Irving Berlin was an American composer and lyricist of Russian-Jewish origin. Widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history, his music forms a great part of The Great American Songbook.
Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin, was uprooted from his home in Tyumen, Russia, at the age of five years, and immigrated with his family to America in 1893. They landed in New York City, where he worked as a paperboy for several years, but when he turned 14, his meager income prompted him to strike out on his own. He used his talent for music to work as a singing waiter and song plugger on Tin Pan Alley, where he observed what went in to making a hit song. He published his first piece, "Marie from Sunny Italy", in 1907 to some success, but it wasn’t until 1911 that he had his first major hit with "Alexander's Ragtime Band". The song became an international sensation, reviving the fervor for ragtime around the globe and vaulting Berlin to fame. Over the next several years, he churned out hits, having written over 100 songs by 1918 that catered to the common American.
A loyal American patriot, Berlin felt a deep connection to the country and the opportunities it gave him. Subsequently, he wrote many patriotic songs during both World Wars to rally the American People during war time and raise funds for the war efforts. In 1917, Berlin was drafted to the army, and spent his time writing and performing a musical revue for the troops, “Yip, Yap, Yaphank”. One of his most famous and long-lasting songs, “God Bless America”, was written during that time, but was released 20 years later to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day.
Later in his career, he turned to Broadway, writing the score for several musicals including Miss Liberty and Call Me Madam. His biggest Broadway success was Annie Get Your Gun, which contained hits like “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do”. He also scored many films, interpolating old and new hits for stars like Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Ginger Rogers. “White Christmas”, a beloved Berlin classic came from his score for the movie Holiday Inn, sung in the film by Bing Crosby. Later, this song became the title for a classic Christmas movie, and both White Christmas and Holiday Inn later hit the stage as Broadway Musicals.
Before he passed away at the age of 101, Berlin was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts during the war. He also won an Academy Award, two Tonys, a Grammy, and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Jewish-American Hall of Fame, and the American Theater Hall of Fame.
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