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Irving Berlin: The Great American Songwriter and Lyricist

Irving Berlin was one of America’s finest, and one of the greatest songwriters in the history of music. The composer-lyricist was born Israel Beilin on the 11th of May, 1888 in Imperial Russia before moving to the USA during his childhood. His compositions form a major part of the Great American Songbook.

Early Life

Irving Berlin at age 18

Irving Berlin, at aged 18 


Berlin was the 8th child of Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilin of Tyumen, Siberia. Moses worked as a cantor in a synagogue and soon followed the footsteps of numerous Jewish families of the region by shifting to the United States of America. After working through stringent immigration policies, they finally settled in the Ellis Island of New York City. Upon their arrival, they changed their surname from “Beilin” to “Baline.” (Exactly when and why Israel Baline became Irving Berlin is unclear.)

They started living in a basement on Monroe Street, subsequently moving into a three-room flat in Cherry Street. Irving started working as a newspaper boy at the mere age of eight to support his family. While working for the “Evening Journal,” Irving was regularly enticed by the music being played at the restaurants and saloons along the crowded streets of New York City. He soon developed the ambition to be a singing waiter at a saloon. He soon joined up with several other youngsters and started singing to customers at the saloons. They would perform the popular ballads heard across the streets of New York City. Berlin soon discovered that the most popular tunes, when combined with simple sentences drew the biggest response. In 1906, he came of age and bagged the job of a singing waiter at Chinatown’s Pelham Cafe. He often performed his own version of “blue” parodies to delight the customers.

New York in early 1900s

New York in the early 1900s


In his free time, he would concentrate on improving his piano technique, often using the bar piano to improvise new tunes after work. Soon, he collaborated with Mike Nicholson, Pelham’s resident pianist to write the tune for “Marie From Sunny Italy.” The sheet music was subsequently published and earned him 37 cents. He continued working at the Pelham Cafe while developing music simultaneously. He slowly gained recognition as a songwriter, often borrowing the lyrics of his friends, updating them, and incorporating his own touch.

Max Winslow of the Harry Von Tilzer Company was soon impressed by Berlin's performances and appointed him at the firm. In 1908, Irving shifted jobs to another saloon called Jimmy Kelly’s. Here, he collaborated with several young songwriters like George A. Whiting, Al Piantadosi, Ted Snyder, and Edgar Leslie. In the following year, he got his first big break at the Ted Snyder Company and was appointed as a staff lyricist.

Musical Journey 

Berlin slowly gained traction as a songwriter in Broadway and Tin Pan Alley. In 1911, his first hit “Alexander's Ragtime Band” became world-famous and was introduced by the famous Emma Carus at the Friars' Frolic, followed by Berlin’s own performance. He was instantly elevated into the status of a celebrity and became a part of Oscar Hammerstein's vaudeville house later that year. The tune announced the arrival of a songwriting star, topping the charts for quite some time.

In 1912, he tied the knot with Dorothy Goetz. When she passed away 6 months later, he wrote his first ballad, “When I Lost You.” It became an instant hit and sold millions of copies.  

In 1914, he crafted the ragtime revue titled “Watch Your Step,” which became his first complete score that exhibited both lyrical and musical sophistication. Berlin signified modernism, purveying the cultural struggle between musical indulgence, liberation, and Victorian gentility. Within the next few years, he had already crafted more than a hundred songs, mostly for new dance numbers like “foxtrot,” “chicken walk,” and “grizzly bear.” He crafted “That Hula-Hula” when Hawaiian dance became a thing, and then went on to write several southern melodies like “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.”

During this time, Irving was going through a transition from ragtime to lyrical ballads and crafted the song “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” It was written for the musical comedy “Ziegfeld’s Follies.” It became so popular that it was made the central theme of “Ziegfeld’s revue” and later the theme song of the movie titled “The Great Ziegfeld.” In 1917, as America entered World War I, Berlin felt that it’s his duty to support the brave soldiers with inspirational patriotic songs. He soon crafted “For Your Country and My Country.” Later, he was drafted into the US Army for writing more inspirational songs and help in the war effort. He composed “Yip Yip Yaphank,” an all-soldier musical revue as a tribute. The result was overwhelming, as the revue reached Broadway, with additional songs like “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and “Mandy” incorporated and performed by Berlin himself. Within the mid-1920s, he had crafted the scores for 4 “Music Box Revues” and 2 “Ziegfeld Follies” editions. The songs that premiered include - “Pack Up Your Things and Go to the Devil,” “Everybody Step,” and “Say It With Music.”

Berlin’s 1924 ballad “What'll I Do?” became a hit for Paul Whiteman. In 1925, he wrote “Always” to commemorate his love for Ellin Mackay, who he later married. He wrote “Blue Skies” in 1926 after the birth of his first daughter, sharing his feelings of being a father. In 1928, he delivered one of his most intricate choruses “Puttin’ On the Ritz” for the movie titled “Blue Skies.” In 1937, he composed “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” for the movie “On the Avenue.” In 1938, his most famous work, “God Bless America” came to the fore. It was written decades earlier, and Berlin whipped it out for the 20th anniversary of “Armistice Day,” celebrating the completion of World War I. It soon became the second national anthem of the United States of America before the Second World War. Berlin assigned all royalties of the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, who still earn millions from it.  

Irving Berlin & his wife, Ellin

Irving Berlin & his wife, Ellin


Berlin used his song to portray his love and affection towards his country. He wrote “Any Bonds Today?” to inspire the people to invest in War Bonds - at the request of the US Treasury Secretary. He subsequently assigned all royalties of the composition to the United States Treasury Department. He also composed several songs for various government agencies like “I Paid My Income Tax Today” for the Treasury Department, “Arms for the Love of America” for the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, and “Angels of Mercy” for the American Red Cross. His most valuable contribution towards the war effort was “This Is The Army,” a stage show.

Irving Berlin passed away on the 22nd of September, 1989 after suffering from a heart attack. The centurion was buried at the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.

Recognitions and Usage in Popular Culture

  • In 1927, the talk show titled “The Jazz Singer” featured Berlin’s song “Blue Skies.”
  • In 1934, Irving featured on the cover of Time Magazine and was hailed as “an American Institution.” 
  • In 1935, the movie “Top Hat” became the first musical featuring Berlin’s work. 
  • In 1938, Berlin’s famous “God Bless America” was anointed as the unofficial national anthem of the United States of America. 
  • In 1942, his song “White Christmas” was featured in the movie “Holiday Inn” and went on to become one of the most recorded compositions in history. In 1943, it also won the Academy Award in the category of “Best Music in an Original Song.” 
  • According to the record of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, 25 of Irvin’s compositions climbed the top of its charts over the years and were re-recorded multiple times by the most eminent singers. 
  • In 1951, his musical titled “Call Me Madam” received the Tony award in the Best Score for Musical category. 
  • In 1954, he received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his contribution towards Patriotic American music. 
  • Berlin Received the US Army Medal of Merit on the directive of President Harry S. Truman. General George Marshall presented him with the medal.
  • In 1963, he won the Special Tony Award. 
  • In 1968, he won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • In 1970, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York City. 
  • In 1977, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford. 
  • In 1978, Berlin won the Lawrence Langner Tony Award.
  • In 1986, he was anointed with the Medal of Liberty at the centennial celebrations of the Statue of Liberty.  
  • In 1988, the 100th birth anniversary of Irvin Berlin was celebrated via a concert for the benefit of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, and Carnegie Hall. 
  • In 1988, he was inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame.
  • In 1944, his name was placed on a star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

A Songwriting Legend

Songwriting was a ritual for Irving Berlin. He would craft a complete song each day, including words and music. He didn’t generally believe in the notion of “inspiration,” but simply felt that working continuously under pressure would bring the best out in him. It was his gift - he would start off at dinner and continue until the wee hours of the morning. He would then attend rehearsals the next day and practice the tunes. Music and words came to him naturally, and he sharpened his repertoire by working on his style. He was also a member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and did his bit for protecting the royalties of writers and composers.

In his later years, Berlin always emphasized his belief that lyrics made a song a hit, while the tune made it last. He started off as a singer, and even after becoming an established songwriter, he never compromised with his method of dictating a composition to a “musical secretary.” The essence of his writings can be found in the depths of American vernacular. This is the story of a poor immigrant boy who learned to read and write music, who created his own American dream - one so profound that his works seem inseparable from the nation’s self-image and history. His ability to put forward sumptuously melodious music makes it hard to remember that he was equally capable of creating ridiculously brilliant lyrics. A rare species composing bird who wrote his own language - delicately crafted music with naturally poised diction, Berlin seemed to flow his inflections and rhythms straight out of everyday speech. The greatest songwriter in history, Irving Berlin is American music.

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