What more can be said about Irving Berlin than his many chroniclers have written that at the turn of the last century his family left Russia for New York's notorious Lower East Side; that he grew up in squalor; that as a teenager he became a singing waiter in various saloons; and that eventually he would be the most prolific, most honored, and most successful songwriter of the twentieth century. In the 1989 he died a wealthy recluse, at the age of 102, having effectively ended his career as a songwriter, though not as a publisher, several decades earlier. He outlived the entire music business with which he had grown up and, indeed, the length of his own copywrites.
All of the above are fairly common knowledge now. What is less known is how this uncommon talent developed early on. It is said that Berlin's first efforts as a lyricist were risqué parodies of the songs of the day, with which he serenaded the patrons of the bars he worked in. Soon he began to write original words to the melodies of his accompanists. His first efforts, newly republished, seem now to be those of a beginner, with false rhymes and awkward scanning. Gradually, apparently from diligent study of the songs of his contemporaries, he acquired an unequalled skill with words, in particular for the catchy phrase and the rhythms of everyday speech.
His accompanists taught him the rudiments of the keyboard, and so he became a composer as well, working out the melodies where the black keys predominate. In fact, his playing never developed much beyond the keys of Gb and Db. Later on he bought himself two spinets which, with the adjustment of a lever, would allow him to transpose into other keys. From his earliest days he used a musical secretary to help translate and arrange his creations. One of the first was George Gershwin, whom he soon advised to write his own stuff.
Berlin wrote incessantly. He wrote about minstrels, ragtime, jazz, swing, the bunny hug, the fox trot,
the waltz, the strut, the twist; he celebrated the newfangled automobile, the Russian Revolution, World Wars I and II; he wrote about Cuba, Araby, Florida, California, Michigan, Kentucky, and Alabam'; about Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, and Harlem; about girls on magazine covers and in dreams; about loneliness, love, song and dance men, pianos, homework, the breakfast table, eggs in a basket, spinach, a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. His heroines included Mandy, Marie, Ruth, Sadie Salome, and the Hostess with the Mostes'; his heroes Alexander, parading Pullman porters, and the entire Army and navy. He wrote our second national anthem, "God Bless America" and the runner-up in the most beloved category, "Easter Parade".
He was America's songwriter. -- Dick Hyman