IRVING BERLIN – A GREAT AMERICAN SONGWRITER

On this day, 123 years ago, a great American songwriter was born – Irving Berlin.  He is one of those individuals whose compostions have left an indelible influence on songwriters and musicians in the twentieth century.  Only time will tell, but I believe his work will live on for centuries, just like the great composers of the common practice period.

For those who don’t know his story, you are missing out on a quintessential American narrative. He was born in Russia in 1888 (as Israel Isidore Baline) and lived there for five years until his family of ten emigrated to the United States.  After settling in New York City around the Bowery, it would seem that the elemental seeds were sown to cultivate a gift within this young boy.  In the ghetto world of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, “Izzy” was immersed in the songs and sounds that would shape his spirit down the line.

As he took odd jobs, like hocking newspapers, he absorbed the soundtrack of the local saloons, as well as the vernacular of the street.   As he grew into a young man, he had developed a talent to translate the flavor of his world into music and lyrics.  But what’s more is that he showed the ability to connect with a wide span of the American public, and that is a true gift.  In fact you can gain some understanding of him through the following quote:

“My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American, not the highbrow nor the lowbrow but that vast intermediate crew which is the real soul of the country. The highbrow is likely to be superficial, overtrained, supersensitive. The lowbrow is warped, subnormal. My public is the real people.”

Can you name a famous Irving Berlin song?  What’s he most famous for?  Quick!  Quick!

“White Christmas!”

I asked this question to a few people just a couple of weeks back, and most said “White Christmas,” or because it was April, “Easter Parade.”  But that was about as far as the list went.   How about “God Bless America” or “Puttin On the Ritz?”  Or maybe “Blue Skies” or “What’ll I Do?”  Perhaps you’ve heard of a lesser known hit called, oh I don’t know, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”  Yeah, he’s written a few hits, I think.

In fact in his official fifty-nine year musical career, he put his name on hundreds and hundreds of tunes, most of them used for shows and musical productions.  The first one to achieve worldwide success was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911, and it only gets better from that point.  It is a safe bet to say he has a catalog of more than 1500 songs, counting only the ones we know about.  It is rumored that there are more of his works stored away that haven’t been revealed, even twenty years after his death.

I love to read Berlin’s quotes and stories, because I learn so much about songwriting through his philosophy, of which he claims he has none.   For instance, how did a man like Irving Berlin produce so much quality work, even in six decades time?  He must have been a genius, right?  Not if you asked him.

He was realtively humble when it came to answering questions about how to write great tunes with memorable lyrics.  His process had little to do with inspiration and more with plain old-fashioned discipline and hard work.  He would make sure that every day, without fail, he would write a song.  Not just a few lines and melodies, but an entire song – words and music – everyday!  I find that amazing, but it’s just a matter of making it a habit.

The way I see it, Irving Berlin simply found his own formula, and he made it work for him.  He didn’t learn to play anything in other than F sharp, but he cranked them out, day after day, from 1907 to 1966.  He didn’t bogged down into the details, he would leave that to the arrangers to transpose the key and polish up the rest.  That’s how he got the job done!

So Happy Birthday to great Irving Berlin.  And God Bless!

 

Dean