11 Surprising Facts About Irving Berlin

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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.


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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.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images
Tevarak/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

Top 50 Best-Selling Artists of All Time

Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Paul McCartney of The Beatles and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London's Euston Station.
Victor Blackman, Express/Getty Images

Who are America’s all-time favorite musicians and bands? When it comes to the best-selling artists of all time, The Beatles still rule—yes, even a half-century after their breakup. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), these are the 50 best-selling artists of all time.

1. The Beatles

American television host Ed Sullivan smiles while standing with British rock group the Beatles on the set of his television variety series, New York, February 9, 1964. Left to right: Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Sullivan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Albums sold: 183 million

2. Garth Brooks


Cooper Neill/Getty Images for dcp

Albums sold: 148 million

3. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley is seen playing the guitar in his 1966 film, 'Spinout'
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 146.5 million

4. Eagles

The Eagles in concert, "History of the Eagles" tour, Grand Rapids, September 2014. Doolin-Dalton
Rachel Kramer via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Albums sold: 120 million

5. Led Zeppelin


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 111.5 million

6. Billy Joel

Albums sold: 84.5 million

7. Michael Jackson


Getty Images

Albums sold: 84 million

8. Elton John

Elton John plays a concert in 2008.
LENNART PREISS/AFP/Getty Images

Albums sold: 78.5 million

9. Pink Floyd

Albums sold: 75 million

10. AC/DC

Albums sold: 72 million

11. George Strait

Albums sold: 69 million

12. Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand
Terry Fincher, Express/Getty Images

Albums sold: 68.5 million

13. The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones in concert
Getty Images

Albums sold: 66.5 million

14. Aerosmith

Aerosmith performs on stage during the Operation Tribute to Freedom, NFL and Pepsi sponsored “NFL Kickoff Live 2003” Concert on the Mall
U.S. Navy, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 66.5 million

15. Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen performs during the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games 2017 at Air Canada Centre on September 30, 2017 in Toronto, Canada
Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Albums sold: 66.5 million

16. Madonna

Albums sold: 64.5 million

17. Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey performs during the 2019 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 1, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Albums sold: 64 million

18. Metallica

Albums sold: 63 million

19. Whitney Houston

American singer Whitney Houston performing on Good Morning America (Central Park, New York City) on September 1, 2009.

Albums sold: 58.5 million

20. Van Halen

Albums sold: 56.5 million

21. Fleetwood Mac

Trade ad for Fleetwood Mac's album Rumours
Warner Bros. Records - Billboard, page 86, 25 Jun 1977, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 54.5 million

22. U2

The Edge and Bono of the rock band U2 perform at Bridgestone Arena on May 26, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee
Jason Kempin, Getty Images

Albums sold: 52 million

23. Céline Dion

Albums sold: 50 million

24. Neil Diamond

American pop singer-songwriter Neil Diamond relaxes with his guitar. Diamond is shortly to make his film debut in a remake of 'The Jazz Singer'
Keystone/Getty Images

Albums sold: 49.5 million

25. Journey

Albums sold: 48 million

26. Kenny G

Kenny G performs onstage during the "Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives" Premiere Concert during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival at Radio City Music Hall
Noam Galai, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Albums sold: 48 million

27. Shania Twain

Albums sold: 48 million

28. Kenny Rogers

Albums sold: 47.5 million

29. Alabama

Albums sold: 46.5 million

30. Eminem

Eminem performs onstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Awards which broadcasted live on TBS, TNT, and truTV at The Forum on March 11, 2018 in Inglewood, California
Kevin Winter, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 46 million

31. Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

Photo of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band.
By American Talent International, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 44.5 million

32. Guns N’ Roses

Slash Ft. Myles Kennedy And The Conspirators At Whisky a Go Go
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Albums sold: 44.5 million

33. Alan Jackson

Albums sold: 43.5 million

34. Santana

Trade ad for Santana's album Santana III
By Columbia Records, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Albums sold: 43.5 million

35. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift performs onstage at 2019 iHeartRadio Wango Tango presented by The JUVÉDERM® Collection of Dermal Fillers at Dignity Health Sports Park on June 01, 2019
Rich Fury, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 43 million

36. Reba McEntire

Albums sold: 41 million

37. Eric Clapton

Albums sold: 40 million

38. Chicago

Albums sold: 38.5 million

39. Simon & Garfunkel

Pop duo Simon and Garfunkel, comprising (L-R) singer, Art Garfunkel and singer-songwriter, Paul Simon, performing on ITV's 'Ready, Steady, Go!', July 8, 1966
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 38.5 million

40. Foreigner

Albums sold: 38 million

41. Rod Stewart


Getty Images

Albums sold: 38 million

42. Tim McGraw

Albums sold: 37.5 million

43. Backstreet Boys

Albums sold: 37 million

44. 2 Pac

Albums sold: 36.5 million

45. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
Evening Standard/Getty Images

Albums sold: 36 million

46. Def Leppard

Albums sold: 35.5 million

47. Queen

 Freddie Mercury (1946 - 1991), lead singer of 70s hard rock quartet Queen, in concert in Milton Keynes in 1982
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Albums sold: 35 million

48. Dave Matthews Band

Albums sold: 34.5 million

49. Britney Spears

Britney Spears performs at the 102.7 KIIS FM's Jingle Ball 2016
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Albums sold: 34.5 million

50. Bon Jovi

Albums sold: 34.5 million

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