Irving Berlin

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Berlin, Irving

(bərlĭn`), 1888–1989, American songwriter, b. Russia as Israel Baline; his Jewish family fled a pogrom in 1893 and settled in New York's Lower East Side. Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911) was his first outstanding hit. In 1918, while he was in the army, he wrote, produced, and acted in Yip, Yip, Yaphank, which he rewrote in 1942 as This Is the Army. Berlin wrote songs for several of the Ziegfeld Follies and the Music Box Revue (1921–24) as well as the Broadway musicals As Thousands Cheer (1933), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), Miss Liberty (1949), Call Me Madam (1950), and Mr. President (1962). He was the composer of numerous film scores, and several of his stage musicals were filmed. Among his nearly 1,000 songs the best known include "God Bless America," "Easter Parade," "White Christmas," and "There's No Business like Show Business."


See his early songs ed. by C. Hamm (1995) and complete lyrics ed. by R. Kimball and L. Emmet (2001); memoir by M. E. Barrett, his daughter (1994); biographies by M. Freedland (1974), L. Bergreen (1990), E. Jablonski (1999), and J. Kaplan (2019).

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Berlin, Irving (b. Israel Baline)

(1888–1990) composer, lyricist; born in Temun, Siberian Russia. His father was a cantor and the family fled pogroms and emigrated to the United States when he was a child. Living in New York, Irving joined a synagogue choir and at age 14 sang popular songs on street corners and in cafes. A singing waiter in 1906, he taught himself piano and began writing songs; his first song was published mistakenly under "I. Berlin" and from then on he called himself Irving Berlin. He turned out a series of mildly popular songs sung by such fledgling stars as Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice and wrote his first complete Broadway score in 1914; but it was his song "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1916) that brought him national popularity. In the army in 1918, he composed a musical performed by army personnel for benefits, Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1918), that included "Oh, How I Hate to Get up in the Morning." Throughout the next four decades, he wrote successful stage and film musicals which included many American standards, such as "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" (1919), "Blue Skies" (1926), "Puttin' on the Ritz" (1930), and "Easter Parade" (1933). In 1938, on the eve of World War II, he wrote "God Bless America," unofficially adopted as the second national anthem. For the 1942 film Holiday Inn he wrote "White Christmas," which became Bing Crosby's signature song. During World War II he wrote another all-soldier musical, This Is the Army (1942). His most successful stage musical was Annie Get Your Gun (1946) starring Ethel Merman. In 1974 he presented his piano (which he played only by ear and in the key of F-sharp major) to the Smithsonian as a gesture of his retirement. In 1977 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford for his patriotic contributions during the two world wars; but to many people throughout the world he was beloved as the best all-around popular songwriter of the century.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.