May 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Irving Berlin

Born in Eastern Russia on this day in 1888 (with the name Israel Baline), Berlin moved with his family to New York City when he was just five years old.

He went to school in his new country but had to quit just two ye
ars later when his father died. He became a newspaper boy as a contribution to the family's budget. One of his biographers reports that, on his first day on the job, he was accidentally knocked into the river by a swinging crane. He struggled to come up for air three times before he was rescued by onlookers—but when he was finally up on land again, he still had the five pennies he had earned that day clenched in his hand!

Berlin soon realized that he earned more money selling newspapers if he also sang songs. He noticed the sorts of songs that earned him the most—well-known tunes with simple words. Eventually he began to sing more instead of selling newspapers, taking singing jobs at saloons and restaurants. He taught himself to play piano by picking out tunes after closing (although he never learned to play in more than one key).

As a singer, Berlin began to change songs to make their rhythms more likable or to make a parody of a hit song. He also began to write his own songs. By age 20, Berlin had been noticed by a few important people and began to be an important songwriter.

With his simple, uncomplicated music and lyrics, Irving Berlin became world famous. He wrote about 1,500 songs, including scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. His songs were nominated eight times for Academy Awards. Some of his most famous songs include “White Christmas,” “There's No Business Like Show Business,” and “God Bless America.”

The great George Gershwin called Berlin the “greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”

All of that with no musical schooling—and only two years of schooling at all!

More about parodies...

I said bef
ore that Irving Berlin used to create parodies of hit songs. A parody is a song that imitates another (usually well-known) song, making changes for a humorous effect. A parody can be called a “spoof,” gently teasing either the original song or some aspect of popular culture or politics or...well, anything at all, I suppose! You can enjoy some parodies by listening to the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic. His humorous songs and parodies are so popular, Yankovic has sold more albums than any other comedy act in history.

Weird Al has his own You Tube channel. I like the song “Craig's List,” which spoofs one my teenage-self's favorite bands, The Doors. Another favorite is “The Saga Begins” – a Star Wars spoof.

Listen to some Irving Berlin songs.

This tribute by the Carol Burnett Show includes a lot of Berlin's songs. It's old fashioned and maybe cheesy, but I found it fun. It was created for Berlin's 85th birthday, and the participants may have assumed that he was nearing the end of his life—but they would have been wrong. Berlin lived another 16 years!

Write a song—or, better yet, write a song parody!

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