Irving Berlin made a huge contribution to the great canon of interwar American popular song which is widely recognized as a core building block of jazz. He couldn’t read or write music, yet he composed words and melodies to thousands of novelty tunes, dance numbers, love songs and ballads—and almost 300 became Top Ten hits. In addition to individual songs, Berlin composed scores for 17 Hollywood films and 21 Broadway stage productions.
Berlin’s pieces like “Easter Parade,” “God Bless America” and “White Christmas” have found a place in the pantheon of American anthems of popular song. His songs “Blue Skies,” “Cheek To Cheek” and “Puttin’ On the Ritz” continue to be performed and recorded today by artists of all flavors, from Willie Nelson to Diana Krall, and The Jim Cullum Jazz Band.
Irving Berlin compositions have endured so well, for so long, they seem destined to withstand the test of time forever. In the 1930s, trumpeter Bunny Berigan and the Crosby Band’s Bob Cats had hits when they updated and transformed tunes Berlin had composed as sedate waltzes in ’3/4 time’ some twenty years earlier. Among others, they took his popular ballads “Always” and “Marie,” and reinvented them in up-tempo, ’4/4 swing time’ for a new generation.
Berlin’s knack for keeping his finger squarely on the pulse of mainstream American musical taste surfaced as early as 1911, when he composed his first mega-hit song, ”Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Over the next fifty years, the song was recorded in a dozen hit versions by Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Connee Boswell and Ray Charles among many others.
Berlin left the world hundreds of catchy tunes to whistle and hum—and memorable lyrics to sing—for just about any occasion. But Irving Berlin was as much a natural businessman as he was a natural showman and songwriter. Dedicated to protecting the rights of artists, Berlin was co-founder of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. And he built the Music Box Theater on 45th Street in Manhattan between Broadway and 8th Avenue. It opened in 1921 with his Music Box Revue and continues to be in use today as a venue for Broadway stage plays.
Throughout his life, there seemed to be an endless outpouring of music streaming from Irving Berlin to his appreciative public. The lyrics he penned to “What Can a Songwriter Say?” sum up his attitude toward songwriting:
What can a songwriter do?
I wish I could make an appropriate speech
But speech-making is simply out of my reach.
So what can a songwriter do,
What can a songwriter say,
A fiddler can speak with his fiddle,
A singer can sing with his voice.
An actor can speak with his tongue in his cheek
But a songwriter has no choice
Whatever his rights or wrongs
He only can speak with his songs.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: The Music Box Theater Program, 1921. Image courtesy American Classics.org
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2007