Irving Berlin

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About Irving Berlin

One of the pillars of the Great American Songbook, Irving Berlin was a prolific composer whose output shaped the sound of popular music in the 20th century. He was born in Russia in 1888 into a Jewish family who emigrated to New York City in 1893. His father passed away when Berlin was 13, forcing him to drop out of school to help support his family by singing popular songs of the day in the streets for spare change. Berlin taught himself to play piano and began writing his own songs, scoring his first big hit as a Tin Pan Alley composer in 1911 with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Soon Berlin’s writing had transcended ragtime as he adroitly applied new trends and topical concerns to his tunes, including patriotic numbers once the U.S. entered World War I. Following the war, he began writing songs for hit live revues, and his tunes became staples of Hollywood musicals. In 1938, Kate Smith’s recording of his “God Bless America” became a second national anthem. He continued writing Broadway shows following World War II, including hits like Annie Get Your Gun in 1946, but his success ebbed in the 1950s, and by 1962 he had largely retired from music. He died in 1989 at age 101. His tunes continue to occupy the standard repertoire of jazz, while the 1942 Bing Crosby version of “White Christmas” remains the most successful single of all time, with more than 50 million copies sold.

Russian Empire
May 11, 1888

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