On Irving Berlin
On Irving Berlin
On George Gershwin
Reminiscing in 1988
So the old maestro is in his hundredth year, and, God willing, when he opens his eyes on the morning of May 11, then in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world plus all the other venues on this globe where popular music is either played, sung or appreciated the toast will assuredly be to the man who is generally recognised as the most prolific and successful song writer of all time: Irving Berlin.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . ..” These words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, situated where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Hudson River the first sign of a new life for millions of hopeful immigrants to the New World for many a generation now. But it is doubtful if the Baline family, after a month–long tortuous journey from Europe, paid much attention to the statue or its message. Not only could they neither speak nor read a word of English, they were also suffering from the frightful conditions imposed upon them by the effects of the journey; this was no luxury liner they had travelled on, but the typical immigrant ship that placed numbers before comforts.
Moses and his wife Leah looked over the side of the ship and thought that had it not been for the sight of the Cossacks sweeping into their town of Temun, in Russia’s Siberia, and putting their home to the torch merely because they were Jews, the chances are that Moses would still be cantor in the local synagogue, whilst Leah would be quite happy in bringing up her eight children, Poor but happy would have been a fair description of their lot in Temun, but there was no way that the frightening pogrom that had destroyed their house along with so many more of their friends’ houses could be endured, and so it was with a certain relief that the Balines set off for their new life in America.
The letters from a cousin who had made the journey some years earlier had painted a rosy picture of life in New York, and there was a certain feeling of &appointment when Moses and Leah saw where the journey from the docks was taking them. They hadn’t expected the streets to be paved with gold, but nor did they expect them to be filled with rubbish, giving off a stench that was as offensive to their sight as it was to their sense of smell. But if their spirits were low during the journey, the sight that met their eyes when they saw the accommodation fixed for them at Monroe Street filled them with a sense of dread. The three rooms were filthy, but what was worse, especially for the house–proud Leah, was the fact that there wasn’t a window in any of the rooms. That she sat down and cried should be of no surprise to anyone.
But the Balines, like so many more of the immigrant families who had made their homes in the slums of New York, started to put things to right, and it wasn’t too long before the place was clean and, as far as it was humanly possible, homelike. They had arrived there in 1892, and by 1893 things were marginally better. They still spoke Yiddish, and one of the family, the four–year–old Israel, was as happy as any other youngster of his age. He was warm, fed and loved. He asked for no more. At least, not then.
But if the young Izzy was contented enough, the same cannot be said for his father, Moses. The local synagogue had their own cantor; so he had to get himself a job at the local Jewish slaughterhouse. Again, the hours were long and the money poor, but that, plus the fact that he gave Hebrew lessons to the local youngsters every night, brought in a few extra dollars. But the hard work took its toll, and he died in 1896.
For the family, including the now eight–year–old Izzy, the ‘contented’ life was at an end; from now on it was survival that mattered, and the lad’s paper round was as necessary to the family income as was any other member’s contribution. It was his selling papers outside the bars of the Lower East Side that gave him his first ‘taste’ of the world of music. The bars had singing waiters, and the young Baline listened with a certain fascination that seemed to come from way down deep inside the small frame.
He’d started school at the age of six—and had finished his education there at the age of eight! The streets were his schoolrooms, the denizens his teachers. By the age of fourteen he was the ‘eyes’ for a busker by the name of Blind Sol, and it was this experience that gave him the opportunity to take a big breath one day, and ask for a job in one of the bars.
Izzy Baline was, at last, a singing waiter.
In one of these places he sat down at the piano and found that whilst he couldn’t make any progress playing the white notes, if he played the black ones he could get something out of them that resembled a tune. This was a situation that was to prevail for the rest of his life, and every song that was to come was written in the key of F sharp.
At first he wrote only the words to the song. One friend of his, a pianist by the name of Nick Nicholson, asked him to put lyrics to his melody, and the song “Marie From Sunny Italy” was the result.
Another result was the fact that a printer’s error had the name I. Berlin on the copy instead of the intended I. Baline, and when Izzy saw this he was quite pleased. He decided to keep the ‘Berlin’ part; he also decided that Izzy didn’t exactly fit the second name so, as the name Irving appealed to him, Irving Berlin was born. It’s an ill wind . .
His meeting–up with music publisher Ted Snyder in Tin Pan Alley had him being offered the then staggering sum of twenty–five dollars a week to turn out as many songs as he could. He’d write the lyrics and then sing the melody to the resident pianist; the pianist then would write what Berlin had sung to him. It worked. The tunes were coming thick and fast, but it was 1910 that saw the turning point in the man’s incredible career. He wrote a melody for a song one that was played enough times to prove very popular. But without words it could never really achieve the success it deserved; so in 1911 he added a lyric and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was born. This proved to be a revelation in the music business, as it caught the imagination not only of the American public, but also that of the whole world.
Berlin was now a name that was associated with all that was popular music. In fact, Irving Berlin was popular music.
But the fates are as capricious as they are unpredictable. In 1912 Irving married Dorothy Goetz, and the fact that the lady wasn’t Jewish caused certain heartache in the Baline household. But Leah saw that her Izzy was happy, and wished them well. They went on honeymoon to Cuba, and it seemed that they were set for an idyllic life together. On their return, Dorothy fell ill; she’d contracted typhoid fever on their honeymoon island. She died five months later. But for all his sorrow, Berlin continued to turn out his never–ending list of hit tunes, and as the list grew, so did his reputation.
It is interesting to note that, when coming out of his office one day, he ran into a young Jewish lad also the son of immigrant parents who asked for a job as an arranger. He played to Berlin and the maestro was impressed. “Your name?” asked Berlin. “George Gershwin” was the answer.
THIS IS THE ARMY, MR BERLIN
Berlin came to London, and was as big a success here as he was back home in the States. The impact of his popularity was brought home to him when, one day whilst getting out of a cab at Charing Cross station, the porter who opened the door for him was whistling “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”. Berlin put the copper away that was intended for the porter; the lucky gent found himself with a gold sovereign in his hand. Things had changed indeed for the man who had started as a singing waiter, and although he was happy singing his own songs, the really big names in the business clamoured for anything, that the man wrote.
One particular friend was Al Jolson, and from a show that Berlin wrote, the number “When I Leave The World Behind” was to become associated with Jolson throughout his whole career.
With America’s entry into the First World War, Berlin was called up for the Army. He hated it. The fact that he was a celebrity made him the butt of many of the sergeants, and life was, for the man used to better things, miserable. But on his being promoted to sergeant, he was asked to put on a show for Army charities. This show was by any standards, outstanding artistes such as Jolson, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor appearing in it.
Berlin himself came on at the end, dressed a mite incongruously in a uniform that did little for the diminutive figure, and sang a song he’d written especially for the show. The number was a hit then, and is still a hit now. When asked how he could come to write such a number, he replied: “When I’m in love I write love songs. When I hate to get up in the morning, I write about hating to get up in the morning.” And so “Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning” saw the first light of day.
The stage shows and films are too numerous to mention in full, but it seemed that everything Berlin touched turned to musical gold. His score for the Astaire/Rogers film Top Hat had his peers Kern, Rodgers. Hart and Arlen applauding the Talents of the little master. The title song, “Top Hat, White Tie And Tails” would have been sufficient to set the seal on the film, but along with that evergreen were others such as “Cheek To Cheek”, “Isn’t It A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain?” and “The Piccolino”. And all these from a man who could only play the piano in the key of F sharp, and had a special lever under the instrument that enabled him to change key. Hard to believe, but true.
The hits written by Berlin are in such numbers that they come as a surprise to many people including musicians. One reason for this is that the fairly complex structure of some numbers would seem to indicate that they could only have been written by a ‘proper’ musician such as Kern, Porter or Arlen.
One example is “How Deep Is The Ocean?” Bars nine to sixteen are of such a musical nature that it is hard to credit that the man who wrote them was conjuring the intricate intervals from his ‘never–had–a–lesson’ head. Another example is the middle ten (yes, ten) of the number “Top Hat, White Tie And Tails”. Anyone not too familiar with the said bars can come to grief on the rocks of this particular epic. The first time your writer attempted to busk those bars, he foundered in the same manner as so many others had done before him! At least he was in good company! But if such as Astaire, Rogers, Jolson, Alice Faye, Merman and Clooney are but six of the greats who have had cause to bless the talents of I.B., surely Judy Garland also had good reason to be thankful for the genius of the man. His changing five words in a song he’d written years before into that of four words meant that from that moment on, no other writer would be able to portray a certain season with the authority that Berlin had stamped upon it. “Smile And Show Your Dimple” underwent a metamorphosis and became the “In your Easter bonnet” of “Easter Parade”. The rest, as they say . . .
The shows and films of Berlin are legendary. Call Me Madam, Easter Parade, Mister President and This Is The Army would be hard to top, or so one would think. But top them he did.
1942 and 1945 are two years that surely must go down in musical history books as the years in which two of the greatest songs ever written came to life. Berlin was asked to write the score for a film called Holiday Inn, and in it there was space for a number that, in Berlin’s opinion, was a bit of a throwaway. Bing Crosby was the singer, and the song, in the opinion of a gent named Walter Scharf (MD), was “nice enough”. Well, the “nice enough” song was called “White Christmas”. (At this point there will be a minute’s silence for the perspicacious Mr Scharf.)
1945 brought a call from the great Rodgers and Hammerstein team, asking Berlin if he’d write a score for a new musical they were putting on. Jerome Kern had been scheduled to write the music, but tragically had died. The real sadness of the occasion was brought home to his friends when it was known that Kern had died in the street and, having no identity papers on him, had been taken to a city hospital completely unknown.
Berlin was told by Rodgers and Hammerstein that the musical was about a real tough Western lady (sic) by the name of Annie Oakley. When Berlin heard the plot, he refused the task, saying that as Dick and Oscar had already done a marvellous job with their Oklahoma, he, Berlin didn’t think he could possibly “follow that”.
In the end, he took on the task and such numbers as “They Say It’s Wonderful”, “You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun” and “The Girl That I Marry” became part of music’s evergreen list.
Rodgers and Hammerstein were absolutely amazed at the sheer quality of the score; they hadn’t expected quite so many hit tunes. But at one of the rehearsals, a number that had previously been included was now missing.
“Why isn’t it in?” queried Oscar.
“I didn’t think you liked it,” was the reply.
“Why ever not?” asked Dick.
“Well,” replied Berlin, “When I played it before, you never said a word.” “Put it back,” thundered the formidable Oscar. “Just do me a favour and put it back.” Berlin did him and all the rest of the profession the favour and put it back.
The show: Annie Get Your Gun. The number: “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.
SAY IT WITH MUSIC
One could end by thanking the man for giving us such greats as “Blue Skies”, “Always”, “All Alone”, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm”, “Marie”(T.D. was more than grateful for that one), “It’s A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and over three thousand others, but as poets are allowed their ‘licence’ so are we writers. I’ll take mine now.
During the second World War, Berlin was again asked to serve his country only this time not as Private Berlin, but in a much more useful capacity and he wrote a show for Service charities called This Is The Army. Needless to say, the hit song from the show was the show’s title, plus the words “Mr Jones”. The show was brought over to London, and during that period Berlin did an hour’s broadcast with the Geraldo band an hour of the man’s songs.
This writer was privileged to be on that particular session, and during the break took the opportunity to (1) ask for Berlin’s autograph and (2) ask him his own favourite number from all those he had penned.
He complied with request number one with a smile; the smile broadened when he saw the trumpet that was being carried under my arm. “I’m kinda glad that that ain’t a bugle,” he cracked. “I’m gonna get that guy one day.” (My younger readers can ask their dads about that one.) Needless to say, his autograph was added to the others that this writer has personally collected over the years seven in all. The others are those who gave so much pleasure to so many people, and who, in their respective ways, played such an important part in your scribe’s ‘growing up’ period: Gene Autry, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Stanley Matthews, Louis Armstrong and Nat Gonella. Masters all of their craft.
As to the man’s favourite number, his answer was immediate. “It had to be the one that started it all for me ‘Alexandra’s Ragtime Band’.” And yet, and yet . . . When his parents arrived all those years ago in the New World, so full of relief at leaving the awful known and yet so full of apprehension at facing the totally unknown, the words they saw inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give Me your tired, your poor . ..” must have had a great effect on the man—his incorporating them into a song of that title shows the depth of feeling he had, and still has, for the United States of America.
The journey from Siberia to Manhattan was a long and hard one for the Baline family, but never was a journey more worthwhile to musicians, singers and music lovers everywhere.
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