May 11th marks the birthday of the man who was born in Siberia but became the American Song Machine. Irving Berlin would be 123 years old today. It seems somewhat silly to consider a 123rd birthday, but Mr. Berlin ,as it is, lived to 101 and was prodigious to the very end. His story encapsulates the uniquely American Story that led so many immigrants to come to the shores of America over the last 150 years in hopes of a better life. their journeys were framed on the singular premise that in America, you are not told who you can be, but instead, given a chance to be all you can be. Irving Berlin was no different. He never expressed a particularly sophisticated musical form, was self taught on the piano, never establishing the ability to play in any other key but one, and never considered lyrics anything but the musical expressions of the simplest most direct thoughts. What Irving Berlin proved to have as an immigrant from far away shores, was the most precise ear to the pulse of the American way there ever was, or ever will be. This very special kind of genius allowed him to fashion some of the greatest contributions to the lexicon of American music, and a body of musical scores that define America eternally. Not bad for poor cantor’s son from Siberia.
The horror of Berlin’s early life in Czarist Russia was not substantially improved by the family’s decision to escape Jewish persecution and emigrate to the United States. He found himself struggling in language and connectivity with the wild streets of America, poorly trained for any job, and no real prospects for the future. He fell back upon the family skill set of cantoring, in the new way of the New York street, singing for a penny and occasionally putting his own bawdier comments to known songs. He discovered that he had a knack for words and that people enjoyed his stylings. He began to perform in neighborhood bars and music halls of the lower East Side of New York, where he later stated he learned “the language of the street” that formed the foundation of his later song writing philosophy, songs that spoke to the average man and sounded ‘American’. He was good friends with a fellow tune-smith, George Cohan, and noted when he finished a show with Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” people stopped and applauded as one, regardless of their ancestral makeup. There was something to this American current that everybody understood and was proud of, and Berlin felt it deeply. The recognition led Berlin to try to pen similar tunes, and soon he found himself noticed by more than the average listener. Max Winslow, a manger of a local music publishing company, heard Berlin and sold him as a Tin Pan Alley find of great talent to his bosses. It was no boast, and Winslow’s street find ended up making everybody very wealthy.
The breakthrough was a 1911 miracle song, “Alexander’s Rag Time Band”. Berlin composed it as a march, but married the elements of Scott Joplin’s ragtime influences in a very simple lyric set with a killer melody, and the legend was borne. The song overnight reached international hit status, and Berlin was suddenly deluged with offers to right more of the same, and musicals to boot. No 22 year old kid barely out of the pogroms of Russia could be expected to have produced such a miracle, but Berlin was not about to waste his moment, and produced song splash after song splash on the vaudeville scene. Alexander’s Rag Time Band was so special it provided number one hits for singers in three different decades and charted 12 times over fifty years. Now that’s hit song writing.
Irving Berlin found success and never looked back, publishing over 1500 songs, and a multitude of successful musicals and musical reviews. Songs of love, comedy, patriotism, and romance poured out of him like a fountain of creativity and never really exhausted itself. Songs like “What’ll I Do”, “Easter Parade”, “Cheek to Cheek”, “God Bless America”, “Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “White Christmas”, “Blue Skies”, “Marie”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Always”, and hundreds of others unearthed a vein of American rhythm, promise, and simple values that resonated with everyone who heard an Irving Berlin song, and became standards of all the great performers of the 20th century. He never forgot the sentiments of his lyrics,, but bound them to melodies that held up so beautifully over time. Berlin himself remarked, ” Its the lyric that makes the song a hit, although the tune, of course, is what makes it last.” He worked unbelieveably hard at his craft, and though not as musically gifted, had a sophisticated sense of rhythm, melody, and harmony that he worked hard through collaborators to reproduce in enlarged scores of his music. Sophisticated talents such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter , found him a formidable composer, and credited him with stimulating their own journeys in American jazz, song and vernacular. Above all the music has shown tremendous “legs” over time, in that people are constantly surprised to find the infectious tune they are humming is a Berlin tune. Irving would be gratified with their mistake, but not surprised with the staying power of his craft.
Irving Berlin remains one of the best examples of the “everything is possible” American story, coming from nothing and leaving, a legend. He was proud of his country, and proud to reflect it in its everyday character in his music. He is the American success that reflects to all who come to her shores, try, and try hard, and where you are free, you can truly be.