Irving Berlin is famous for writing classic American songs such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” "Puttin' on the Ritz," and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Known as the King of Tin Pan Alley, he wrote more than 1000 songs that appeared in movies, TV shows, and Broadway musicals. In honor of what would be Berlin’s 130th birthday, here are 11 facts about the legendary songwriter.
1. HE WAS RUSSIAN BY BIRTH, NOT GERMAN.
Israel Isidore Baline was born May 11, 1888 in Mohilev, Russia. In the early 1890s, Berlin’s parents moved their family of eight (Israel, who was 5 at the time, was the youngest of six) from Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. He went by Izzy in America in an attempt to assimilate, and when his first composition was printed, it bore the name "I. Berlin." Berlin allowed a rumor to circulate that it was a printing error that created his pen name, but biographers tend to note that he chose it because it closely resembled his birth name, but sounded less ethnic. In 1911, he legally made the change from Izzy Baline to Irving Berlin.
2. AFTER HIS FATHER DIED, HE QUIT SCHOOL AND BEGAN SINGING ON THE STREET.
Berlin's father, Moses Baline, had been a cantor (one who leads prayer songs) in Russia, but had trouble finding steady work in America. He died of chronic bronchitis when Berlin was just 13. Though the young boy had already been selling newspapers to try to help his family make money, Berlin quit school and, in an attempt to lessen the financial burden for his mother, he also moved out and lived in a ghetto on the Bowery, beginning when he was just 14 years old. To support himself, he busked on the streets and in back rooms of saloons for money, hoping that passersby and bar regulars would give him their spare change. He later worked as a singing waiter in Chinatown.
3. HE EARNED A HANDFUL OF COINS FOR HIS FIRST SONG.
In 1907, Berlin sold the publishing rights to his first song to a music publisher for 75 cents. Because he co-wrote the song, called “Marie from Sunny Italy,” with a pianist, Berlin only received half (approximately 37 cents) of the payment for the piece.
4. HIS RAGTIME SONG INSPIRED A TRENDY DANCE.
Long before the Macarena or the Harlem Shake, Berlin’s song “Alexander's Ragtime Band” (1911) topped the charts and sold more than 1 million copies of sheet music. Although it wasn’t an authentic ragtime song, it inspired people across the world to hit the dance floor. Over the decades, different singers including Ray Charles recorded versions of the song.
5. “WHEN I LOST YOU” WAS ABOUT THE DEATH OF HIS NEW WIFE.
In 1912, Berlin married Dorothy Goetz, but his new wife caught typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Cuba and died five months later. He wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You,” about the experience: “I lost the sunshine and roses / I lost the heavens of blue / I lost the beautiful rainbow… When I lost you.” The song sold more than 1 million copies.
6. HE WROTE PATRIOTIC SONGS IN WWI AND WWII.
In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Army drafted Berlin to write patriotic songs. In order to raise funds for a community building on his Long Island army base, he wrote Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, a popular musical revue performed by actual soldiers that later went to various theaters around New York. It included the popular song "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," which Berlin sang at each performance.
During World War II, Berlin wrote This Is The Army, which became a Broadway musical and 1943 film starring Ronald Reagan. Berlin chose not to personally profit from the show—he gave all the earnings, over $9.5 million, to the U.S. Army Emergency Relief Fund.
7. HE BOUGHT TRANSPOSING PIANOS DUE TO HIS LACK OF MUSICAL TRAINING.
Despite Berlin’s incredible songwriting success, he was neither classically trained nor educated in music theory. He only knew how to play the piano in F sharp, so in order to write songs that didn’t all sound the same, he bought transposing keyboards. These special keyboards changed the key, allowing him to play the same notes but produce different sounds. Berlin also paid music secretaries who notated and transcribed his music.
8. HIS INTERFAITH MARRIAGE GENERATED CONTROVERSY.
In 1925, Berlin met and fell in love with a Roman Catholic debutante named Ellin Mackay. Her father, a financier named Clarence Mackay, disapproved of Berlin because he was Jewish. The couple’s interfaith relationship attracted major press attention, and Mackay’s father reportedly disowned her when she married him in a secret ceremony in 1926. One biographer noted that though Irving was Jewish and Ellin was Catholic, their three daughters were raised Protestant, "largely because Ellin was in favor of religious tolerance." Mackay’s father came around several years later, and the Berlins were together for 62 years until Ellin's death in 1988. He died the following year at age 101.
9. HE GAVE ALL ROYALTIES FOR “GOD BLESS AMERICA” TO THE BOY AND GIRL SCOUTS.
Although Berlin originally wrote “God Bless America” during WWI for Yip! Yip! Yaphank!, he didn’t use the song until 1938. Through its lyrics, Berlin expressed his gratitude to America for giving him everything, and “God Bless America” became an instantly recognizable, patriotic song.
He decided that 100 percent of the song’s royalties would go to the Boy and Girl Scouts and the Campfire Girls. Thanks to Berlin’s God Bless America Fund, which assigned royalties from “God Bless America” (plus his other patriotic songs) to the Scouts, the organizations have received millions of dollars over the years.
10. HE COMPOSED ANNIE GET YOUR GUN AFTER HIS FRIEND’S SUDDEN DEATH.
In 1945, composer Jerome Kern (best known for Show Boat) started working on the score for a new Rodgers and Hammerstein-produced musical, Annie Get Your Gun. But when Kern died unexpectedly within a week of starting to write, Berlin took over scoring duties. Berlin’s music and lyrics for the musical, which included songs such as “There's No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” helped make Annie Get Your Gun a massive success.
11. ALTHOUGH “WHITE CHRISTMAS” IS HIS BIGGEST HIT, CHRISTMAS WAS A TRAGIC TIME FOR BERLIN.
“White Christmas” has become a Christmas classic, selling more than 100 million copies. But Christmas was a time of sadness for Berlin and his wife: their only son, also named Irving, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on Christmas Day in 1928. The baby was three weeks old when he died, and the Berlins, along with their three other children, mourned his death each holiday season.