Christmas Isn’t Christmas without Irving Berlin
Think of the composer who comes to mind when you think about two holidays---Christmas and the American Independence day, July 4th. What composer left us with unforgettable music for film and Broadway? That composer is the one and only Irving Berlin. No Christmas would be complete without the classic movie Holiday Inn with the timeless song “White Christmas” sung by Bing Crosby. Nor can Americans get through patriotic holidays without hearing “God Bless America.”
Israel Baline was born in Tyumen, Russia on May 11, 1888 into a Jewish family. His family fled to New York City in the mid-1890s to escape persecution in the Jewish community.
He was the youngest of six children, and his family lived in extreme poverty. When his father died in 1901, he left school and home to work to make a living. As a teenager he worked for a while as a street singer. He eventually got a job at Mike Salter’s Pelham Café in Chinatown as a singing waiter. Baline wrote a new song, “Marie from Sunny Italy” in 1907 after a rival bartender had success with a new song he had written. Baline’s name was misprinted as I. Berlin on the song’s music cover. He decided the name sounded more American and he renamed himself Irving Berlin.
In 1911 he had a hit with the song “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” He was a self-taught pianist, playing music only in the key of F#. Some of his Broadway shows were Watch Your Step, Stop! Look! Listen!, Annie Get Your Gun, Mr. President. His films include Puttin’ on the Ritz, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Easter Parade, Call Me Madam, and White Christmas.
Berlin decided to become a US citizen when World War I started. He finally took the oath to become a United States citizen on February 6, 1918. He was drafted into the army several months later.
“God Bless America”
During World War II Berlin wanted to write a peace song. He found a song he had written for his World War I show, but he did not include the song in the show. He made a few changes to the song and found Kate Smith, a radio singer to sing “God Bless America” on November 11, 1918.
Bing Crosby’s performance singing “white Christmas” in the 1942 film Holiday Inn became the highest selling song in history.
Irving Berlin composed more than 1,500 songs, films, and musicals. His creativity slowed down during the 1950s. He wrote fewer songs. His newer songs were less successful. He really did not have to work because his royalties exceeded any other songwriter’s income. He retired after the Broadway production of Mr. President failed in 1962. When he retired he withdrew from public life. In 1988 for his 100th birthday tributes were made to him. The National Museum of American History in Washington, DC had a six month exhibit on his memorabilia.
For 20 years a small group of people met outside his home in New York City and sang “White Christmas.” He died on September 22, 1989 at the age of 101. Perhaps songwriter Jerome Kern said it best: “Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music.”