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Irving Berlin was one of the most prolific and popular songwriters of the 20th century, counting among his many hits "White Christmas" and "Cheek to Cheek."
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Irving Berlin was born in Tyumen, Russia, on May 11, 1888, and immigrated to New York as a child. He would become one of the most popular songwriters in the United States, with hits like "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "What’ll I Do" and "White Christmas." Berlin's film and Broadway musical work included
"The songwriter must look upon his work as a business, that is, to make a success of it, he must work and work, and then WORK."
"I'd like to write a great peace song, but it's hard to do, because you have trouble dramatizing peace. Yet music is so important. It changes thinking, it influences everybody, whether they know it or not."
"I really can't read music. Oh, I can pick out the melody of a song with one finger, but I can't read the harmony. I feel like an awful dope that I know so little about the mechanics of my trade."
"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."
Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, in the village of Tyumen, Russia. His family fled to escape the region's persecution of the Jewish community and settled in New York City in the mid-1890s. As a teen, Baline worked as a street singer, and by 1906 he had become a singing waiter in Chinatown. His first published tune was 1907's "Marie From Sunny Italy," with Nick Nicholson penning the music. As the lyricist, Baline's name was misspelled as "I. Berlin" on the sheet music. He decided to keep the name, becoming Irving Berlin.
A few years later, Berlin would become a lyricist for the music publishing company Waterson & Snyder. He released a major hit in 1911, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," earning the nickname "King of Tin Pan Alley." Berlin was diligent in his writing efforts and was self-taught as a pianist, never learning how to read music and playing in the key of F-sharp, working with a special transcribing keyboard and assistants to explore other keys. Nonetheless, by the second decade of the 20th century, he had dozens upon dozens of songs under his belt.
Berlin started writing musicals by this time as well, having his Broadway debut with Watch Your Step in 1914. Berlin became a U.S. citizen in 1916 and, upon serving in World War I, penned the musical Yip! Yip! Yaphank! as an Army fund-raiser.
Berlin had wed Dorothy Goetz in 1912, but she died months after their honeymoon after contracting typhoid fever. His sorrow was heard in his popular ballad "When I Lost You." Years later, in 1925, he fell in love with heiress Ellin Mackay. Her father was against the courtship and sent Mackay away to Europe, during which time Berlin wrote beautiful tunes of yearning that included "What'll I Do" and "Always." Upon her return to the States, the couple eloped. They would have four children and be married for decades, until Mackay's death in 1988.
With his Broadway collaborator Victor Herbert, Berlin became a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in 1914. And in 1919, Berlin founded the Irving Berlin Music Corporation, which gave the musician full control of his copyrights.
Berlin would go on to compose more than 1,500 songs and score dozens of musicals and films. Among his best known big-screen works were Puttin' on the Ritz (1929), Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), Easter Parade (1948) and three Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, including Top Hat (1935), which featured "Cheek to Cheek," and Follow the Fleet (1936), which featured "Let's Face the Music and Dance." 1942's Holiday Inn showcased Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas," which would become the highest-selling tune in history.
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