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

A Berlin parade

As a small Easter egg for the Cladrite Radio community, we thought we’d offer the following:

Did you know that the lovely Irving Berlin standard “Easter Parade” is a reworking of an earlier Berlin tune? It’s true. In 1917, Berlin wrote a song called “Smile and Show Your Dimple.” That song wasn’t particularly well received, so in 1933, when writing for the Broadway musical revue “As Thousands Cheer,” Berlin revisited the song, writing new lyrics and tweaking the melody a bit to create the song that is still so well known today.

Just as a bit of trivia, “Easter Parade” was performed in “As Thousands Cheer” by Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb.

So we’re sharing a 1933 recording below of Webb singing the song backed by the Leo Reisman Orchestra, along with a 1942 Harry James rendition, a 1939 recording by the Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Bing Crosby singing the song backed by the Victor Young Orchestra in 1948, a Gene Austin recording from 1933, and a 1917 recording by Sam Ash of the song that fostered “Easter Parade,” “Smile and Show Your Dimple.”

“Easter Parade” — Clifton Webb with the Leo Reisman Orchestra

“Easter Parade” — Harry James and His Orchestra

“Easter Parade” — Guy Lombardo and His Orchestra

“Easter Parade” — Bing Crosby with the Victor Young Orchestra

“Easter Parade” — Gene Austin

“Smile and Show Your Dimple” — Sam Ash

What might have been

Yesterday, we shared with you one of the spring-themed songs we’re playing these days on Cladrite Radio, and we’ve decided to follow that up today with one of the recordings of Irving Berlin‘s “Easter Parade” that we’ll be sprinkling throughout our broadcasts for the next two weeks or so.

Our library boasts several renditions of the song, fine performances by the likes of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, Bing Crosby, Djano Reinhardt, Gene Austin, and Leo Reisman and His Orchestra (with none other than Clifton Webb on vocals).

But our favorite is a 1933 recording by violinest Joe Venuti and his orchestra. And while Venuti and his cohorts acquit themselves admirably, it’s the vocalist who most made our ears perk up.

We did a little digging to ascertain which nightingale it was who delivered the lovely, languid vocals on this recording, and as it turned out, it was Dolores Reade. If that name rings a bell, it’s likely because Ms. Reade gave it up (along with, for the most part, her singing career) to marry comedian Bob Hope.

A native New Yorker, Reade was born Dolores DeFina in the Bronx, and in the 1930s, she changed her name and began singing on the NYC nightclub circuit. One night in 1933, Hope accompanied a pal to the Vogue Club, promised only that he would get to “hear a pretty girl sing.”

Hope made it a nightly practice to be at the Vogue Club when Dolores performed, and his devotion soon paid off, as the two were married a few months later. She then joined his vaudeville act, but eventually gave up performing (except when she toured with Hope to entertain the troops) to be a mother and homemaker.

Encouraged by Rosemary Clooney and others, Dolores would eventually record four or five CDs in the 1990s, sounding much younger than a woman in her eighties, but it’s painful to think of the remarkable work she might have done had she been recording all along, from the 1930s forward.

Joe Venuti and His Orchestra, feat. Dolores Reade — “Easter Parade”