Thursday, April 10, 2014

Irving Berlin: "God Bless America"

Irving Berlin, one of the greatest American songwriters, in 1906, performing for his first music publisher at 18 years old. Photo in public domain.

If it's a snappy, happy song from a classic film, the type of song you'll never forget, it was written by Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin is the author and composer of "God Bless America," and "Easter Parade." He wrote "White Christmas" and Ethel Merman's trademark song, "There's no Business Like Show Business." If you're not tapping your feet yet, you will be by the time you finish this post! 

One of America's Greatest Songwriters 
Came From a Typical Immigrant Family

Irving Berlin (May 11, 1888-September 22, 1989) was born Israel Isidore Beilin near Belarus, Russia. He was one of eight children born to Moses Beilin, a cantor in a synagogue, and his wife, Lena Lipkin Beilin. Moses Beilin moved their family to New York City in 1893. Berlin once told a biographer that he had few memories of his childhood except for one--lying on the side of a road wrapped in a blanket, watching his home burn to ashes. The rest of his memories are all of New York City.

The family lived in the Yiddish Theater District in the Lower East Side. His father was unable to find work as a cantor, so he worked in a Kosher meat market and taught Hebrew to local students. His mother worked as a midwife, his sisters worked in a factory wrapping cigars, and Irving hawked The Evening Journal while singing songs for tips--a typical immigrant family. 

Singing for the Masses

Feeling he was more of a burden than an asset to his struggling family, Irving left his home at 14 to join the many young boys living on the streets. Berlin and a few of his friends traveled along the Bowery singing to patrons in the saloons. 

Berlin often said it was these early experiences that led him to success as he learned how to write and sing music that appealed to the immigrants in New York. Berlin teamed up with another young man singing in the saloons, George M. Cohen, who was becoming popular on Broadway and the two were an instant hit. Berlin published his first song, "Marie From Sunny Italy," at the age of 19.

It was a short time later, when Berlin was 23 years old, that he wrote the song that would make his name: "Alexander's Ragtime Band." The song was an international hit, sparking a dance craze that traveled all the way back to Berlin's birthplace in Russia. 

Irving Berlin in 1938 with Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche. Trailer Screenshot for Alexander's Ragtime Band, public domain. 

It wasn't just the song that drove his fans wild, but its ragtime beat that sent dancers into a frenzy. In 1938 it was also the title song for the film by the same name starring the equally young and inexperienced Tyrone Power, Jr., Alice Faye, and Ethel Merman. 

Songs and Singers That Will Amaze you! 

Irving Berlin's list of popular songs numbers in the hundreds with so many recognizable titles it's amazing anyone else found work when he was in town! Some of his most famous tunes include "Anything you can do, I can do Better," which I remember singing with my own brothers and sisters. He wrote "Cheek to Cheek" and "Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep." He wrote "Easter Parade," and "God Bless America." "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "There's no Business Like Show Business" are also Berlin songs. His songs were simple, romantic, and appealed to the average American, and that was the secret to Irving Berlin's success. 

Irving Berlin in 1941. Unknown photographer, public domain.

Irving Berlin's songs were also the vehicles for success for many stars. For instance, "Blue Skies was in the first feature-length "talkie" film The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. He also wrote career-boosting songs for Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers, and of course Alice Faye who sang in Alexander's Ragtime Band. His songs were light, happy, easy to follow and remember so the audience could sing along, and people loved the music and the man. 

Irving Berlin: The Man 

Like most famous Hollywood greats, Irving Berlin had a difficult life that continued beyond his childhood. He married Dorothy Goetz in 1912. Her brother was also a famous songwriter so she knew the business and it seemed a perfect match, but she died within six months of typhoid fever contracted on their Cuban honeymoon, which inspired Berling to write "When I Lost You." 

Irving and Ellin Mackay Berlin, circa 1926. Photo Public Domain.

In the late1920s he married Ellin Mackay, who came from a wealthy, socially-prominent family. She was Catholic and wealthy, he was Jewish and came from a poor immigrant family--their relationship was doomed from the start. Her father actually sent her to Europe to meet potential suitors and Berlin continued to flirt with her over the radio with songs such as "Always" and "Remember." 

When her father persisted in his attempts to come between them, they decided to elope, which must have devastated her socialite family. Berlin later insisted that they had the blessing of her mother, even though her father initially disowned his daughter. Berlin gave his wife the rights to "Always" so she would "always" have an income, no matter what, and this income was used to rescue his father-in-law during the stock market crash of 1929.

Irving Berlin's grave marker. Photo by Anthony22.

Their marriage was the one true, beautiful thing in Berlin's life. They remained married until her death at the age of 85 and had four children during their 63 years together. Their oldest died on Christmas day while still a baby, but the other three children lived long, successful lives. Irving Berlin died peacefully in his sleep on September 22, 1989 of natural causes. He was 101 years old. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the place he always considered home--The Bronx, New York. 

  • Fowler, Glenn. "Berlin's Work is Recalled With Words and Music." The New York Times. Published September 24, 1989. Accessed April 10, 2014. 
  • "Irving Berlin: Biography." Songwriters Hall of Fame. Accessed April 10, 2014.
In the A to Z Bloggers Challenge I is for Irving Berlin!


  1. great post on IB...

    Thank you for being part of the "AtoZ Challenge", please stop on over to my site[s] and say "Hello"!

    Jeremy [Retro]
    AtoZ Challenge Co-Host [2014]

    Old is the New Cool...

  2. I remember when he died and was very sad as he wrote so many classic songs and he couldn't read music! He loved how Fred Astaire sang his songs. Great post and homage to this man

    1. Thank you, Birgit! You know, it doesn't surprise me that he was such a great musician and couldn't read music. Many of our most talented musicians and composers seemed to use their other senses to "feel" the sound! It would be wonderful to be blessed with such a gift!

  3. That's the man who wrote God Bless America? God bless him! And starting out when he was only fourteen. Wow.
    Hope you are enjoying the Challenge!

  4. Yes, he was a Bowery Boy, living in the streets of New York to save his family the money of supporting him. He sang the songs that the people around him loved to hear, the type of songs that reminded the immigrants of their homes--the key to success is giving the people what they want. He was very popular, not only because he was talented, but because he understood that when it comes to songs, people want to feel the meaning in their hearts. God bless him indeed! And yes, this is my second year and I am having a great time! I tried with three blogs last year and was injured almost at the end so I didn't finish, but I'm going with three blogs again this year--now I'm stuck on my back so I'm sure I'll get it done! Lol!

  5. Wow. We've heard his name all our lives, but I'd never really stopped to think about the man behind all the songs. Thanks for putting together this great insight on him.

    Visiting from the A to Z blog signup page. Great to meet you!

    Stephanie Faris, author

    1. And so many songs, too! I was amazed by how many of my favorites songs were written by him, and he was a poor immigrant from the Bowery. That's America! Thanks for stopping by, Stephanie!

  6. Replies
    1. Yes, it is, but I think he loved his work, which makes a huge difference!

  7. Stopping by on the A to Z Challenge. This is a great blog. Keep it up, I enjoy reading about the classics.


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