Snapshot in Prose: Irving Berlin

Is there a better known, more revered songwriter, even today, than Irving Berlin?

We think not.

But it’s intriguing to read the following profile, which dates from 1935. Berlin was already a giant in the world of music and theatre, but many of his greatest accomplishments still lay ahead of him.

In fact, of the dozens of titles of Berlin’s hit songs mentioned in this profile, very few were familiar to us (and we bet you’ll find them as unfamiliar as we did).

It was quite a life that Mr. Berlin led. And quite a career.

HE came from a burning village in Russia to the freedom of America. From a basement in Monroe Street to a palatial theatre on Broadway. From a little newsboy calling out his afternoon papers along the wharf to his rightful kingdom in Tin Pan Alley. From a singing waiter’s job on the Bowery to playing host to Park Avenue’s society. Irving Berlin.
But a change of address didn’t do it. It took courage.
First, let’s have a look at Irving Berlin. It is easy to picture a long line of singing poets back of his fathomless, dark eyes. Cantors, singing their hearts out in prayer, even as Berlin in his songs free our everyday emotion—sings out for us the loneliness, the love-making, the fun, and the stifled sobs that we are too timid to express.
“I Never Had A Chance,” “How Deep Is the Ocean, How High Is the Sky,” “Not For All the Rice in China,” and “Say It Isn’t So,” are just us thinking out loud.
See Berlin’s sensitive mouth; his ear, quick to the rustling of a leaf. Yet, for all his deep feeling, his responsiveness, Berlin is cool-headed. He is easier to talk to than is the average big man’s secretary. Without any fan-fare, he is standing quietly before you. Immediately you are aware of an unsuspected strength in him. He has tremendous poise. A keen, clear thinker, he makes lawyer-like decisions.
When the sad, refugee Cantor Baline and his family came to America back in 1892, our hero was little four-year-old Israel Baline, the youngest of eight children. It was not long before each, after the manner of their stout-hearted stock, was contributing her or her share to the family bank, Mother Baline’s anxiously waiting lap.
Israel was selling afternoon papers along the East Side wharves. One day, with five pennies held tightly in his manly fist, he felt optimistic. He was tempted to “Wanna Be Lazy.”
Idly, he stood watching a beautiful ship. A big crane came swinging overboard. Suddenly it caught up the little child. It dashed him through the air and dropped him in the deep waters of the East River. He went under quickly. Once. Twice!
A game, unidentified little Irish boy pulled off his shoes and jumped in the river after him. He saved the life of America’s king of popular songwriters—our own Irving Berlin.
Grief, in the death of the father, soon came to the Baline family. Israel was only eight years old. But his father, hoping he would follow the family tradition and became cantor, had already started the training of the small, sympathetic voice.
When the boy was fourteen, he wasn’t very big and he wasn’t very strong. Perhaps he was feeling “All Alone,” or like “Nobody Knows and Nobody Seems to Care,” the day he ran away from home and headed for the Bowery. The older children were bringing more money home to their mother’s lap. Pride had led the way, but it took grit, courage to go.
“If The Managers Only Thought the Same As Mother” along the Great White Way of the Bowery! Anyhow, Irving Baline who grew up to be Irving Berlin was “Wishing.”
Irving became a “busker;” in today’s parlance, a song plugger. Tony Pastor once paid him five dollars a week to join in the chorus of a song being sung on the stage, from his place in the balcony. It was tough being away from home. Not high living on five dollars. But the boy probably said: “Thank you, kind sir.”
First, Berlin worked in Callahan’s place. The, in 1904, when “Nigger Mike” (a white man, of course) opened the Pelham, a show place for slummers and a night club to Fifth Avenue patrons, Berlin went to work there. He was a singing waiter.
One night Max Winslow, a song plugger for Harry Von Tilzer, dropped in. He heard Irvin singing an original parody on “Mary Ann.” Winslow hurried back to Von Tilzer and begged him to employ the boy. At fifteen dollars a week. But Von Tilzer couldn’t see it.
Berlin and Winslow became fast friends from the time of this meeting. Theirs is still one of the finest friendships known along Tin Pan Alley.
From Salter’s, the young minstrel found work at Jimmy Kelly’s. It was while here that he wrote the words of “Marie from Sunny Italy.” It was his first published song and brought the hopeful singer the large sum of thirty-seven cents.
Undaunted, Irving, now nineteen, kept us working and scribbling away at his lyrics.

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Snapshot in Prose: Phil Spitalny

Phil Spitalny was a very popular orchestra leader who experienced success as a recording artist, on the radio (his was the house orchestra on The Hour of Charm, a program hosted by Arlene Francis that aired on CBS and then NBC from 1934 to 1948), the movies (he appeared in a number of musical shorts and in two features), and even television.

But he achieved his biggest success based on what some considered a gimmick: Beginning in 1934, his orchestra (and later an added chorus) was composed entirely of women.

This profile, from 1935, captures Spitalny just months after he first launched his all-girl outfit, which he would lead successfully for twenty years. And if you read all the way to the end, there’s an historic epsiode of the Hour of Charm awaiting you. It’s the broadcast from the evening of Dec. 7, 1941—the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The sound quality’s not ideal, but we think you’ll agree it’s well worth a listen.

WHY do all the girls love Phil Spitalny? Why do they rave over this adventurous maestro in an especial, possessive way?
One reason is because however “modern” a girl appears to be, there is still something down deep inside that responds to chivalry as quickly as sunflowers turn to the sun. Phil, in blazing the trail in radio with his all-girl band, dared battle for Every Girl. So she looks at him in his plain business suit and sees her shining knight in armor.
Of course our trailblazer is a great director possessed of distinguished musicianship, but there is still another big reason why the women love Phil.
He first loved them. He believed in them; in their common sense and in their musical ability. They had often been told before how beautifully they played. Oh, many times! But when a girl had tried to make her living with her trombone or bass violin, she had soon realized that the boys didn’t want her playing in their ball game.
So in the beginning the girls only shrugged their pretty shoulders and smiled when Phil said that he was going to organize a big woman’s band. The men laughed scornfully at his idea.
“A woman’s band! Why, where could he find professional women musicians to play all the instruments that men play in band? Impossible,” said the know-it-all men. “Women would quarrel, display temperament, and all that! No, Phil, don’t be ridiculous!”
Some of the wise ones said it was born of a commercial sense, while others grinned and remarked, “Find the woman!”

“I was born in a little Russian village,” began Spitalny when interviewed. “There were, father, mother, and three sons in our family. My parents wanted me to be an artist—you know, a concert violinist. They were very poor. But they manaaged so that I had study in Odessa.
“I came to America in 1917. At first, I played in orchestras in Cleveland. Then in various other cities. Finally I gathered together an orchestra of my own. It was a big thing for me when we finally got an engagement at the Pennsylvania Hotel. We stayed there for two and a half years.”
When asked about the search for girl musicians, Phil answered:
“I travelled for eight months, from the pine woods country of Maine to the small towns in the Rocky Mountains, looking for them. They came from 17 different states. I listened to 1100 girls play and sing. There are 30 in my band.
“At that time every one I knew discouraged me. When I had found the right girls, I would have to pay their transportation to New York and rehearse them.
“It was L. K. Sidney,” said Phil, “who at last gave us work in the Capitol Theatre. He helped us to keep together until we got an engagement on radio.”
“How do you find the girls to work with, as compared to men musicians?”
More business-like and more intelligent to handle than any men I ever had,” he replied promptly. “They take more pride in their work.”
The girls in Phil’s band all sing and most of them play two or more instruments. They are as lovely to look upon as a Ziegeld chorus.
“Why was this idea—this band of women—so vital to your happiness?”
“I have two brothers,” Phil began slowly. “They are both orchestra leaders. My father was a violinist who had the pleasure of expressing his talent. But, my mother, a pianist and the best musician of us all, never got anywhere—never got anywhere.
“It was only because she was a woman. I always knew that. And how much it hurt her. This rankled in me. I made up my mind I’d do this—for her—.”

The Hour of Charm—Dec. 7, 1941 (29:45)

Snapshot in Prose: Gordon & Revel

Though he would go on to work with other composers (and have his songs be nominated for the best original song Oscar nine times), Mack Gordon spent the 1930s paired with English pianist and composer Harry Revel. The duo were very successful indeed, penning a string of popular songs that included “Underneath the Harlem Moon,” “College Rhythm,” and our personal favorite Gordon-Revel tune, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”

This Snapshot in Prose captures the pair in 1934, at the height of their shared success. Read to the end of the piece, and you’ll find some of our favorite renditions of a few Gordon-Revel compositions.

MACK GORDON and Harry Revel must often grin these days and ask each other if they are not a couple of dreams walking.
They were born with an ocean between them but that couldn’t keep their words and music apart.
Mack Gordon is a native of Brooklyn. He is only now twenty-nine. While he was a youngster in school, Mack had a great flair for writing poems. Today, his lyrics are keeping millions of us romantic.
As soon as he was knee-high to a grasshopper he was trying to write shows for the whole school. Every one in the neighborhood knew him as “the little fat comedians.”
Mack’s family wanted him to be a lawyer He was too agreeable to disagree with them. So he went to law school. But not long, for he convinced his family he’d never make a lawyer.
After a year or two, Mack knew that he belonged to the theatre, to you and me.
From 1923 to 1930, Gordon played in vaudeville. Again he pitched in to run the show. He wrote his own entire acts—sang, danced, and clowned.
Of course, the lyrics writers soon cocked up their own ears and listened. Generously, they exclaimed:
“Why don’t you leave the stage and write songs?”
They were real friends, those Tin Pan Alley boys. Fortunately for Mack, he finally took their advice.
About this time, something prompted young Harry Revel to leave England and come to America. Though he had travel all over the world, Harry felt a terrific urge to try his luck as a composer in New York.
Harry had played in orchestras in many countries and when the orchestras didn’t play, Harry turned to his other talent, languages. Acting as interpreter, not matter where he happened to be. For Harry speaks, reads and writes nearly a dozen languages. It is fun to watch this London chap, American songwriter (for he is now a naturalized citizen), calmly reading Chinese.
We mention Harry’s extraordinary gift for languages because it seems to us to illustrate the marvelous sensitiveness of his ear to sound. Whether on his travels Harry heard Russian, Spanish or Hungarian, his ear held the impression of the words like a phonograph record.

Mack Gordon and Harry Revel met at a little dinner party in New York.
Mack heard Harry ripple off a few of his melodies, and said: “Boy! You’re pretty good.”
Then Revel listened to Mack’s impassioned recital of some of his love lyrics. He whistled, and said: “Bully! You’re even better than pretty good!”
With this exchange of orchids was born the popular team of songwriters.

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Snapshot in Prose: censorship

For those who think outrage over lyrics and rhythms in popular music began with those decrying gangsta rap, with Tipper Gore‘s penchant for warning stickers, or even those fuddy-duddies who were outraged by the onstage antics of Elvis Presley and other rockers in the 1950s, what follows may come be an eye-opener For, while Snapshot in Prose usually profiles a popular Cladrite Radio performer at a particular point in his or her career, this week, we’re sharing a 1934 essay from Popular Songs magazine bemoaning the intrusion into the popular music and radio broadcasts of the day by would-be moral arbiters armed with newly sharpened censor’s scissors.

It’s interesting to note that the article mentions the “purification” of movies, too, given that 1934 was the year that Breen Production Code began to be strictly enforced by Will Hayes and his associates.

Censor Nonsense by Shirley Wilson

CENSORSHIP—that eugenic offspring (with full benefit of clergy) of ambitious political campaigners, zealous church organizations and dozens of clamoring societies for the prevention of this and that—is becoming quite a bouncing boy.
In fact, if some real restraint isn’t soon put upon his boisterous activities, he bids fair, like the well-known boomerang, to bounce back with such force one of these days as to bop his fond parents a swell sock on the noggin.
Authors of books and plays have long suffered the mailed fist of censorship, whenever their stories became a bit too spicy or made the fatal error of adhering too closely to the facts of life. But the real Roman Holiday of censorship didn’t really begin until the advent of, first, the movies and later, the radio.
The screen is rapidly becoming as pure as the driven snow (before it drifted!) and, for the most part, babies are permitted to arrive only after a full nine-months of legal marriage. Even then, either the stork or the family doctor’s little black bag must be given the full credit for this blessed event.
Censorship has always exercised strong control over the radio. Ten years ago, for instance, you could sing heigh-de-ho on six days of the week, but a singer had to own a hymn book to get any ether time on Sunday.
But the censors weren’t satisfied. Nay, nay, neighbor. They decided to clean up the songs on the other six days of the week as well. You couldn’t tell the world at large that “Nobody Knows What a Red-Headed Mamma Can Do,” even on a Saturday night.
Oh no! That would never do. Someone might begin to wonder just what she could do, and where would that lead us mentally? It simply wasn’t good for us to hear about a little lady who left her conscience and her mind behind when she stepped out.
And so it has gone, from year to year, with various songs justly or unjustly getting the axe from self-appointed censors.
Recently, just when radio censorship was quieting down—and movies were getting the brunt of it from the Decency Leagues—five of the most famous orchestra leaders banded together for the announced purpose of protecting the public’s delicate ears from offensive lyrics.
Some leaders called this treachery within the ranks. Others said it was just a publicity gag and would soon be forgotten. But the committee, headed by Richard Himber and including Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, Abe Lyman and Guy Lombardo, is still with us.
After all of the censoring boards finish, one after the other, with their cutting and rehashing of our songs, here is little wonder that present-day vocalists have to resort to such lyrics as poo-poo-pah-doo, heigh-di-hi, boo-ba-ba-boo and la-de-da-da-da.
While censorship itself is no joke, some of the results attained by it are amusing, if not amazing. A current popular song is entitled, “I Can’t Dance, I’ve Got Ants in My Pants.” Can’t you just imagine the censor’s look of horror when that one was played and sung for the first time? After wracking their brains for some way in which this wordage could be purified for public consumption, they decided it would be okay, believe it or not, for the song to be sung: “I Can’t Dance, I’m Afraid to Take a Chance.” Maybe that’s an improvement, we don’t know.

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Snapshot in Prose: The Casa Loma Orchestra

We’ve been aware of the Casa Loma Orchestra for nearly as long as we’ve been fans of the music of the 1930s and ’40s—which is to say, a long time. And we were aware that this entertaining outfit eventually came to be known as Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.

But we never knew what inspired the change. Was Glen Grey brought in to replace a former leader of the band, a baton waver who preferred not to be cited by name?

Well, as we learn from this week’s Snapshot in Prose, a 1934 profile of the band, the answer to that question is: no.

Actually, violinist Hank Biagini fronted the band onstage for the first few years of its existence, and for a while, the baton was handed off to violinist Mel Jenssen.

Finally, in 1937, Gray was convinced to lead the band, and he would eventually come to control the very name “Casa Loma Orchestra.”

The Casa Loma Orchestra, which was formed in 1927, lasted till 1963 (quite a run for a dance band), though they stopped touring in 1950, limiting themselves to recordings only, and from the late ’30s on, Gray’s name was included in the band’s name.

But in the early days of the group, before he became the orchestra’s leader and conductor, Gray was voted the band’s president. A swinging dance orchestra that had a president (and a vice president and a secretary)? That’s right, and if you’ll read on, you’ll learn how that came about.

And if you read all the way to the end, you’ll have the chance to give a listen to a couple of our favorite Casa Loma recordings.

The Hottest Boys in Town: The Casa Loma Orchestra

HE hottest boys in town are members of that rootin’, tootin’ outfit of blue-blowers called the Casa Loma orchestra. How they got their start made band history.
Back in the pre-Depression era, the people of Toronto, Canada had been looking forward for months to the visit of the king and queen of England. They had built a fine palace for them and called it Casa Loma.
But King George and Queen Mary changed their minds. What was then to be done with Casa Loma—the palace. It was too big for a private house. It was too expensive for a club. The State had no use for it. Finally, it was decided that Casa Loma should become an exclusive hotel.
A bunch of boys who had organized in Detroit in 1928 as the Orange Blossom band was brought to Casa Loma to lure customers. The band succeeded, but the hotel failed. So the Orange Blossom boys started on a tour under the name of the Casa Loma Orchestra.
The tour flopped. In 1929, they hit New York, broke and discourage. And then the Big Idea was born.
The Big Idea makes the Casa Loma different from any other band in America. It makes it a business corporation with a president, vice-president, and secretary. It makes each bandman his own boss and each sharing the profits.
Back in 1929, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, they elected Glen Gray (whose last name, Knoblauch, he wisely dropped) to their presidency. Pat Davis became secretary-treasurer. Francis O’Keefe was vice-president. Each man received an equal share of stock.
Their first important problem was what to do with ten bosses. Well, certain powers were invested in each officer. They created a Board of Directors, hired a man as purchasing agent. For their programs, they created a program committee, each member serving a one-month term.
And they drew up a list of rules and regulations. Drastic rules, believe me. For instance: To bend the elbow over an alcoholic beverage while on the job costs the elbow bender a fine of $50.00. To miss rehearsal without leave draws a fine of $25.00. Being late on the job costs another $25.00.

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