Happy 129th Birthday, Irving Berlin!

The immortal Irving Berlin was born Israel Isidor Baline in Tolochin, Russian Empire, 129 years ago today. The great Jerome Kern once said of Berlin, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,” and we couldn’t agree more. Perhaps no songwriter’s works are heard more often on Cladrite Radio. Here are 10 IB Did-You-Knows:

  • Berlin’s father, Moses, a cantor in a synagogue, moved his family to New York City when Irving was five to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. Berlin said his only memory of Russia was lying on a blanket by the road as a young child and watching the family home burn to the ground.
  • Moses, unable to find work as a cantor, worked instead in a kosher meat market near the family’s home on the Lower East Side and gave Hebrew lessons on the side. He died when Berlin was just 13. Irving began working as a newsboy at age eight, hawking The New York Evening Journal, and his mother, Lena, worked as a midwife.
  • While selling papers on the Bowery, Berlin was exposed to the popular music of the day pouring out of the neighborhood’s saloons and restaurants. He began to sing some of those songs as he sold papers, and picked up some spare change from appreciative customers in return.
  • At 14, feeling he wasn’t contributing enough to the family’s welfare, he moved out, spending his nights in a series of lodging houses along and near the Bowery. He at first made his living stopping in saloons and singing songs for tips, but before long, he took a job singing at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and at 18, he got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. All the while, he was teaching himself to play piano during his off-hours.
  • Berlin’s first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, created a ragtime craze that reached even his native Russia.
  • It’s estimated that Berlin, one of the few songwriters of his era who composed both lyrics and melody, wrote as many as 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. His songs received seven “Best Original Song” Academy Award nominations, with White Christmas, written for the 1942 picture Holiday Inn, earning Berlin an Oscar.
  • Berlin was not a fan of Elvis Presley‘s recording of White Christmas, going so far as to send a letter to the nation’s top radio stations, requesting that they not play it over the air.
  • All Berlin’s songs were written solely on the black keys of the piano, which is the key of F Sharp. His specially constructed piano had pedals that changed the key for Berlin.
  • Berlin’s hit song Easter Parade was a reworking of one of his earlier songs, Smile and Show Your Dimple.
  • Despite his association with the holiday, Christmas was a bittersweet day for Berlin, whose infant son, Irving Berlin, Jr., died on Christmas 1928 of typhoid fever.

Happy birthday, Irving Berlin, wherever you may be!

Irving Berlin

Happy 107th Birthday, Johnny Mercer!

Lyricist, composer and singer Johnny Mercer, one of the greatest lyricists to contribute to the Great American Songbook, was born John Herndon Mercer 107 years ago today in Savannah, Georgia. Here are 10 JM Did-You-Knows:

  • Mercer’s father was an attorney; his mother was his father’s secretary before she became his second wife.
  • Mercer was exposed to a wide range of African-American music as a child. His aunt took him to minstrel and vaudeville shows, and he spent time with many black playmates (and his family’s servants). He also was drawn to Savannah’s black fishermen and street vendors, as well as African-American church services. As a teenager, he collected records by black artists such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong.
  • Mercer was singing in church choirs by age six, and within a few years, had demonstrated a penchant for memorizing all the popular songs of the day.
  • His family frequently escaped Savannah’s heat at a mountain retreat near Ashville, North Carolina, and it was there that young Mercer learned to dance from none other than Arthur Murray himself.
  • Mercer moved to NYC in 1928, taking bit parts as an actor and continuing to work on the songwriting he’d begun to experiment with back in Savannah. He took a job at a brokerage house to pay the bills, and began to sing around town. He once pitched a song to Eddie Cantor, and though Cantor didn’t buy the song, he was very encouraging to Mercer.
  • Mercer preferred writing standalone songs to writing for musicals, where the lyrics had to fit the show, so when the revue format gave way to book musicals on Broadway, he moved to Los Angeles and took a job with RKO.
  • Mercer founded Capitol Records with songwriter Buddy G. DeSylva and businessman Glenn Wallichs in 1942, investing $25,000. In 1955, he sold his share in the company for $20 million.
  • Mercer was married to Ginger Mehan from 1931 until his death in 1976, but he had an on-and-off affair with Judy Garland.
  • A fan once wrote Mercer, suggesting the song title I Wanna Be Around (to Pick Up the Pieces When Somebody Breaks Your Heart). Mercer quickly wrote a song by that title, and when it became a hit, he gave the fan half his royalties.
  • Mercer was a distant cousin of Gen. George S. Patton.

Happy birthday, Johnny Mercer, wherever you may be!

Johnny Mercer