May 11 was songwriter Irving Berlin’s birthday. He called himself a “songwriter” because, unlike many other composers, he also wrote his own lyrics — like Cole Porter.
He was born in Russia, came to this country as a child, and lived a long life, dying in 1989, at the age of 101.
And while most of us know a good deal about Berlin, I was recently surprised to learn things I didn’t know. Such as that he had written a song, “Suppertime,” about a black man’s having been lynched — a song he wrote specifically for the black singer, Ethel Waters. In a year, 1934, when more than 30 black men in America were lynched.
Some other things I learned:
+ A music lover rebuked me for planning to give a talk on Berlin, arguing that his music was “simplistic.” So I checked into opera singers who have sung his songs. Even skipping the ubiquitous “God Bless America,” I came up with Kiri Te Kanawa, Mario Lanza, Grace Moore, the Three Tenors (Pavarotti/Domingo/Carreras), Richard Tauber, Robert Merrill, Alan Jones, Thomas Hampson, Marilyn Horne, and John McCormack.
+ 35 of his 1,500 or so songs made the top of the charts
+ One of his best songs, “Blue Skies,” was the first ever sung in a sound motion picture — by Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.”
+ The original of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” may have been offensive to some people, so the wording has been changed. “Fashion,” for example, has been substituted for “Harlem” (where “fashion sits” instead of where “Harlem sits”).
+ Jerome Kern: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music — he is American music.”
+ Berlin’s father was a cantor, and the boy grew up on the East Side. He said he never knew he was poor — he was never cold, and always had bread and butter to eat and tea to drink. As a youngster, he did odd jobs, like selling newspapers and singing in restaurants.
+ "Every man should have a Lower East Side in his life," he said. (Everyone should remember hard times.)
+ One of his earliest lyrics was for a song named “Marie of Sunny Italy.” The printer made a mistake — and printed his name as Berlin instead of Baline. He adopted the name. His new first name (his old one was Israel) came from Sir Henry Irving, the famous British actor. Berlin’s first big hit: “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” in 1911.
+ Opening night of his musical, “Watch Your Step,” with dancers Irene and Vernon Castle, was the most thrilling of his life, he said. He finally heard his music played by a full orchestra.
+ He was a true patriot. His lawyer urged him to invest in tax shelters; he refused. "I want to pay taxes. I love this country.”
+ Sir Winston Churchill invited Berlin to lunch during World War II, and began peppering him with political questions. Berlin, baffled, didn’t know what to say; Churchill eventually left the room. He had confused Irving Berlin with the noted scholar, Isaiah Berlin.