Alexander’s Ragtime Band had become public domain.
And now performing that very song, Mr. Al Jolson:
To find out more about vaudeville and great songwriters like Irving Berlin, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous